Poor school

Budget cuts hurt low-income students at American Lakes Elementary in South Natomas

Laid-off American Lakes Elementary teachers wore pink slips at a recent protest of school budget cuts.

Laid-off American Lakes Elementary teachers wore pink slips at a recent protest of school budget cuts.

Photo By amy pero

As Paul Guyer, a teacher at American Lakes Elementary in South Natomas, held up a student’s desk chair, the legs dangled beneath the seat, barely attached.

“This is what we can afford to give our students,” Guyer said. The chair was one of many in similar condition and vividly symbolized the budget cuts that have ravaged the school and the economically disadvantaged students it serves.

Ninety percent of the students who attend American Lakes come from low-income families in South Natomas. Approximately 40 percent of the students are Hispanic; another 40 percent are African-American. Russian, Ukrainian, Middle Eastern and Caucasian students account for the remaining 20 percent.

Five years ago, American Lakes was regarded as the worst school in the Natomas Unified School District, with the most challenging students. Since then, through programs like after-school tutoring, reading intervention, student-monitoring sessions and most of all, passionate teachers, test scores have risen 16 percent.

“These kids have serious issues,” said Yvonne Scarbrough, a school counselor who received her pink slip less than two weeks ago. “School is not their No. 1 priority when they are trying to think of where they’re going to sleep that night.”

Similar pain is being felt throughout the district, explained spokeswoman Heidi Van Zant. “Our district is on what’s called the Sacramento County Office of Education’s watch list of districts facing possible state takeover,” she said. “We’re in a severe financial crisis.” Since the state’s budget crisis began, 249 employees have been laid off, 26 percent of the workforce. The district endured $21 million in cuts this fiscal year and expects another $15 million in the next.

Meanwhile, as many as half of American Lakes’ teachers have received pink slips. Teachers from other schools will fill some of those positions, but not all of the laid-off staff will be replaced as class sizes grow and programs are cut. One of the concerns of teachers and parents is the staff of American Lakes will be replaced with teachers who aren’t there to help the kids reach their full potential.

“The teachers that have gone, and will go, are without a doubt the most dedicated, educated and hardest-working teachers in the profession,” Guyer said.

“Teachers at other schools are saying they don’t want to come to our school, and that breaks my heart,” said Erika Hilsabeck, a second-grade teacher who was laid off last year.

The increase in class size not only lessens the quality of education provided, it dramatically cuts into the school’s bottom line. American Lakes used to receive an education grant from the Quality Education Investment Act that is specifically aimed at aiding schools with low-income students. One of the conditions of the grant was to keep class sizes in the lower grades at a 20-1 ratio; next year, these numbers are expected to rise to 30-to-1 for kindergarten through third grade, and 35-to-1 for fourth and fifth grade.

After this increase, American Lakes will no longer qualify for the grant they depend on to fund the programs that have helped their students, including non-English speakers, succeed. Losing the grant will result in the loss of all reading-intervention teachers and programs, severely hindering the students’ ability to learn.

The grant is not the only complication that will arise from an increase in class sizes. Students will also get less pertinent one-on-one time, which could cause behavioral issues to soar and emotional, mental and intellectual growth to slow.

Funds for after-school tutoring will also be cut, and the burden is falling on the teachers to pick up the slack. Many teachers at the school fully intend on continuing after-school tutoring and programs for free because they don’t want the weight of the budget cuts to fall on the students. Both Guyer and Hilsabeck say they’ve spent more than $1,000 out of their own pockets to buy supplies for classrooms.

“The American Lakes community is concerned about the budgets cuts, and we share that concern,” Van Zant said, adding that come June 30, she’ll be laid off and out of a job.