Whitethorn School Loses a Teacher to Low Enrollment

In a unanimous vote, the governing board of the Southern Humboldt Unified School District decided last Thursday to reduce the number of teachers at Whitethorn School in the upcoming school year.

If the decision holds, Whitethorn, a K-6 school, will have three teachers in 2016-2017. Presently, the school has four teachers for its 70 students.

The reason for the step had to do with the school’s attendance rates, which for some time have been low compared to other schools in the district.

As an example, Agnes Johnson, a K-6 school in Weott, also has four teachers on staff. The size of its student body is also similar — 71 students.

But attendance at the school is sufficiently high — its Average Daily Attendance, or ADA, is 73.587 — that the school is expected to receive enough money from the state to justify having four teachers.

That’s not the case at Whitethorn, where the ADA currently stands at 66.888 — well below the 72.46 needed to qualify for what’s known as the “four-teacher funding tier.”

According to a handout accompanying the agenda for last week’s meeting: “The difference between the two funding tiers is $150,000. At this point, based on ADA, we anticipate that [Agnes Johnson] will make the fourth teacher tier and that Whitethorn will not.”

Complicating the picture is another pot of state money called Grade Span Adjustment funding. School districts receive such funding when the student-teacher ratio for K-through-third-grade classes is 24-to-one. The district received approximately $180,000 in GSA funding for the current school year.

The way eligibility works for GSA money, as explained in the handout, is as follows: “If one school within a district is above this ratio, all GSA funding is lost.”

Which explains why District Superintendent Catherine Scott told the board during last week’s meeting that if Whitethorn ends up getting more students next fall than is currently projected, “we would want a fourth teacher [at the school].”

“We don’t want to lose the $180,000,” she explained. “It all depends on the numbers. We may know in April what the [enrollment] numbers are.”

Nonetheless, Scott told the board that her recommendation now is to reduce the teaching staff at Whitethorn to three teachers, while keeping “the door open” to reinstating a fourth teaching position.

“The door is way open,” chimed in Board Member Dennis O’Sullivan.

In an interview the day after the meeting, Scott said that the board had to act when it did because, in line with the California Education Code, the teachers’ union needs to be notified by March 15 of possible layoffs.

“Lots could change between now and the end of the [school] year” that would result in four teachers at Whitethorn in the fall, Scott said, pointing in particular to kindergarten enrollment going up and attendance at the school in general going up.

Also speaking last Friday, Stephanie Steffano-Davis, Whitethorn’s principal, said the time is now for parents who want their children to attend the school in the fall to come forward.

“What Whitethorn needs is for anyone [whose child] is coming to Whitethorn in the fall to fill out a registration form in the next couple of weeks. Then we won’t get the reduction,” Steffano-Davis explained.

If things were to get reversed that would be fine with Cinnamon Paula, the lone Whitethorn parent to attend last week’s school board meeting. Paula, whose son is a fourth-grader at the school, said that with just three teachers her son would likely be in a fourth-through-sixth grade class next fall.

“Ultimately, we would love to keep a fourth teacher. As it stands now, we’re looking at [my son] being in a three-grade-level classroom. That’s hard. That’s not a doable classroom without [teacher] aides,” Paula said.

Another Whitethorn parent, Anna Rogers, urged the school board in a Feb. 11 letter to “do the right thing and vote to keep our fourth teacher.”

“Increased class sizes and increased multiple grade levels within each classroom will only hurt us,” she wrote.

A third parent, Datso Perkins, also wrote a letter expressing concern about overcrowding.

“If our teaching staff was cut to three teachers we would have at least one class with an excessive amount of students and we all know the effects of overcrowded classrooms.”