Roxane Hreha loves to teach music to her students at Whitman Elementary in Tacoma.
But in the past few years, she’s noticed the number of music teachers steadily decreasing across the district, leaving others to pick up more work and at multiple schools, leaving less time to build relationships.
“We started getting spread more and more thin,” said Hreha, who has worked for the district since 2005. She now works at Whitman and Tacoma Online.
She’s not the only one who has noticed.
Physical education teachers, music teachers and librarians at elementary schools in Tacoma – known as “specialists” – have felt themselves losing valuable time with the students they teach.
Studies have shown that students who’ve developed positive relationships with their teachers, both academically and socially, have better health as they grow older. One 2020 study published in School Psychology journal by Jinho Kim, Ph.D., analyzed data from nearly 20,000 participants from age 13 into early adulthood.
“Results showed that when students had positive relationships with teachers, they tended to have better physical and mental health as well as lower levels of substance use,” according to the study.
The way the district funds specialists is highly dependent on student and teacher enrollment per building, according to a district spokesperson. If fewer students enroll, that means fewer dollars from the state.
Enrollment at Tacoma Public Schools has remained roughly the same at around 30,000 students until the 2020-21 school year when enrollment dropped to 28,000, according to data from the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.
With that, the number of specialists also declined.
In the 2018-19 school year, there were a combined 95.2 music, PE and library staff for Tacoma elementary schools, according to district data. That number went to 86.4 for the 2019-20 school year, 81.7 for the 2020-21 school year, and 80.1 for the 2021-22 school year.
The number of teacher positions also decreased from the 2018-19 school year, when there were 582, to 561.6 for the 2021-22 school year.
Kathryn McCarthy, a spokesperson for Tacoma Public Schools, told the News Tribune in September the district made positive gains in the way it staffs its specialists. There are still some specialists assigned to work at multiple schools, but that’s been greatly reduced compared to last school year, she said.
Part of the challenge is filling those roles amid a statewide staffing shortage, in part due to impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic, McCarthy said.
“We have a lot of open positions right now,” she said.
Other local districts are feeling the staffing shortage and offering incentives for hiring, but vary on whether they have specialists working at multiple schools.
A spokesperson for Franklin Pierce School District said in an email that all Franklin Pierce specialist staff are full time positions “and dedicated to one school.”
A spokesperson for the Bethel School District said most specialist positions are full time and most work in one building, although there are a few who travel from school to school.
TPS specialists are speaking out about how the shortage of specialists and resulting workload is impacting them and their students.
Penny Cramer, a music teacher at Sherman Elementary, has been a vocal leader for Tacoma specialists, helping to start the tacomaspecialists.org page in October 2020, meant to connect and advocate for specialists.
Cramer and other members of the nine-person Tacoma Specialists Advocacy Council said that schedule changes picked up about five years ago when the district lost an arts facilitator who was responsible for scheduling special curriculum and its operations.
“That sort of signaled the beginning of the end because we didn’t have anyone advocating for us at the higher up,” Hreha said.
Cramer and others say that when specialists left the district or retired, the roles weren’t being filled, and the workforce slowly declined.
A spokesperson for the district said they did not have any more information about what happened to the arts facilitator position, but that the district budgets “by positions and FTE, which are driven by student need. We don’t budget by individual movement of staff member.”
Specialists spend more time at some schools than others, according to a breakdown of FTEs by Tacoma specialists and TPS data. Some positions are split between more than one person.
The district employs many different kinds of staff members that work at multiple schools, from occupational therapists to physical therapists and nurses. Specialists argue that there are more split shifts than there used to be.
As of February, elementary music and PE teacher positions were posted to the district’s website that showed split shifts for the remainder of the school year. For example, one elementary music teacher position showed 0.4 FTE as a vocal music teacher and the remaining 0.6 as a contracted substitute teacher.
Kurt Shavelier, a physical education teacher at Whitman Elementary, worked with the district since 1990. His schedule puts 0.8 of his shift at his home school in Whitman, and 0.2 of his shift – or one day – at DeLong Elementary.
“If you’re only there one day a week, it’s really hard to set up a program,” Shavelier told the News Tribune in 2021.
Some students, depending on the school, see different PE teachers in one week.
“The impact that it has on kids is that they might not have the same teacher for both of their music classes in a week,” Cramer said. “Those teachers never meet each other, they’re not working together… It’s really fragmenting that experience for the kids. And so they’re really losing out. And it happens in some schools a lot more than other schools.”
A Tacoma specialists newsletter sent earlier this month shows Roosevelt Elementary having had no music and Lister Elementary having had no PE since December. Some schools, like DeLong, have rotating substitutes in PE and music.
In a perfect world, there’s one full-time equivalent position for music, PE and librarians for each elementary school, and it’s only one person to fill that role, Cramer said.
“That’s the dream,” Cramer said. “If there is a 1.0 position at one building, it should be one person. If there is one job, it should be one educator filling that one job – no more splitting one job between three people who are also working at, you know, six other buildings, amongst them.”
Having multiple teachers in a week can make it difficult for students to form lasting relationships, specialists say.
“It’s frustrating for us as professionals, trying to grow our programs, trying to grow our students, trying to be responsible in bringing them into higher learning,” said Paula Grueling, a music teacher at Birney Elementary.
“You can’t build relationships with kids when you’re not there,” added Matt Wood, a PE teacher at Stafford Elementary.
Celesta Smith is a parent of two Tacoma Public Schools students who is also independently contracted with TPS to teach “mindfulness” to students, or help students identify emotions and develop strategies to address them.
Smith said that she’s seen her child affected by the scheduling and wrote to the school board about the problem in May 2021.
“Our school district has chosen to cut the positive, healthy adults that our students interact with regularly by assigning 2 to 3 PE teachers to one school,” Smith wrote. “These PE teachers are doing the best they can to reach the students at multiple schools that they are assigned to. However, there is no true connections or relationships happening.”
After the impacts of not being in school due to COVID-19, Smith said it’s important to have those consistent adults for kids.
“Having actual adults that are engaged in students’ lives that are healthy and consistent are extremely important for kids now more than ever,” Smith said.
Tacoma Public Schools and the Tacoma Education Association are going to start bargaining in March on a new collective bargaining agreement.
This year, there’s a music teacher on the bargaining team, and specialists hope they can make some gains in negotiations that relate to them.
Historically, some specialists felt their concerns were ignored by the Tacoma Education Association, which represents them and teachers across the district.
“We want our union to stand up for us, and they are not,” Cramer said.
Shannon Ergun, president of TEA, told the News Tribune in November that the union works with all members regularly to ensure favorable working conditions.
“Each staffing category has its own challenges and concerns, and we do all we can to support,” Ergun said. “This is a bargaining year, so we are gathering information and working to ensure that we understand concerns and are able to negotiate to provide support within state laws and funding requirements.”
Ergun said that she’s hopeful this year the state Legislature will consider revisions to the school district funding model to support underfunded and understaffed areas.
Ergun sent a letter to state Superintendent Chris Reykdal and Gov. Jay Inslee earlier this year, stating more help was needed to fund staffing at school districts.
“The district is working to fill openings quickly in support of staff and students impacted. However, TEA members are feeling the toll on their mental and even physical health as they work to provide quality education and services to our students while covering unfilled positions,” Ergun wrote in the letter.
The state does not have a determined ratio for the number of school specialists required per school. Depending on enrollment of a district, schools are allotted a certain amount of funding. Then at the local level, districts make decisions about how they will staff and fund their classrooms and schools.
Tacoma Public Schools receives a majority of its funding from the state: about $364 million of its total $554 million for the 2021-22 general fund budget. About $331 million of the total budget goes toward employee salaries.
Tacoma Public Schools also wants to see changes to the state’s prototypical funding model, which it says “does not cover the full cost of providing a safe and robust learning environment for students.” Districts rely on local levy funding for staffing and other needs. The district advocated in its 2022 legislative priorities for the state to increase the funding for school support staff.
Sen. Lisa Wellman, D-Mercer Island, is the chair of the Senate K-12 education committee. She told the News Tribune this month that the Legislature is currently working through bills to stabilize district funding as public schools face impacts of a staffing shortage and as some students turn to private or online schooling. Districts, including Tacoma, have advocated for using October 2019 district enrollment if it’s higher than current enrollment for greater funding.
“It’s not a question of the different districts not having adequate funding for their personnel,” Wellman said. “And so we have stabilization bills that are being worked through to make sure that we have sufficient funding going out, even though there are perhaps 4 or 5% of our kids have gone to online schools, to private schools, to other ways of educating.”