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Brockton school deficits and layoffs leave some students without a teacher

Peter Roby

Layoffs caused by budget deficits in the Brockton Public Schools and subsequent hiring delays have left students during some class periods without a teacher or with a teacher aide in charge. The district’s enrollment is predominantly Black or Hispanic.

At understaffed Brockton High School, class periods in which students do not have a course on their schedule are labeled “Teacher Absent Without a Sub.” During these times, teenagers are left to their own devices. An adult familiar with the situation estimated that hundreds of the high school’s students face this situation.

On their daily schedule of six blocks, students can have up to three off. Some are missing core curriculum classes, according to the adult, who requested anonymity for fear of retribution.

The uncovered classes mean Brockton High students are losing learning time after many fell behind taking remote classes during the pandemic. The staffing shortfall risks increasing the school’s failure rate on the MCAS, which students are required to pass to graduate with a regular diploma.

A district spokesperson, Jessica Silva Hodges, acknowledged the unstaffed classes, saying, “Yes, that has been an issue at Brockton High School,” while expressing hope that hiring for open positions would ease the problem.

“We are fully aware that this has caused a breakdown in trust,” Hodges said, referring to deficits that occurred last year and this year.

Teacher absences further complicate the staffing problem. On Sept. 29, district personnel converged on Brockton High to monitor the corridors.

Understaffing is also undermining elementary schools, according to a Brockton teacher who likewise demanded anonymity to speak freely. Without enough teachers, some students go to the cafeteria and use computers or else receive instruction from paraprofessionals — aides known as “paras” — hired to help teachers. Teaming such aides with teachers in classrooms is often mandated in the individualized education plans of special needs students.

“We have paraprofessionals that are feeling the weight,” the teacher said. “Those paras will get ripped out of the classroom, they are put in [other] classrooms, they are told to teach the curriculum. It’s devastating.”

“They are basically put there as a babysitter,” the teacher added.

At a late-September school committee meeting, Brockton Education Association President Kim Gibson voiced concerns with “what is being perceived as a hiring freeze.” She said hiring holdups have resulted in “several special education classrooms that are being staffed by non-certified staff.”

“At every level there are openings,” the labor leader continued. “At Brockton High School alone, students might be sitting in a cafeteria for multiple periods a day.”

Gibson questioned whether “class sizes near 30 and above” could accommodate additional students, a move to make up for inadequate staffing levels.

The district’s enrollment increased this year after steadily declining since 2015. The state reported that Brockton’s enrollment last year was 61% Black and 18% Hispanic. The number of students as of Oct. 1 is used for funding purposes.

The Banner asked Hodges to provide data on average class sizes or the frequency of “Teacher Absent Without a Sub,” but she did not.

Last spring and summer, 435 teachers and staff departed — most involuntarily, in part to rectify an $18 million budget deficit. Since then, the superintendent has been replaced and an accountant has sought whistleblower protections.

Before this school year, the district announced another $14 million shortfall. Even after re-hiring some laid-off teachers, 169 positions remain unfilled.

Brockton Public Schools last year was staffed by the equivalent of 1,096 full-time positions.

“Any time you lay somebody off, there’s a huge impact on education,” said Brockton School Committee member Tony Rodrigues. “Do we need teachers? Educators? Yes, we do.”

Also a corrections officer, Rodrigues began pursuing a criminal justice program for Brockton Public Schools after listening to students directly. He has been studying Southeastern Regional Technical Vocational school as a model.

Because education dollars are allocated on a per-pupil basis, students who enroll at alternatives like Southeastern or charter schools reduce the district’s budget.

“Once that kid leaves your community, that money follows them,” Rodrigues said.

A concentration of high-need students represents another source of pressure on the district’s finances.

“Brockton is a dumping ground for every service possible,” he said. “You have a huge uptake in homelessness.”

This year, Brockton is transporting 891 unhoused students. In accordance with the federal McKinney-Vento act, homeless students need not transfer to schools near their shelter.

On a positive note, Aminah Pilgrim, a Brockton Public School parent, said the district has been in “the vanguard of bilingual education and sports and music.”

“Brockton has a lot of really talented teachers and administrators who are trying to create change,” she said, even though understaffing has “hurt the morale.”

“The hope is that a critical mass of activists and concerned citizens, including parents, have begun organizing,” said Pilgrim, who teaches women’s studies at UMass Boston.

The Brockton Coalition for Education Justice, a coalition of faith-based and community groups that first gathered in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, has reconvened recently. The group sent accountability demands to the school committee and city council.

Michaela Lauture, an organizer with Brockton Youth School of Liberation, is a member of the coalition.

“What is especially devastating in a budget crisis in Brockton right now is Brockton has so many more needs than many of the towns surrounding,” she said.

“It actually requires more funding to implement special education services, to implement English language learning services, to educate students who are experiencing homelessness,” Lauture said, “and the list could go on.”

Another organizer, Angelica Fontes, noted that Brockton’s educators have exceptional commitment.

“The heart is there, right? … We do have folks who are genuinely invested in our community and in the lives of our young people,” Fontes said.

Already, the advocacy has had an impact. As the School Committee selects an auditor to delve into Brockton’s books, Rodrigues successfully secured three seats for community members on the selection committee.

Despite the unsettling situation in the classrooms, students have shown some resilience outdoors on the athletic field.

Under the Friday night lights Sept. 29, Brockton High football fans braved cold rain to cheer on the Boxers as they played for their first win of the season.

Upon taking the field, Brockton followed up a long kick return with a score on the opening drive. Bolstered by a goal-line stand, they maintained a lead at halftime.

The Brockton sideline was quieted by the visitors’ energetic score to start the second half. Making play after play to rebuild a lead, the players rallied their sideline into a crescendo. With seconds left in the fourth quarter, Brockton intercepted a pass in their own end zone to claim a hard-earned victory.

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