PROVIDENCE – A number of elementary school teachers who signed up for the district’s online-learning academy say the program was launched with no planning, no curriculum, and little time to contact parents.
Teachers are speaking out after Supt. Harrison Peters last week criticized a handful of elementary teachers for not reaching out to parents at the beginning of school, which started last Monday.
The Virtual Learning Academy has approximately 6,500 students and a long waiting list.
TO OUR READERS: This content is being provided for free as a public service during the coronavirus outbreak. Sign up for our daily or breaking newsletters to stay informed. Please support local journalism by
subscribing to The Providence Journal.
“We were given 52 students and no resources, not even an online curriculum,” said Marianne Lally, a first-grade teacher who teaches English as a Second Language. “School books? Nothing. Paper and pencils for students? Nothing.
“Every time we try to get supplies, we’re told, ‘We’re working on it.’ “
Teachers said they weren’t given student rosters until a couple of days before school started, and then were assigned twice the number of students called for in their contract.
Teachers said they spent the weekend before school began scrambling to contact parents, often without the correct contact information.
Peters, in an interview Thursday, said the district had to create two parallel schools with the same number of teachers.
“You need six teachers in the classroom to teach each of those elementary grades,” he said. “Now, with a virtual academy, I need 12 teachers. That’s the challenge. I had to stand up a virtual school with the same number of staff.”
Peters said it was impossible to keep the regular teacher ratio of 26 students per elementary class.
“When you look across the country,” he said, “the average elementary class schedule is 52 students” for a hybrid model.
“I definitely understand what they’re saying but I don’t necessarily sympathize,” Peters said. “When I look at middle school, each teacher has 125 students.”
Peters acknowledged that the class rosters were provided at the last minute, but said that’s because parents continued to sign up.
“We did ask teachers to do outreach over the weekend,” he said.
However, Peters said there is no excuse for parents to still be in the dark five days after school began.
Melissa Babcock teaches one group of 26 children in the morning, then repeats the lesson to another 26 students in the afternoon, a typical elementary schedule.
“We’re supposed to have 90 minutes for math,” said Babcock, who teaches English as a Second language to fifth graders. “Kids need recess, lunch, art. There is zero way to fit that into two groups a day.”
“They are getting half of the school year,” she said. “There is no way we can meet (the state mandated) minutes.”
When students aren’t learning online with their teacher in front of them, they are supposed to have assignments to complete. But Babcock and others said they have no access to online curriculum, including the new English curriculum.
“We don’t have anything to give them,” Babcock said. “We’re making it up as we go along.”
“That’s simply not true,” Peters said. “We purchased the online curriculum. We have emails from parents saying (virtual learning teachers) are doing a great job.”
He also said the district gave all teachers a scripted curriculum for the first week of school that focused on getting students back to class safely.
Each teacher also has been assigned an instructional coach..
Teaching in the dual-language schools poses even more daunting challenges, says Jennifer Walker, who teaches at the Leviton school, where students spend part of the day learning in English and part learning in Spanish.
Walker, who teaches fourth grade, said the youngest children are taught either entirely online or entirely in a bricks and mortar classroom.
But in grades 2 through 5, she said, a teacher is expected to teach a group of students online while, at the same time, instructing students in an actual classroom.
“Yesterday, I had seven kids on Zoom, but they were chatting with each other about Fortnite,” she said. “I can’t manage them and deal with the 13 students in front of me. They are not getting the feedback they need or the benefit of chatting with their peers.
Three other elementary schools — Carl Lauro, Spaziano and Lillian Feinstein at Sackett Street — also offer dual-language immersion.
Multilingual learners were identified by the Justice Department two years ago as not getting the services they needed. In a settlement agreement with Justice, the district agreed to make sweeping changes , including hiring more teachers trained in the field.
Walker said her online students are not getting the same quality of instruction as her in-person children.
And, she said, three elementary grades will be tested by the state this spring to determine if those students – and their schools – are meeting state accountability standards.
“My question is w,hat world is this actually a good idea? Why is this okay for these students? “
“That teacher has very real concerns,” Peters responded.
But Providence, like districts across the country, he said, is struggling to find qualified teachers in this subject.
“We have to think about how we serve our most vulnerable students,” he said. “Dual language is a challenge.”
On Twitter: @lborgprojocom