What Budget Cuts Mean for Third Graders in a Rural School

Preston Carraway, right, and his classmates, from left, Eric Guerrero, Rashad Dodd and Peyton Murray, worked on a timed math exercise at West Greene Elementary School.

SNOW HILL, N.C. — At 7:50 on a recent morning, Preston Carraway greeted his third-grade teacher, Keshia Speight, who stood at the classroom door dispensing hugs. Mrs. Speight’s class has a motto, which everyone chants in the morning when she raises her fist: “Be brave! Be smart! Stay humble!”

That last point doesn’t seem like a stretch.

Preston, 8,goes to West Greene Elementary School in Snow Hill, a town of 1,500 in rural Greene County, N.C. Of the 100 counties in the state, Greene is one of the poorest. About four out of five public school students come from low-income families. Only three counties in North Carolina spend less on public education.

All around Preston were signs of how little money his district has. West Greene is one of many schools across the country dealing with the effects of funding cuts, from broken-down buses to donated supplies to teachers who work second jobs. In other North Carolina counties, and in five other states, teachers frustrated by these issues have walked out of their classrooms in recent months to protest state lawmakers.

But the adults at West Greene have worked hard to conceal their struggles from Preston and his classmates. Teachers here said they felt they could address their needs locally, without getting involved in state politics, even though many said they were unhappy about their salaries and the school’s tight budget. Their detachment from the protests suggested that there were limits to the walkout movement, whose organizers are trying to mobilize voters ahead of midterm elections.

Only two West Greene staff members would march with thousands of people in Raleigh, the state capital, later that week to demand more money for education. Many schools elsewhere shut down for the day. That didn’t happen in Greene County, even though it’s the sort of the place with the most to gain if teachers’ demands are met.

Preston’s grandma and dad went through the school system here decades ago. These days, it looks a lot different.

For one, teachers don’t hit students anymore, Preston’s grandma, Karen Canada, pointed out. The demographics of the area have shifted, too. There are more Latino immigrants who work in agriculture and food processing, and some of their children enroll in school. “We don’t care if they’re black, white, Mexican,” said Ms. Canada, who is white and works as a home health aide.

But she wondered if maybe some other people did care. Taxes might be higher, she thought, if “old-school money” types were more willing to pay for the schools that regular people’s children attended.

While paperbacks and textbooks — some of which are 15 years old — line the walls of Preston’s classroom, he spends a lot of time looking at a screen, either on a Chromebook or at the front of the classroom, where a large interactive display hangs.

On that morning, some of Preston’s schoolmates were running late. A bus had broken down for the fifth time in five months, the driver said, and had to get repaired before it could pick up students.

Preston took his chair off the top of his desk and stared down a practice math exam. What was the value of n in the equation 267 + n = 613? State standardized testing was two weeks away. “Everything we do from this point? It’s crunchtime,” Mrs. Speight told the class.

Everyone at West Greene knows Mrs. Speight is special. She won teacher of the year in just her second year on the job.

She’s 45 and earns about $37,000 per year. That’s more than $21,000 less than the national average and $12,000 less than the state average. She has $25,000 of student debt.

The worksheets Preston fills out have often been printed by Mrs. Speight on the printer she bought for the classroom, using her own money. The cartridges are always running out, and Mrs. Speight buys those, too, at $30 a pop.

She buys pencils and educational games and other supplies — more than she can keep track of. In some years, she said, she spends as much as $1,000 of her own money.

This school year, Mrs. Speight’s class read three novels: “Because of Winn-Dixie,” “The War With Grandpa” and “Charlotte’s Web” (Preston’s favorite). They took a field trip to a baseball game and learned about soil and the solar system, using science supplies paid for by a private philanthropy.

Now, with state tests looming, the focus had changed. Preston flipped open a Chromebook and clicked through a reading comprehension drill.

Greene County has been big on technology since 2003. The district’s push to buy computers and tablets was meant, in part, to save money: Subscriptions to online materials are less expensive than physical books. But hardware gets old quickly and needs to be replaced, a big expense. To cut costs, the district has shifted from laptops to iPads to Chromebooks.

Preston, whose father is a carpenter, can connect to the internet at home, with a tablet. But many of his classmates can’t.

Mrs. Speight has mixed feelings about the computers. She knows most students don’t have a laptop or desktop at home, so learning to use one at school is crucial. Still, parents tell her that without a textbook to page through, they don’t understand what their children are learning or how to help. She tries to make up for it by printing, printing, printing.

Principals often tell Patrick Miller, the superintendent, that they’d rather hire educators than purchase new technology. There isn’t always money to do both. North Carolina schools get most of their money from the state. They have less of it now, adjusted for inflation, than they did before the recession, because of tax cuts and rising costs for health care and pensions.

Wealthy areas have been able to make up for the lost funds through property taxes. Orange County, home to Chapel Hill, supplements state school money with an additional $4,852 per student. Greene County supplements it with just $736 per student.

“I never imagined that after the recession, we would be in a situation where I have to think people versus devices,” Dr. Miller said.

By 9:45 a.m., the class had earned what Mrs. Speight called a “brain break.” Test prep was hard work. On the big screen in the front of the room, Mrs. Speight projected a music video called “Do the Disco.” A boy named Justin rushed to the front to lead the way. A girl named Meredith flipped her long hair out of her face and did the running man. Preston grinned, clapping his hands and rolling his arms. He wore a gray T-shirt that read “Can’t Be Stopped!”

Later, Mrs. Speight paired the children off to solve math word problems in 20 seconds or less, using the Chromebooks and an app called Kahoot. The software allowed Mrs. Speight to see, in real time, how many students got each answer correct. She projected a leader board that ranked the pairs, igniting a fierce competition.

Preston and his partner, Peyton, were winning, until the app accidentally logged them out. Preston’s eyes got big. It wasn’t fair.

But the day was mostly a good one. Preston visited the school’s airy library, which had comfy rocking chairs, stuffed animals and hundreds of books. He chose three to take home for the week, including “Christmas in Camelot.” It was May and over 90 degrees outside.

There used to be a full-time library assistant here to help students select books and check them out. The assistant now works half time. The district once paid for teachers to participate in National Board Certification, a prestigious professional development program, but no longer has the money to do so.

An after-school tutoring program recently ended when the grant that was paying for it ran out. Now there are no after-school activities, though the district does partner with the Boys and Girls Club to run a summer science program, paid for by a philanthropy.

As Preston and his classmates had pizza, apple sauce and milk for lunch in the cafeteria, Mrs. Speight and two other third-grade teachers sat nearby and talked. They regretted the loss of the after-school program, which they thought their students really needed. In a state without teacher collective bargaining, they weren’t quite comfortable walking out to protest in Raleigh that week, as sympathetic as they were to the protesters. The end of the school year — preparing their students for testing — was just too important.

Mrs. Speight followed Preston and his classmates out to recess. The basketball hoops had worn nets, and the swing set had rusted handles, with one of the seats detached. A local Lowe’s had donated two mini-soccer goals, but they were falling apart.

West Greene students take music, art and physical education every week. After recess on Mondays, Mrs. Speight’s class goes to gym. The teacher, Tonya Winfield, had set up an elaborate obstacle course. Preston threw a rubber chicken through a hoop while his friends did push-ups, jumped rope and shot basketballs.

Ms. Winfield had fund-raised for most of the equipment the children were using. She works a second job in landscaping to earn extra money.

“Boys and girls, I am proud of your teamwork today,” Ms. Winfield said.

“Yes, ma’am,” Preston replied before heading back to Mrs. Speight’s class.

Mrs. Speight has been taking classes to earn a master’s degree. She’ll graduate in August and may not be teaching at all next year. Her likely new job as a curriculum coach, mentoring teachers, won’t necessarily pay more, but it will come with less paperwork. That will leave her more time, she thinks, to earn extra money by teaching online college courses.

West Greene’s principal, JoAnn Pennington, knows it will be hard to fill Mrs. Speight’s shoes. Teacher salaries in North Carolina have dropped by 9 percent since 2009, when adjusted for inflation, and there is a statewide teacher shortage.

With more money, Ms. Pennington might restart the after-school program or hire a school psychologist. Or, with all the school shootings in the news, she could address safety needs by installing a buzz-in system or hiring a school resource officer.

But she doesn’t like to complain. The funding situation is simply “what we’re accustomed to” in Greene County, she said.

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