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Norwalk School Aides Say Cuts Will Hurt

On a recent morning, Rene Biasi, a first-grade aide at Cranbury Elementary School , sat in the hall with two students who were getting reading help. They read “Sam’s Race,” a beginners book, aloud slowly and talked about the story. Afterwards, Biasi tested another student with his sight words. During snacktime, she helped the classroom teacher monitor the students and prep materials for the next lesson. “Everything in first grade is hands on," says Biase. "The teacher needs extra hands.”

Next year, Biasi may have to look for another job.  Superintendent Susan Marks’ recommended 2011-12 budget eliminates first-grade aides throughout the district for a saving of about $500,000. To keep her budget at  $155 million, a 3.3 percent increase over last year, Marks needs to make $4 million in cuts.

Currently, elementary schools in Norwalk have half-time aides in all first-grade classrooms. For example, Cranbury has five first-grade classes and two full-time aides and one part-timer who rotate among the classes. While kindergarten classes have full-time aides, there are no classroom aides in grades 2-5.  (The exception is Columbus Magnet School, which has full-time aides in all grades because of their special magnet program.)

First-grade aides play an important role in early literacy, says Cranbury first-grade teacher Dana Johnson. “First grade is a critical year. The amount that needs to be covered is staggering. We cover critical word work, phonics, spelling, reading. First grade is the basis for everything,” she says. “There is no way to get everything done without the aides.”

“Aides are not clerical positions,” says Assistant Principal Maureen Jones. “They are teaching in the classroom and they get a lot of literacy training.”

“This is devastating,” says Gina DiBlasi, a Cranbury first-grade aide for the past 15 years. “The kids who are struggling are going to fall further behind without the extra support. I don’t know how they will be ready for second grade. Kids are going to suffer.” She adds that she works with many English Language Learners who come into first grade not knowing letters and numbers.

Losing aides will impact the day-to-day operations of the school as well as student achievement, says Principal Robin Ives. Aides supervise lunch and recess. They also provide coverage in classrooms so teachers can have team meetings to discuss issues across the grade.  “Having aides helps us maximize instructional time."

Ives is especially concerned because Cranbury has been making academic strides in the last few years and closing its achievement gap. Last year, Cranbury made "Annual Yearly Progress" and was removed from No Child Left Behind's "In Need of Improvement" list.  "How are we supposed to make progress without resources?"

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