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Whitnall teachers: lowering class sizes and improving teacher retention

As the school year began, members of the Whitnall Area Federation of Teachers were discussing two disturbing trends. Class sizes had started high and were continuing to grow as the district accepted many open enrollment students. At the same time, many experienced teachers were either finding jobs elsewhere or considering leaving because of the district’s extremely slow progress in implementing a compensation plan. With many classes exceeding 30 students and as they faced the loss of highly qualified teachers, WAFT members were concerned about the impact on their working conditions and student learning conditions.

Members of AFT local 3307, the Whitnall Area Federation of Teachers, attend an April school board meeting to discuss teacher compensation.

To address class sizes, building reps surveyed coworkers to gather data on raw class sizes and the growing numbers of students with special needs. This gave a much clearer picture than data provided by the district, which merely tracked average class sizes by grade. Lynn Kucharski, WAFT secretary, was shocked by the results. “When you have that many kids sitting in front of you at once, it doesn’t matter what the average class size is,” she said. “There’s less opportunity for individual student help—it makes it more challenging to be able to meet each student’s needs.”

Union leaders took this information to district leadership, who agreed that action needed to be taken. For the next school board meeting, WAFT building reps recruited many teachers to present their experiences and ideas as the board discussed the issue. Thanks to these efforts, the board voted to lower average class sizes by roughly two students per grade and to drastically limit their acceptance of open enrollment students, changes that will, members feel, lead to significant improvements in student education.

Alongside these efforts to reduce class size, union leaders and members were also taking action to address compensation and retention. Although a compensation committee had been formed in 2014, progress had slowed, and teachers were getting frustrated. “With [Act 10’s] cap on negotiations this year of 0.12%, you’re lucky if that gets you a bag of groceries,” said Mike Seavert, WAFT president. “Teachers want to see something that’s fair and equitable, something that’s attainable in their career. When they come in, they want to know what they need to do to get from point A to point B.” Seavert contacted the administration to express teachers’ frustration with the lack of progress, prompting school board members to take notice.

At the April board meeting, WAFT members again mobilized to support progress on compensation. Board members expressed a desire to see results from the compensation committee, and the administration agreed to add Seavert and Brian Van Buren, WAFT vice president, to the committee. The committee has since met several times, making significant progress. “I’m proud of the efforts of our members and leaders on both of these issues,” said Seavert. “Looking forward to next year, we hope that our administration, under the leadership of a new superintendent, will follow through on maintaining lower class sizes, so that we will be able to better reach our students on an individual level. With this accomplishment, as well as having phase one of our compensation system in place this fall, we know that our work is helping to make Whitnall a destination district to attract and retain quality teachers.”