FITCHBURG — Starting Monday, most students attending Fitchburg Public Schools will be back in class.
To the casual observer, it looks normal. But the start of the school year hasn’t been without its share of controversy as many of the city’s educators find themselves moving to new locations.
Under Fitchburg Public Schools’ redistricting plan, all pre-K and Kindergarten students will be attending South Street Elementary school. Students in grades 1-5 will be attending Crocker, McKay or Reingold elementary schools and students in grades 6-8 will be attending Longsjo or Memorial middle schools.
Students at Fitchburg High School and Goodrich Academy are not affected by the redistricting plan.
As the school year starts, with the exception of pre-K and Kindergarten students who start the following week, classrooms are seeing a flurry of activity as teachers prepare for the start of the school year.
But, Fitchburg Education Association Executive Director/Treasurer Katie Schmitt, a mathematics teacher at FHS for 25 years, said the teachers union “has been very frustrated with the entire redistricting process.”
“Schools have been closed for the majority of the summer and some did not open until Aug. 22,” she said. “That means teachers did not have access to their classrooms or any of their materials and only had two days to prepare their rooms before we start on the 24th.”
Schmidt said in a typical year, teachers volunteer their time over the summer to set up their classrooms. But this year is not a typical year with classroom supplies in boxes that need to be set up and unpacked, Schmidt said.
“Teachers are worried that they will not have enough time and that their classrooms will not be ready.”
FPS Superintendent Robert Jokela said that while he “can’t comment on anything negotiations-related,” teachers setting up their classrooms on their own time is not unusual.
Jokela said every year, teachers may move classrooms and added that some put many hours into setting up their space, while others spend less time. The preparation is voluntary.
“Our schools will be ready, and we look forward to seeing our students and staff this coming school year, a year of opportunity. The staff are excited, and a number of staff have been coming into the schools to set up their classrooms as they do every year,” Jokela said.
Fitchburg State University, which owns the building McKay is housed in and has a long-term agreement with FPS, notified the district on Aug. 18 “that their building preparation… was completed and we immediately informed teachers that set up could begin on August 19,” Jokela said. “We had approximately 30 staff who began classroom setup on Friday.”
He added that the principal at McKay “has made accommodations for teachers to come in … and use at least one professional development (day) to get settled.”
On Aug. 15, FEA took to social media with a post addressed to families of FPS students. The post outlined the union’s concerns over not having adequate time for educators to prepare for the school year. Not only did most of the teachers in six different buildings have to pack up their entire classrooms and move, the buildings except for FHS were closed for the “entire summer.”
“Elementary and Middle School teachers could not access their classrooms AT ALL, and most do not know what their new classroom looks like! In fact, all classroom furniture, books, materials and supplies are STILL CURRENTLY IN BOXES. Nothing has been unpacked or set up,” the post said.
According to the post, the first day teachers would have access to their classrooms was Aug. 17, but some would not have access until Aug. 22. Under the contract with the district, the first days back to work are Aug. 24 and 25 and any time in the classrooms beforehand is “unpaid, non-contractual, and voluntary.”
Cleary exasperated, the FEA post also said Jokela had not agreed to give teachers any contractual time to unpack and set up their classrooms, with the exception of two contractual hours given every year. The post also said that after explaining two hours was not an “appropriate amount of time” Jokela “listed all of the NON-WORK and therefore UNPAID dates and expects us to get our classroom ready then.”
“(Imagine if your entire workplace moved to another building and you were told that you have set up your entire workspace – which could take SEVERAL DAYS and not get paid for it! No other profession would be expected to do that.)”
According to the FEA post, when the new FHS opened 22 years ago, teachers were given three paid professional development days to unpack and setup. Now, with six buildings moving of most teachers affected, they were not being given any work time to unpack.
“We are very frustrated that Superintendent Jokela doesn’t want to give us paid time to set up classrooms so that we are ready for the first day of school. And we are extremely disappointed that he thinks it is more important that we sit in meetings for 2 days instead of preparing our classrooms for our students. It feels like the Superintendent of Schools neither understands or cares about what teachers need in order to do our jobs successfully,” the post said, adding teachers miss their students and urging patience with teachers under the present conditions.
FEA President Adam Cordio, a visual arts teacher at FHS for 20 years, said the FEA asked teachers be allowed to set up their classrooms on Wednesday and Thursday this week “in lieu of attending professional development.”
“We were denied,” Cordio said. “We then asked for additional paid days given that the unpacking and setting up classrooms will take much more time than in a typical year. We were denied. It is unfortunate that the superintendent does not understand the amount of time it takes to set up a classroom from scratch but not surprising because he has never done so himself. He is one of the very few superintendents across the state whose degree is not in education. The FEA hopes that the superintendent starts to respect and value his teachers and their time.”
Kim Rodriguez, who is in her third year as FEA Vice President and teaches 6th grade at Memorial, said many teachers have reached out “from various levels.”
“I haven’t heard anyone say anything positive about any of the moves,” Rodriguez said. “I think that one of the biggest frustrations people have is that a lot of these issues and concerns were brought up back in late winter, early fall and most of the concerns were not dealt with and here we are starting on Monday.”
One teacher in a sub-separate classroom who wished to remain anonymous said the move “has been awful” and that the school they are moving from “ran out of boxes” so they started bringing in their own.
“There were teachers that were packing up their entire classroom in the boxes that they were providing and had well over 100 boxes in their classroom,” they said of the end of last school year. “We were told that they were moving only boxes, no furniture, the furniture was to stay where it is. They were supposed to give us paid time to have us pack up our rooms. That’s where the end of the school year half-days came in. But that still wasn’t enough time. Once school was out, teachers were no longer allowed in the building to allow for cleaning and moving.”
Fast forward to August and they said when they walked through the classrooms at their new school “there was zero furniture,” and still none as of Aug. 17.
“They didn’t order our program furniture … they also didn’t process our purchase orders,” the teacher said on Tuesday. “So now the admin is scrambling to find us furniture. The three days I had last week to work on my room was spent at home trying to find bookshelves on Facebook Marketplace for my classroom. I’ve had friends donate shelving to me for my room. I went in yesterday and the only thing that was added to my room was a shelf. Still no teacher desk, filing cabinet, or chairs for the students.”
A newsletter recently sent out to Reingold parents stated that “with just over a week before the opening of our 2022-2023 school year, Reingold has been a very busy place” and included photos of new student desks and chairs that were distributed to “every single classroom across the building” and that custodial staff have been hard at work “to make our school ‘glimmer’…and the gymnasium floor was refinished and is ready for the return of our Roadrunners.”
Jokela said this is just one example of investments and updates being made across the district, citing furniture purchased by the district for all the schools involved in the redistricting plan and the “new childhood learning center” at South Street.
“We are benefitting from hiring 51 new staff through the Student Opportunity Act,” Jokela said, referencing an education reform bill signed by Gov. Charlie Baker in 2019 that is directing $1.5 billion in funding over several years towards underserved school districts with the goal to close opportunity gaps that have led to unequal educational outcomes across the state.
FPS posted a letter from Jokela on Aug. 17 stating “we are redistricting to best serve our students.”
“Redistricting has been part of our plan now for a few years,” he said last week. “Over the last year we formed a committee that consisted of principals, teachers and parents that met monthly. We provided updates to the school committee and shared presentations with them and the staff.”
He said Diamond Relocation “have really done a spectacular job starting at the end of the school year moving boxes to where the teachers are going” and that “everything has been going very well.”
“What is huge this year is returning the fifth-grade students to elementary schools,” Jokela said. “It is significant. Fifth grade is more developmentally and socially appropriate to be in an elementary school, not a middle school.”