TAMPA — The Hillsborough County School District, with a large and growing population of children from foreign cultures, is reducing the ranks of teachers’ aides who help them master the English language.
Next year’s workforce will have about 164 fewer positions for bilingual aides, according to a letter shared with principals and department leaders this week.
That does not mean anyone will become unemployed, superintendent Jeff Eakins said. He estimated as many as 50 of the positions already are vacant. Turnover and retirements are expected to shrink the ranks further before the 2018-19 school year begins. And there are other similar jobs in special education classes, or in the clerical and food service ranks.
While acknowledging the adjustment will help him reach his goal of shedding 900 jobs to cut costs and balance the operating budget, Eakins said Wednesday that money is not the main reason for the cuts.
Rather, he said, the district wants to modernize the way it supports students who speak English as their second language, commonly known as ELL, or English language learners.
"We’re still utilizing a formula that was built in the 1990s," Eakins said. "A lot has changed since then."
Teachers today are taught in college to adapt their lessons to English learners, he said. Technology has given students more ways to sharpen their skills. Testing is more sophisticated. The district is exploring new protocols so the aides can spend less time on compliance reports.
And, Eakins added, some students are more successful if they make the leap sooner into an all-English environment. In a recent trip to Alonso High School, he said, he interviewed several ELL students and found one improved his skills by joining the JROTC.
Nevertheless, the tone of the letter from Chief Academic Officer Deborah Cook and ELL Program Supervisor Sandra Rosario was apologetic, and did cite economics.
"After many heartfelt, extensive, and candid conversations, the current financial climate for the impending school year has forced us to face some very difficult realities," they wrote in their opening sentence.
Speaking Wednesday, Rosario said it is all of those reasons — the ones Eakins cited, and the need to be more efficient with resources — combined.
Hillsborough had 457 bilingual aides in October, according to payroll records. They earn between $16,000 and $25,000. Some work at more than one school.
They serve a population of roughly 25,000 students, according to state data, which lists Hillsborough behind Miami-Dade, Broward and Orange counties in its ELL population. The Hillsborough students come from about 125 countries and speak 198 languages, Rosario said.
Demands for assistance increased this school year with the addition of more than 1,000 students who moved to the area from Puerto Rico after the devastation of Hurricane Irma.
Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, director of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association, said she did not know about the ELL cuts until she began receiving calls from some of her members who are affected.
"I have to take it as a continued effort to cut jobs in our bargaining unit," she said. "The tough part is that they are serving a district that is diverse and appears to be becoming more diverse. It’s a challenge, without more facts, for me to see how this doesn’t hurt students."
Susan Valdes, a School Board member who advocates frequently for Hispanic and immigrant children, said she will watch the situation, but decisions such as these are Eakins’ to make.
In the past two years, Hillsborough has been trying to get its staffing levels in line with comparably sized districts so it can shore up its reserves and protect its credit. The letter to employees said numerous committees "researched, analyzed, and considered a variety of allocation models from contiguous districts across the state with similar demographics."
Eakins praised the bilingual aides Wednesday and said that any time the district makes an adjustment such as this one, there is a human toll, both on employees and students.
"In every school environment, you value the people that are there and giving support," he said. "I think that’s the tough thing. You’ve got staff members who may have been there for 10 years, 12 years, that have become part of the school culture and strong relationships there and have done great work."
Rosario agreed that the impact is real, even if new methods and technologies are making English acquisition somewhat easier for students.
The aides "build relationships with the families and many times are that bridge between the parents and school," she said. "At schools we’re families. You do life together and you support kids and their celebrations. They become the fabric of who you are. Every place where I’ve been, my team is my family."
Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected] Follow @marlenesokol