Local News

11/17/2012

Textbook shortage forces Glynn teachers to improvise in class

By MICHAEL HALLThe Brunswick News

Brunswick High School history teacher Michael Cohrs had planned to buy a new Winchester rifle for deer hunting season this year.

Instead, he spent the money on something he thought was more important: books for his students.

"We haven't had any money for new textbooks in a long time, because of economic reasons," Cohrs said. "I believe knowledge is power and books are like the ammunition. It is hard to learn something if you can't get your hands on it."

That is why having a limited number of what are sometimes outdated textbooks can cause problems for teachers, he said.

Cohrs, like most teachers at both of the county's public high schools, does not have enough books in his classroom to send books home with all students, something that could be contributing to the trend of dropping scores on the SAT college entrance exam, he suggested.

So, when the school's Parent Teacher Student Association announced it was donating $1,000 in grant money to help teachers at the school, Cohrs and a group of colleagues started what they dubbed Operation Reading Classics, in an effort to fill the void of having a limited number of textbooks.

The association awarded $500 to Cohrs, who took the money to Books-A-Million to find class sets of discounted paperback books, such as Thomas Paine's "Common Sense," Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" and George Orwell's "1984." At a total cost of more than $1,100 for 180 books, Cohrs pitched in $649 to cover the difference.

"We wanted books that could be used in several classes," Cohrs said of a book shortage that crosses most academic fields.

Although the books Cohrs bought are not textbooks, the paperbacks are already a boon for teachers like Cleveland Tiller, a government teacher at Brunswick High School.

Students often have to get their lessons from Internet resources in her class, because the textbooks she has were published before history-making events like the attacks of Sept. 11 - or the aftershocks of the attacks - and the election of the first black president of the United States.

"They don't talk about the changes in the national bureaucracy that arose because of 9/11," Tiller said.

Having a class set of historical novels like "The Jungle," a book about immigrants and the working conditions of the American meat packing industry in the early 1900s, is a great tool for teaching, but "it is still not enough," Tiller said.

The need for more textbooks is not lost on Glynn County School Superintendent Howard Mann.

At a recent board of education finance committee meeting, Mann told board members it has been a long time since new books were purchased. His concern is that not getting some new textbooks in the classrooms will begin to adversely affect instruction.

"Every class should have a full set and a book (students) can access at home," Mann said. "If it is affecting instruction, we are going to have to get some new books."

As it stands now, students can access most books online or, if they do not have home Internet access, check out a class copy to take home.

But buying new textbooks is not as simple as picking a few books and buying in bulk for the more than 12,000 public school students in Glynn County, according to Ricky Rentz, assistant superintendent for student achievement.

"We would prefer to have a book for every child," Rentz said of the ideal.

When the state still fully funded education more than a decade ago, that was possible, Rentz said. At one time, many teachers had both a class set and one for each student.

Now that budget cuts have forced local districts to cut positions, furlough employees and alter school calendars to minimize annual budget shortfalls, money to keep up with updates for books on a seven-year cycle has not been available for every subject, Rentz said.

Compounding the difficulty of purchasing books has been the frequent changing of curriculum standards, Rentz said.

The Common Core Georgia Performance Standards, the state's version of the common core curriculum adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia, offers the perfect example. New textbooks purchased by the school system will need to align to the new standards, but no textbook companies are selling any yet.

Before the practice of adopting a set of statewide standards to guide all classroom instruction, teachers would start with the first chapter and teach from the book as it was written. Today, the standards do not always coincide with the sequence of chapters in a textbook, meaning that teachers must jump around in a book to ensure that students are getting the lessons the state requires.

"The textbook is no longer the curriculum. It's now a resource," Rentz said.

Glynn Academy math teacher Raynor Nelson knows this well. To teach his Math II class, which combines lessons from several types of math into one class, Nelson uses three different textbooks he keeps stacked beneath each desk in his classroom.

The combined approach to math was a short-lived state requirement that is being phased out as this year's freshman class progresses through high school. Although the phase-out means teachers like Nelson will again be able to use one book for one class, they still will not have enough to send home with each student for homework assignments.

Those assignments have also changed with the limited number of textbooks. Rentz says the homework assigned almost nightly throughout much of the district is often research based and designed to deepen student understanding of certain concepts or curriculum standards.

Ingrid Metz, who will assume a seat on the board of education in January and is a Latin teacher at St. Francis Xavier School, says the constant changing of state curriculums has led to the loss of the type of linear, sequential thinking that makes what students learn stick.

Metz plans to make finding new textbooks for all Glynn County public school students a priority during her term on the board.

She may have an ally in current board member Millard Allen.

"I think everybody (on the board) is aware we need new textbooks," Allen said. "At some point, regardless of the budget crunch, we are going to have to look at finding the revenue to get some new books."

That may be more difficult than it sounds. The state's formula for textbook reimbursement hasn't been updated in nearly 30 years, Allen said.

With most high school textbooks costing more than $100 each, the $40 the state reimburses leaves a large gap that is difficult to overcome with a dwindling budget.

"At some point, we are going to have to look at some additional revenues," Allen said. That could mean a millage rate increase, he added.