Lida Lee Tall students, parents lobby to save their school amid budget cuts

December 12, 1990|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,Baltimore County Bureau of The Sun

Brandi Wietscher, a fifth-grader at Lida Lee Tall elementary school in Towson, has a few candid words for Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

"I really think it's sad that however many things you could shut down . . . you have to pick a great school that has been around for 130 years," she wrote in a letter to the governor.

In these tough economic times, one of the decisions Mr. Schaefer must make is whether to shut down the state's only laboratory elementary school -- a move that was recommended recently by a state budget analyst.

The Lida Lee Tall Learning Resource Center is an independent elementary school that receives about $500,000 in state financing. If the governor decides to cut the money from the budget, the doors to Lida Lee Tall will close in June 1991.

It is a possibility that has alarmed students and parents. In Kathy Kelly's fourth-grade class, a group of little girls were aghast at the idea.

"I care about this school and I don't want it to break down," said Tiffany Parr, 9, who has attended the school since the first grade.

"My dad, my mom, my aunt, everybody is writing letters to keep this school open," said Alia Williamson, 9, who started in Lida Lee Tall's prekindergarten. "I don't want it to close."

Lida Lee Tall has been in use since 1866 as a laboratory to train teachers. The threat of closure hung over the school once before, in 1982, when it almost fell victim to budget cuts.

But parents persuaded then-Gov. Harry R. Hughes and the legislature to save the school by transferring its budget from Towson State University, where it is still located, to the state's Educational Coordinating Committee.

Lida Lee Tall was revamped to serve as a research tool for educators statewide. Since then, researchers have tested teaching methods and theories at the school, which has students in prekindergarten through the fifth grade.

Educators have studied such topics as the effects of class size on learning, the value of prekindergarten programs and how to teach children of differing abilities. The school also serves as a teacher training center for Maryland colleges, said Peter Bielski, principal of Lida Lee Tall.

Because the school is set up as a research model, its student body of 170 must reflect the racial and economic mix of the Baltimore area. The school population is 60 percent white, 30 percent black and 10 percent other minorities.

Evenly divided between boys and girls, 70 percent come from families considered to be middle income, 22 percent considered to be lower income and 8 percent considered to be upper income. Slightly more than 20 percent of the children are selected from households headed by single parents.

The demographics, which match the 1980 census for the Baltimore area, will be updated according to the 1990 census, school administrators said. A yearly tuition of $1,170 is charged, with 20 percent of the students attending free.

Elizabeth Bonner, whose daughter is in prekindergarten, said the research component and the racial mix are what appealed to her. "This is a school that works very well," Mrs. Bonner said.

Even before her daughter, Maria, began attending Lida Lee Tall, the Reservoir Hill mother was impressed with the school's reputation. "Now I have become gung-ho over this school," she said. "My daughter is just blossoming. And I think it is important that kids go to a racially mixed school."

Mrs. Bonner said she has gone from being "elated" upon learning in July that her daughter was accepted in the school to being "deeply distressed" now. "This is the only research elementary school in the state. It is extremely viable," she said.

Jean Hankey, who has a daughter in prekindergarten and a son in first grade, said the racial and economic mix also appealed to her and her husband. A Reservoir Hill resident, she noted that Lida Lee Tall presents an alternative to city public schools and more expensive private schools.

"It was the demographic mix," she said. "It's not all black. Not all white. Not all upper class or lower class. A school like that is difficult to find."

James DeGraffenreidt, a Northeast Baltimore parent who has a son in second grade, credited the teachers with creating the right atmosphere.

"He's been very happy there," Mr. DeGraffenreidt said of his son, Aaron. "And we like the fact that there have been so many research projects. My son enjoys it."

Parents have mounted a letter-writing campaign to keep the school open. They also claim that if all the students at the school left to go to public schools, the state would not save money.

"We are the best educational buy with public dollars that there is," Mr. DeGraffenreidt said.

Paul E. Schurick, a spokesman for the governor, said it is too early to comment on what action the governor will take.

"The budget analyst has recommended that the school be closed, but the governor has not made a decision yet," Mr. Schurick said. "And until the budget is complete, it would be premature to comment on one element of it."

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