Layoff notice stuns music instructor who's spent 15 years in city schools

June 25, 1994|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,Sun Staff Writer

Carol Russell got a jolt June 18 as the postman handed her a certified letter from city school headquarters on North Avenue.

"This is official notice that, effective July 8, 1994, you will be released from your current position . . .," said the form letter from Superintendent Walter G. Amprey.

After reading those words, Ms. Russell, who has spent 15 years in Baltimore classrooms as a cello teacher and orchestra director, sat on her living room couch in shock.

"There was some anger and disbelief," Ms. Russell, 41, recalls. "I really hurt deeply not only that I would lose my job but for the programs that I built with the city over the years. And then I thought of never going back to those students again."

Ms. Russell, who made about $41,000 as a teacher, says she has savings and could collect unemployment if necessary. Already, she and her husband, Walt, a Westinghouse Electric Corp. accountant, have started belt-tightening.

"I have been very torn up this week," says Ms. Russell, who lives in White Marsh. "I was depressed all weekend when I got that letter. I feel like a second-rate teacher -- like my job is not that important."

Ms. Russell -- along with the city school system's other 10,000 employees -- had known that a shake-up of the system was ordered by Dr. Amprey. A May 26 warning letter said a "considerable number" of job cuts and reassignments were about to be made.

But she had no clue that her position -- working at Morrell Park Elementary School in Southwest Baltimore and the Baltimore Talent Education Center at Pimlico Middle School -- would be cut along with 48 other teaching jobs this week. A total of 278 teaching and administrative positions were eliminated, although many employees will be transferred and reassigned.

School officials, noting that eight out of 20 elementary music teachers were laid off, have held out some hope for Ms. Russell. She is third on the list of instrumental music teachers for rehire. And she could be rehired and reassigned as other teaching positions become available through attrition.

"I at least felt confident that things were going to be done fairly," she says. But she adds, "The impression is that it's too early to make any promises."

Until then, Ms. Russell is trying to figure out where to turn.

She may apply for a teaching position in the suburban counties. She also may retrain in the field of computer education.

These days, she receives daily support from a telephone network of other city music teachers who share information and give encouragement. And she still plans to take bicycle tours in West Virginia and Vermont this summer, even though she will receive her last paycheck July 1.

"I feel like my future is being balanced in their hands and now I'm being tossed around a bit," she says. "I've been loyal to the system for 15 years -- while other teachers went to the county -- because I believed in the program."

Ms. Russell says she has loved the cello since she tried the instrument as a fifth-grader at Gardenville Elementary School some 30 years ago. Her father, a missionary, moved the family to India but she returned to the United States in 1968 to complete high school and attend college.

She eventually came home to Baltimore to teach instrumental music.

Parents of some of Ms. Russell's students say the city school system will be the loser if she doesn't keep her job.

"To lose Carol Russell would be a statement about quality in education that is quite horrific," says William Stacy, father of 11-year-old Josh. "Carol Russell makes it all work. She takes kids of every background and ability and leads them together."

Janet Stewart, whose son Zachary has taken cello lessons for six years, says Ms. Russell has helped many inner city children by introducing them to classical music.

"I've seen a lot of children come in there on the wild side and eventually these children calm down," she says. "It is soothing to them. It gives them a sense of history."

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