School staff shuffle in Arundel leaves some educators worried

Cost-cutting may force nearly 100 to return to regular classroom duties

January 19, 2003|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

As Anne Arundel County school officials recently began the process of shuffling employees in a budget move, many of the teachers and student caseworkers who await reassign- ment worried about how those changes will play out in the classroom next fall.

Some of the nearly 100 staff members who face transfers received letters informing them of the possibility. They include veteran instructors working as full-time mentors to new teachers; pupil personnel workers, who track students at risk of dropping out; and resource teachers, who support classroom instructors in areas of specialty.

School officials say they need the employees to return to classrooms to back initiatives including accelerated academic studies and support programs. They also say the changes will make the system more efficient.

"It gives us a chance, because we're going through all this pain, to re-examine how we do all these functions," said Assistant Superintendent Joseph Wise.

It's unclear what the total savings will be. Officials say the reduction of mentors and pupil personnel workers alone will free up about $2 million that may be spent elsewhere. Superintendent Eric J. Smith said last month that he would seek to use more than $16 million of next year's proposed $703 million budget for new initiatives.

Employees facing transfers are concerned about who will pick up the slack after they move to their new jobs.

"I don't want to sound like I don't understand the economic realities of today," said Millie Beall, a pupil personnel worker at South River High School. "It's just - why us?"

The system has 32 pupil personnel workers. Most of them are in schools that have a high percentage of potential dropouts older than 15. This year, they have a caseload of more than 1,200 at-risk high school students. Next fall, the number of these caseworkers will drop to 16.

Help for the students

Beall, who is responsible for 41 high schoolers, is part guidance counselor, part social worker. She counsels the youths, visits their homes and intervenes when they get into trouble with the system. Her objective is "to keep kids safe, fed and in school," she said.

Beall is also on-call at seven elementary schools and two middle schools that feed into South River High. She says she can't imagine what would happen if her position were eliminated.

On the afternoon last month when she first learned that the program would be reduced, Beall said, she visited the home of a second-grader who was ill and attending school sporadically. The family had no money to buy Christmas dinner, and their electricity was in danger of being shut off because of unpaid bills.

Beall said she helped the overwhelmed mother make a doctor's appointment for the boy, arranged for emergency utility funds to be provided and got fellow staff members to donate money and gifts for the family's holiday.

School officials say the remaining pupil personnel workers may have to take on larger caseloads.

"I think it's going to have a tremendous impact on the parents and students," Beall said. "The people we serve are people who are unspoken for - low-income families, parents who have had terrible experiences with schools themselves."

Kevin O'Connor, a parent Beall has worked with, has 16-year-old twin sons who have had numerous run-ins with school authorities. When one of them was expelled for smoking on school grounds in September, O'Connor was at a loss about what to do.

Beall arranged for home schooling and advised O'Connor on how to get his son readmitted. Without her help, O'Connor said, "I think I'd still be out here floundering. She saw through him, that he's not a bad kid."

Teacher mentoring

Many teachers are worried about cuts to the mentoring program, which has grown since its inception three years ago. Currently, 26 mentors support 164 first- and second-year teachers. Next fall, the number of mentors will be cut in half.

Many of the 11 teachers at Annapolis Middle School under mentor Evelyn Mason's watch say they would have been overwhelmed this year without her guidance on instructional and emotional matters.

Mason, 50, has been a shoulder to cry on. She has given rides to school to a teacher who did not own a car. She has helped a teacher take apart and reconfigure a classroom. And she has suggested to one teacher that dressing more professionally would help him gain the respect of his students.

On a recent morning, the 26-year veteran instructor zipped from class to class to check on the progress of her charges. Upon learning that one first-year teacher was ill and had stayed home without arranging for a substitute, Mason called her at home.

"You see, darling, you are an adult," Mason said into the telephone, sounding like a concerned parent. "You need to take care of your business beforehand. That way, administration can take care of what they need to do."

She hung up the phone and sighed. Some of the teachers still were learning how to function within the school system.

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