County moves to save center from staff cuts

Arlington Echo feared that it was losing two of its 4 resource teachers

Final decision awaits budget

Schools' outdoor program offers camps, activities

Anne Arundel

February 23, 2003|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

The small staff at Arlington Echo, the environmental center for Anne Arundel County schools, heaved a collective sigh of relief last week. After weeks of uncertainty, Associate Superintendent Kenneth P. Lawson telephoned to say that the four-member staff would not be cut by half in next year's budget, as had been proposed.

"I am ecstatic," Arlington Echo coordinator Stephen Barry said after receiving the call Thursday afternoon. "I think we did have widespread support in the community, and I was glad Mr. Lawson was able to help us out."

Arlington Echo Outdoor Education Center's experience illustrates the anxiety that many departments have felt in past weeks as they learned the trickle-down effects of the administration's budget belt-tightening in response to the state and county's difficult fiscal situation.

The school board is scheduled to vote Wednesday on Superintendent Eric J. Smith's budget proposal, which includes a plan to return 49 "resource teachers" to classroom jobs, along with reductions to the number of staff members who support at-risk youth and new teachers.

"There have been reassignments of resource teachers in each of the curricular areas: reading, math, science and social studies," said Dixie Stack, director of curriculum for the schools.

Stack and other school officials said they understand the reasoning behind the budget cuts and reallocation of funds. "Dr. Smith has been challenged with a really difficult budget," Stack said. "He had to make some tough calls."

Arlington Echo, 24 wooded acres overlooking the Severn River in Millersville, is the popular site of nature camps and outdoor exploration activities for the county's 75,000 public school students. More than a third of the system's students pass through each year, learning to camp, canoe, fish and protect the watershed by building rain barrels and planting gardens. But school officials had planned to reassign two of the center's specialized staff members to help satisfy the need for more school-based teachers created by Smith's academic initiatives.

Lawson's decision to keep all four resource teachers at Arlington Echo came after Barry pleaded with him two weeks ago against the cuts and after media inquiries about the matter.

This is not the first time recently that the center's programs have been under siege.

This month, the staff learned that a long-running summer camp for fifth-graders who attend the county's 20 high-poverty Title I schools had been canceled. During the weeklong day camp, pupils participate in outdoor activities and environmental workshops that incorporate reading and math instruction.

The $63,000 it costs to run the camp for 90 children each summer instead will be used to help fund new after-school and summertime remedial instruction for students at the Title I schools, said Barbara Gross, coordinator for Title I programs.

Gross said the programs that will replace the summer camp will be more instruction-oriented, and a larger number of students will be able to participate. But she was sorry to see the camp canceled.

"The camp has always been a highlight for all of us," she said. "It has been very exciting and rewarding to provide an experience to many of our children who never had the opportunity to experience a camp."

In explaining why the administration decided against reassigning the staff that runs Arlington Echo year-round, Lawson said he re-examined the impact that a reduction would have on the outdoor center.

"Arlington Echo's a little bit different," he said. "Kids go there and receive instruction directly from the staff."

Lawson added that the center's fate would not be completely assured until the budget is made final in June.

However, Barry was optimistic. "I think this is for real," the coordinator said. "I'm thankful that we were recognized as a viable part of the school system."

If his staff had been cut, Barry said, he would have been forced to drastically reduce the number of programs offered by the center - a variety of nature and arts summer camps and year-round activities, such as projects that teach pupils about environmental preservation and a popular drown-proofing course.

Severna Park parent John Slowikowski, an environmental testing lab technician, said he was "distressed" when he learned of the possible cuts to Arlington Echo. Slowikowski said the center has been an important part of the lives of his three children, and he was glad to hear it apparently has been spared from cuts.

"It makes me feel very good about the new superintendent, because I feel like he's got a more holistic perspective about the value of the programs that currently exist," he said.

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