Options open amid Baltimore school cuts

Officials promise students will receive choices

November 16, 2003|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

Imagine a high school where you don't have to take gym class, where you can move quickly through the courses you're good at and take your time with the hard ones. For a gaggle of bright, motivated eighth-graders from Southeast Middle School, it seemed almost too good to be true.

The six friends, who came to the Baltimore schools' third annual high school fair yesterday, wondered whether administrators' best-laid plans - to offer students a choice from more than 100 programs at 36 high schools - would come to pass.

These 13-year-olds had heard the week's news about bigger-than-expected budget deficits and layoffs of as many as 1,000 school employees. They wondered whether the money crisis would affect them.

"They might take away our teachers," Hope Ferguson said.

"They might take away our extracurricular activities," said Shameka McFadden.

"They might take away our program," said her twin sister, Sonika McFadden, who is enrolled, along with her sister and friends, in an advanced math and science program.

School administrators promise none of that will happen.

On Friday, new Chief Executive Officer Bonnie S. Copeland told 150 principals they would have to find ways to cut their budgets. But school leaders pledged to make sure that the cuts come from administration and support staff - primarily from the system's central offices on North Avenue - and that students don't feel them.

"We've been clear, very clear, that the last place we look [to save money] is the classroom," Frank DeStefano, head of the system's high school division, said at yesterday's fair.

"Our principals are working really hard to maintain the integrity of their campus" programs, DeStefano said. Some programs may be consolidated within schools, he said, but "students who are in a career pathway will be able to complete it" at their current school.

The high school choices, on display at the fair in the Polytechnic Institute cafeteria, will continue despite the cuts, DeStefano said. "These options have all been approved by the board, they all exist, and they will all be available," he said.

DeStefano met with high school principals Friday, a day after Copeland announced that the school system had a $52 million deficit, that layoffs are coming and that principals have to make cuts.

"They wanted to know, `What's the number? What's the percentage of the cut?' which I could not answer," DeStefano said. "I told them to look at their administrative structures and how they could reorganize if necessary to do the work with fewer people."

Because individual school budgets are based on the number of students enrolled, the cuts will hit hardest at schools with declining enrollment, administrators said. Citywide high schools with competitive admission policies will feel fewer effects, said Rodney Joyner, who represented City College at yesterday's fair.

"Our enrollment has been growing over the years, so I think we'll do OK," Joyner said.

The smaller "innovation schools" are also insulated from the cuts because they supplement their budgets with foundation grants. There are nine such schools, and two more are scheduled to open next year, DeStefano said.

Khalilah Harris, an administrator at the 104-student Baltimore Freedom Academy, said the 3-month-old school has a curriculum emphasizing law and community advocacy, and does its own fund raising.

"We rely on support from the community," Harris said. "There's nothing North Avenue can do other than remove people from our building."

The six classmates from Southeast Middle School were intrigued by one of the proposed innovation schools, the Academy for College and Career Exploration, with its flexible pace. For now, they are happy with their middle school science and math program.

"It makes us feel we've got a leg up," Daniel Horton said. "We don't want to lose that."

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