City schools unsure how to pay for exams

Financial crisis affecting education, students say

March 29, 2004|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

Most of the money Chenelle Rollins earned at her summer job was spent on a carefully thought-out plan to get into the best college possible and keep the City College senior on the path to a promising future.

Using nearly $400 of her money -- a substantial sum for a 17-year old -- Rollins applied to 16 colleges and universities, and did the very best she could on the SAT college entrance exams.

The way Rollins had it figured, the two years she spent successfully meeting the demanding challenges of City College's rigorous International Baccalaureate program would put her top college choices within reach.

And, she was told, the city school system would kick in the money needed for the three IB tests and one Advanced Placement exam that she needed to take to seal the deal with the better schools on her list.

But city school officials say they can no longer afford to foot the bill for students like Rollins to take expensive year-end exams. The bill is about $100,000 just for students at the city system's top high schools, City College and Polytechnic Institute.

School officials said that although they are looking for alternate ways to pay for all of the testing, students will not have to pay for the tests out of their own pockets.

"We're in the process of looking for private dollars, without having to rely on system dollars," said Frank DeStefano, the school system's director of high schools. "The money is budgeted. We're just trying to use alternative money to help with the deficit and also with cash flow."

The city school system's $58 million deficit and a cash flow problem that threatened the system with insolvency has affected countless aspects of school operations. Teachers and counselors have been laid off and school employees have twice been asked to take pay cuts. School programs, and in some cases entire central office departments, have been slashed.

But students in the city's most challenging scholastic programs say they feel insulted that the effects of cost-cutting have trickled down into their classrooms and have threatened a school system practice -- paying for the advanced academic tests -- that the students thought would always be protected.

"You can't break promises to students when it has to do with their future. If you don't help students like us get into college, to me, it's like you're trapping students in an environment that they want to get past," said Rollins, who has been accepted into 10 of the schools to which she applied, including Penn State, Atlanta's Emory University and Haverford College.

Some advanced studies students said the school system should not be looking for "alternative funding."

Since it is the system's job to prepare students for life beyond high school, students said, paying for the tests that cap years of coursework should be a mainstay in the system's budget, not a fringe item.

"We understand that the school system is in a financial crisis," said Anna Friedman, 17, a City College senior. "But advanced studies are essential to any school system. There are some things that they just can't cut. They wouldn't cut the plumbing so that the toilets don't work. And they shouldn't cut this."

Another City College student, Julia Notar, compared the students' situation to city school teachers being asked to take pay cuts this year.

"We're rejecting our education cut and just like the teachers, we're saying we shouldn't bear the burden of the financial problems," Notar said.

Recently, when parents of advanced students at Polytechnic Institute were told in a letter that they would have to pay $25 toward the roughly $85 cost of each exam their children wished to take, the backlash was immediate. The bill could be more than $100 per student because many take two or more Advanced Placement exams and International Baccalaureate students are required to take six year-end tests.

After parents and students complained, the school system did an about-face.

"It was my fault for not being clear," DeStefano said. "So I've asked [Poly Principal Sharon Kanter] to correct that. We are, in fact, going to follow through with our commitment."

But officials hope to avoid using school system money.

The system has asked the nonprofit Abell Foundation for help, and is waiting for a response, DeStefano said. And there's always the hope that the system will receive grant money that can be used for advanced studies.

For now, though, it is unresolved how the approximately $100,000 cost of the exams will be covered.

The uncertainty bothers students who said they believed they had an ironclad agreement with the school system: They'd work hard and do well in school and in return, the system would show its support by paying the bills.

"The last two years, now, I feel like they've almost been in vain," said City College senior Tracee Clements, 17. "It's like they don't even care."

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