Schools' cutbacks prompt concerns

Cuts bring larger classes, less teacher mentoring

`Progress is being halted'

May 31, 2004|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

When school opens in September, Baltimore students will find at least two more students in every class than they had this year. If they are behind academically, they won't have had the chance to attend summer school to catch up.

And if they are in a low-performing school with an inexperienced teacher, chances are the teacher won't have a mentor to help with that hard first year of teaching.

These are a few examples of the costs Baltimore schools will pay as they come to terms with a $58 million deficit. The cost to the education of the city's children, some say, will be less than the public expected in winter when the system was on the brink of insolvency and wrestling through months of emotional negotiations with the mayor and the governor over who would bail out the school system.

"I am not seeing a real diminishment in the academic areas," Bonnie S. Copeland, the school system's chief executive officer, said. "We tried to put a box around the classroom instruction in terms of any budget cuts."

Others disagree and find the price unacceptably high, saying the cuts take a knife to the very programs that brought Baltimore academic progress after years of criticism for failure. Putting some of these initiatives on hold for two years while the system pays off its deficit, they say, could derail that hard-won progress.

"The Baltimore City school system was making very encouraging and steady progress in a number of areas, particularly elementary school, perhaps the most encouraging progress of any urban school system in the country," said Bebe Verdery, education director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland. "We are worried that progress is being halted. We don't think being on hold a couple of years is acceptable."

At a time when the federal and state governments are demanding to see yearly progress from urban schools, the city faces a challenge to keep improving classroom instruction. Otherwise, students will find themselves left behind - failing the state high school exit exams that are likely to be required in the next few years or unable to cope with the redesigned SATs.

So the ACLU is not just focused on changes to the current academic program, but also on what plans won't be implemented in the next two years.

Court oversight

Baltimore Circuit Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan is concerned enough to request that school officials give him a detailed explanation of the effects of spending reductions on academic programs by tomorrow.

Kaplan oversees a decade-old lawsuit, filed on behalf of students, that claims Baltimore schools were so poorly financed that city children weren't receiving an adequate education as required by the state constitution.

The consent decree meant to settle that lawsuit in 1997 resulted in a major overhaul of the city schools that traded greater state oversight for millions more in state funds.

The school system began a series of reforms that were intended to turn around what had been described as an "academically bankrupt" system, and money was poured into the basics.

The schools reduced class size, gradually increased teacher pay to make it competitive with surrounding suburbs, adopted a uniform reading and math curriculum across the city for the elementary grades and purchased new textbooks.

Reform setbacks

But in each of the last two years, the school board has approved a budget that diminishes some of those reforms, including increasing class size by two students on average. So a first-grader in September 2002 would have had 18 students in his class while a first-grader entering this fall will have 22 students in a class. High school classes could swell to 32 students.

A year ago, school board members bemoaned having to increase class size, suggesting that test scores might drop. Some said one of the reasons the city's first-graders were scoring above the national average on standardized tests in reading and math was due to small classes.

It is unclear whether the class size increases were carried out systemwide this school year - Copeland was not in charge when the decision was made last spring and said she was unsure about the outcome.

In 1998, the city also changed reading instruction, buying new textbooks that emphasized phonics in the early years and training all elementary teachers in the new curriculum.

Generally, school systems replace textbooks every five years, but the city has delayed the purchase of new reading textbooks for two years because of financial problems.

Copeland points out that the schools are purchasing new high school algebra textbooks because that was judged a greater need.

The city also has cut back on mentoring for first- and second-year teachers in its poorest-performing schools. Two years ago, the city had 62 part-time mentors and 39 full-time mentors who were working in 60 schools. Next fall, 30 full-time mentors will be spread out among 22 schools.

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