City stands by decision on Paquin cuts

Copeland reaffirms budgetary move after surprise visit to school

City stands by decision on cutbacks at Paquin

February 12, 2005|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

City school officials said yesterday they stand by their decision to reduce the number of teachers and aides at Laurence G. Paquin Middle/High, the city's school for pregnant girls and young mothers.

Supporters of the East Baltimore school have argued that the staff reductions - part of budget cuts implemented systemwide as a result of last year's budget crisis - have devastated the school by causing programs and classes to be canceled. As a result, enrollment has declined, according to the school's principal.

A City Council hearing is scheduled for Tuesday on a resolution to urge the system to restore the original Paquin "model." Established in 1966 as one of the country's first schools for pregnant girls, Paquin offered, until this school year, a large menu of academic and parenting classes, health services and child day care.

Yesterday, schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland paid a surprise visit to Paquin to investigate the claims that it is understaffed. After a tour of the building, Copeland held a news conference to reaffirm the budget cuts.

"What we've seen doesn't indicate they are short of staff," Copeland told reporters.

Paquin's staff was reduced this school year to 26 employees, including 12 teachers, from 48 employees last school year, officials said. As of yesterday, 185 students were enrolled in the secondary school program and about 14 infants and toddlers in day care and prekindergarten. However, because Paquin's student body fluctuates, the school serves about 500 girls each year.

During the tour, Principal Rosetta Stith showed Copeland rooms filled with children's furniture where about six infants and eight toddlers spend their day - down from 45 children last year, when there were more day care aides, Stith said.

Stith also led Copeland to rooms where teachers were working quietly with two to a dozen students at a time. The system's chief academic officer, Linda Chinnia, occasionally fell behind on the tour, tallying on a notepad the number of students she counted.

Copeland said Paquin's class sizes would be the envy of any other principal in the system.

But to Stith, who has been Paquin's principal for two decades, the underused rooms were a reminder of the lost classes and programs and services, including a day care session for 2- and 3-year-olds and a course to help students earn their General Educational Development diplomas.

Stith blamed the reduction of services for the drop in student enrollment. "This place has been gutted," she told her boss in a tense moment during the meeting. "It's killing us."

But the argument did not seem to convince Copeland or Chinnia, who told Stith that Paquin was still staffed at a much better ratio - about one teacher for every 15 students - than other schools in the city and that more employees would be assigned there if more students enrolled.

School officials also pointed out that day care programs exist at six other high schools that young mothers can use.

Teachers at Paquin say they have some classes of more than 30 students - though many students don't attend daily. Teachers also said the loss of colleagues has made it harder for them to give these sometimes-vulnerable girls the extra support they need.

Stith argued that the cutbacks are tantamount to closing the school because fewer programs and courses mean fewer reasons for students to choose Paquin.

"If we had what we had [last year] and we sent the message out, this place would be filled," she said. "The girls would come back."

Before Copeland left, Stith urged her to return for a more in-depth discussion and not base her decisions on this "snapshot" visit.

Copeland agreed to come back, saying that she was "very supportive" of the school.

"My job is to serve 89,000 students, so I have to make sure every school is staffed appropriately," she said.

Stith said later that she would need about nine teachers and eight aides to restore the majority of Paquin's offerings.

Chinnia, the chief academic officer, said she does not expect the administration to make major staffing changes. She said she plans to work with Paquin to develop options for students who need to take classes that were eliminated, such as by offering more classes online or at the neighboring Lake Clifton-Eastern High School complex.

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