Paquin supporters seek City Council help

Panel weighs resolution urging school system to undo cutbacks at facility

February 16, 2005|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

Supporters of Laurence G. Paquin Middle/High School for pregnant teens and young mothers urged a City Council committee last night to use its influence to undo staff cuts imposed there by the Baltimore school system.

Speakers, including teachers, physicians and a former city school board member, had different reasons for supporting the East Baltimore school. Some argued that Paquin fills a social need as a place where pregnant girls are educated and the cycle of teen motherhood and poverty can be broken.

Angela Ballard, 17, who gave birth to a boy in December, provided the most personal testimony. She fought back tears as she spoke about how Paquin "embraced" her after she was "shunned" by students and teachers at her former school.

A committee that oversees education and health issues held the hearing on a council resolution that would urge the school system to return the teachers and aides removed from Paquin. The council has no authority over the school system.

This school year, Paquin's staff was reduced to 26 employees from last year's 48 as part of a systemwide effort to reduce a $58 million budget deficit. Although all city schools experienced similar budget cuts, staff at Paquin contend that the school has lost the ability to effectively serve some of Baltimore's most vulnerable students.

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, lead sponsor of the resolution, said the cuts will drive students away and lead to the closing of the school, which also has a program for infants and toddlers -- most of them children of Paquin students. "I can't stand by and watch this program die by inches," Clarke said at the hearing.

School system officials say they do not intend to close Paquin but contend that the school had too many employees for the number of students enrolled there -- about 185.

"We've always been impressed by the quality of education and level of service the students receive" at Paquin, the system's chief academic officer, Linda Chinnia, told the committee.

Chinnia also said pregnant girls have more educational options than they did in 1966, when Paquin was established. At the time, such students were not admitted to public high schools. Now, state law requires school systems to provide education for pregnant students, and some city high schools offer day care.

"The Baltimore public school system has changed with the times," Chinnia said.

But supporters say Paquin provides a nurturing atmosphere and extras such as parenting classes that no other school offers.

"It's very hard to be a parent and go to high school," Ballard said, recalling a teacher at her former school who scolded her about turning in an assignment late by reminding her that she had to learn to be responsible if she was going to be a mother. "We need this special school just for us, because those other teachers look down on us, and we don't need that."

Schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland paid an unannounced visit to Paquin on Friday to see how teachers and students were coping with the changes, and found small class sizes and a school apparently under control.

On that day, 186 students were listed as enrolled and 68 had reported to class, according to Copeland's staff. However, Paquin serves about 500 students over the course of a year.

Rosetta Stith, Paquin's principal for two decades, said she senses the system no longer supports the school's mission.

Clarke said she hopes to meet soon with Copeland, who did not attend the hearing.

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