Budget to add city school staff

Education: Officials hope to secure funds next year for `resource' teachers and noninstructional aides.

April 05, 2005|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

One recent morning, a group of fourth-graders filed out of Jane Brewer's classroom, appearing refreshed and ready for their afternoon classes.

"I like to sing because it brings out `me,'" said 9-year-old Zakiya Sewell.

Not only does Brewer's music class provide an artistic outlet for children at William Paca Elementary, but it also gives regular teachers - who take turns dropping off their classes at her door - time away from their pupils to collaborate with their colleagues and learn new teaching methods.

In a nod to the importance of "resource" teachers such as Brewer, Baltimore schools officials have proposed spending millions of dollars to put more of such staff in city schools this fall to provide youngsters with arts, language, computer and other enrichment classes. They also want to hire more noninstructional aides, whose duties range from maintaining student records to picking up after children in the cafeteria.

Linda Chinnia, the system's chief academic officer, said the influx of new employees would free teachers for professional development, improve school safety and lift the burden of mundane tasks off the shoulders of school administrators. "This was a request that came from principals," she said.

The administration plans to set aside $14 million in next year's $1 billion budget to increase the number of resource teachers and aides. However, because student enrollment in city schools is projected to continue its decline, officials said they probably would end up spending an estimated $9.6 million to hire 84 resource teachers and 108 aides.

The funding represents the most costly academic initiative in schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland's proposed budget. Other areas of new spending include $6 million to reduce class sizes and $3 million to replace outdated textbooks.

If the plan receives school board approval, the system would be relaxing the austerity plan it put in place nearly two years ago. In the face of a $58 million budget deficit, class sizes had swelled and more than 1,000 jobs in the administration and in schools were eliminated.

The staff cuts caused safety problems at some middle and high schools, where an absence of school police officers and hall monitors contributed to a rash of fights and arson fires last fall. Most schools, however, did not have such incidents and were able to cope with the loss of staff by assigning more work to remaining employees.

"I think everybody is waiting to exhale," said Mary Minter, principal of William Paca. The 850-pupil school near Patterson Park lost some staff members to budget cuts but probably will receive an additional resource teacher and an aide this fall, according to Chief Financial Officer Rose Piedmont.

Mayor Martin O'Malley, who will review the school system's budget in coming weeks, said he supports adding employees.

"They cut too deeply into things that affect the learning environment ... like hall monitors," he said at a meeting with The Sun's editorial board last month. "We are ramping back up, coming back on those things."

Lydia Lemon, principal of Bay-Brook Elementary in South Baltimore, is down to a single noninstructional aide. Before the budget crisis, the 370-pupil school had three aides to assist in office work and lunch duty.

Now the school's assistant principal helps monitor the cafeteria, when her time could be better spent on matters related to instruction, Lemon said.

"I hope and pray we will [receive more staff], but I don't know yet," Lemon said.

Although aides are not the most visible of school employees, teachers and administrators say they help schools run smoothly.

Every morning, Elese Wright, one of five aides at William Paca, helps children get through breakfast and maintains order on the playground before the start of school. Then, she's off to make copies of materials for teachers, deliver new books to classrooms and pick up used ones, and hand out prizes to pupils who have met reading goals - all before she reports for lunch duty.

"If it's going to save [teachers] time ... that's what I do," said Wright.

On a recent afternoon, she slipped discreetly into Carol Alford's language arts class to update the pupils' progress in the school's "100 Book Challenge" on a wall poster.

Wright handed Brandon Height a gold-colored plastic medal for racking up hours of reading time. The fifth-grader beamed and put the medal around his neck, looking at it often during the rest of the class period.

If the school is able to hire another aide next school year, Wright and other aides would be able to give more help to teachers and do more of the kind of work that goes by the wayside when staff is stretched too thin, such as praising a child for walking away from a dispute.

An extra resource teacher for the school would enable Brewer, the music teacher, to devote more time to her choir program instead of teaching a full load of classes and covering for absent colleagues. The choir enables her to develop the talent she sees in many of her pupils.

"I feel like I'm just going from place to place, not really making a difference," Brewer said. "I think there's a lot of talent there. But they need time and you need to be able to really work with them."

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