Lansdowne community anxious over teaching cuts

Parents, staff, students worried about potential loss of mentorship, elective classes

  • Students leave Lansdowne High at afternoon dismissal.
Students leave Lansdowne High at afternoon dismissal. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun )
April 07, 2011|By Liz Bowie, The Baltimore Sun

In a blue-collar neighborhood in southwest Baltimore County, Lansdowne High School has become a refuge for some students, a place where parents say the faculty works extraordinarily hard to make personal connections so the teens will stay in school and graduate.

Student achievement is up, and teacher turnover is down. The 84 percent graduation rate is the highest it has been in a decade, and growing numbers of students are in Advanced Placement classes.

But now, many parents and students fear that a countywide plan to reduce teaching positions could hit Lansdowne hard. About 18 staff members at the school — more than 10 percent of the faculty — have been told they will be moving to a different school next year, and other teachers learned they will be teaching different classes.

Teachers "are there until eight and nine o'clock at night," said Vicki Starin, a parent who believes the school is doing a good job with her 10th-grader. "They are constantly putting in extra time, going beyond. It takes every man and woman. I can't see how the county can justify taking anything away from Lansdowne. They are in the position that they need more."

The school system is not furloughing or laying off teachers, but is cutting about $12 million out of the budget for teaching positions so that it can pay teachers a small increase based on advanced degrees and seniority.

"Principals allocate staff each year depending on enrollment and other factors," said Charles Herndon, a school system spokesman. The difference this year, he said, is the 196 positions will be left vacant through attrition. "That's a pretty impressive — and responsible — way of preserving instructional excellence … while having to deal with the reality of a very tough economic climate."

Not everyone agrees. Since the announcement, students from a number of county schools have protested in Towson, teachers have voiced concerns and parents have written letters. Legislators also have written a letter to County Executive Kevin Kamenetz and schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston asking for the teaching positions to be reinstated. The system has also been criticized for not making any cuts to administrative positions and for hiring a new deputy superintendent at a salary of $214,000.

Kamenetz could still find money in the county budget or move money around in the school budget to fund the positions.

In a community where 50 percent of students qualify for a free or reduced-price school lunch, and many come from single-parent households, teachers are especially important as mentors, said Starin.

As a result of the cuts, class sizes are likely to rise, and teachers say they have been told that some classes won't be held, although no announcement has been made about which. Lansdowne would have lost some teachers because its enrollment of about 1,200 is expected to go down, and two of the 18 positions being cut are mentoring new teachers. The principal, Lynda Whitlock, declined to comment on the cuts.

Student Matthew Gill said classmates are concerned that class sizes will rise, making it harder for teachers to give personal attention to students. Students who already have trouble focusing will have more difficulty paying attention in class, he said.

"Some of [the teachers] they are taking out are really good teachers," Gill said. The principal has not made public which teachers will be moved, but some students have heard from their teachers.

Last month, Lansdowne's principal began calling teachers one by one down to the office to tell them they probably wouldn't have a job at the school next year.

Teachers returned to teach their classes sad and upset. Some blurted out the news to students while others kept it secret, according to interviews with staff.

Special-education teacher Kate Englebrecht, who is not on the list of those to be reassigned, said the faculty acted professionally. Even those who may not be returning in the fall "are bringing quality lessons to the classroom, and their students are engaged," she said.

But at the end of each day their faces show the pain, she said. "After school, those teachers aren't smiling. It makes it a difficult place to work because everyone is passionate about what they do."

Social studies teacher Kelly Olds said teachers will have more grading to do for every class and will have to pick up some of the duties that departing staff now do. "I think that as class sizes increase, it becomes more difficult to really get to know the students in your classroom, and students tend to have higher achievement when they have a relationship with the teacher."

The teachers said department chairs will teach more classes and some teachers will be asked to teach six rather than five classes a day. They believe they will be working with students after school more frequently to help them succeed.

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