Successful schools face cuts
By Sara Neufeld
Some of Baltimore's most successful elementary schools face staff reductions next school year as the city school system shifts money to failing schools to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
While system officials say they must divert resources to schools where students are failing state tests, principals of successful schools say their pupils should not be victims of their own hard work. And state education officials say the system has enough money to adequately fund all its schools.
The city school board is scheduled to vote Tuesday on a budget proposed by schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland allocating an additional $22 million for reforms in failing schools, including fewer pupils per class.
Under that proposal, a school with fewer than 300 pupils would no longer receive funding for an assistant principal. Literacy and math coaches would be assigned to schools based on the number of children who aren't meeting standards, meaning that some schools that have the coaches now will lose them.
"It seems like the more you achieve, the better your test scores, the more you lose," said Yetty Goodin, the longtime principal of Garrett Heights Elementary, which stands to lose three teachers next school year. "Don't rob me and give to another school because we're able to do well."
Linda Chinnia, the system's chief academic officer, said No Child Left Behind "forces us to put our resources where the needs of the students are." She said she did not know exactly how many schools would lose assistant principals and coaches.
System officials have said the federal No Child Left Behind law poses a conundrum for schools because once they become successful, they are no longer eligible for several funding sources.
But William Reinhard, a spokesman for the Maryland State Department of Education, said the city system should have enough money for all its schools. The system is expecting a 7 percent increase in funds next school year, which Reinhard said would allow Baltimore to spend more per pupil than any other school system in the state except for Montgomery County.
Goodin and other elementary school principals are raising the same issue as New Song Academy, an independently run public school that has had success educating some of the city's poorest children. New Song's leaders say they can't keep operating without more funding from the city school system. They are calling on the system to spend less on administrative costs and give more to schools to spend directly on children. They also want the system to establish a fund to ensure that successful schools stay that way.
"As we continue to put all this emphasis on the failure, why aren't we stepping back to say, 'How do we maintain success?'" said New Song's principal, Susan Tibbels, who has been raising $500,000 a year for her school but is finding that pace impossible to sustain.
The dispute comes as the city and the school system pull out all the stops to fight a state-ordered takeover of 11 Baltimore schools. Arguing for local control over education, Mayor Martin O'Malley and other city leaders have repeatedly pointed to progress in the city's elementary schools to show that the school system is on the right track, despite low test scores at many middle and high schools.
On Friday, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. vetoed a bill that would delay the takeover for a year. The House of Delegates voted yesterday to override the veto, and the state Senate is expected to take an override vote tomorrow.
At Northeast Baltimore's Garrett Heights Elementary, where 85 percent of third-graders passed last year's state reading test, Goodin said the school system underestimated her projected enrollment for next year, leaving her with a preliminary budget allocation for three fewer teachers than she has now. The system allocates staff to schools based on a complex funding formula designating a certain number of teachers for a given number of students.
At Thomas Johnson Elementary in Federal Hill, enrollment is declining because the area has more upper-income residents who are not sending their children to public schools. Ninety-one percent of fourth-graders at the school passed last year's state reading test.
Principal James R. Sasiadek was planning to keep enrollment up - and, therefore, to be able to keep all the teachers on his staff - by adding a sixth grade next year.
The school system is moving to close several of its traditional middle schools while converting dozens of elementary schools to serve children through eighth grade. Yet Thomas Johnson is not getting the money it expected to receive next school year to begin that conversion.
Chinnia said the system is focusing first on converting elementary schools that will be receiving pupils from middle schools closing this summer. The system plans to add a sixth grade at 18 elementary schools in the fall, with seventh and eighth grades added in the next two years.
Without a sixth grade, Thomas Johnson's enrollment will be under 300 next year, meaning it won't get money for an assistant principal. It would also lose three teaching positions, and it would have a literacy coach only part time. As a result of the cuts, it would have to combine a second- and third-grade class, even though the children would be preparing for different tests.
"Somebody knew how to play the numbers well," said Sasiadek, a former school board president in Baltimore County. "But not giving me what I needed for that community, you could save a lot."
If Thomas Johnson's current budget allocation stands, the three teachers with the least seniority will be transferred elsewhere. But Thomas Johnson has an astoundingly low teacher turnover rate for a city school: Its least senior teachers have been there five years.
Dana and Steven Dodd teach third and fourth grades at Thomas Johnson and are among those who would be transferred. The couple live in Harford County, and Steven Dodd said they would not continue commuting to Baltimore to teach elsewhere.
"There have been days I've had to sit on [Interstate] 95 for two hours just to get home," he said. "I'm not going to make that drive unless I'm at a place I enjoy working."
Medfield Heights Elementary could lose two teachers and have its full-time literacy coach cut back to part time. Principal Debbie Thomas said she remains hopeful that the school system will revise its staffing allocation. Otherwise, she said, she'll be appealing to outside donors to make up the difference.
"We need to come up with a backup plan, what we can do if we can't count on the system," Thomas said."Because we still need to be successful."
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