cuts, students left with basics
By Anand Vaishnav, Globe Staff, 9/2/2003
(Lead story, page 1)
Padlocked libraries. No after-school drama club. Fewer intriguing electives
such as desktop publishing or the culture of Greece and Rome.
It's back-to-school week in Massachusetts without the frills -- and, some
fear, without the fun.
"You're going to have a bunch of shortchanged kids out there,"
said Paul Schlichtman, a member of the Arlington School Committee.
The gloomiest fiscal picture in two decades is clouding this week's stampede
back to the classroom for dozens of school districts statewide, as budget
cuts exacted on paper become a reality. While schools try to shield core
classes, electives are taking a hit, and so are school clubs that made
the school day not only passable but enjoyable. "That's my worry,"
said Kathleen Donovan, Arlington's superintendent of schools. "I
think it's as important to provide for the student that's going on to
college as I think it is to provide for the student that's going to be
a chef and support himself."
Classes kick off in many districts today, tomorrow, and Thursday. School
administrators promise their teachers will soldier on, but they have nagging
questions about the long-term effects of slimmed-down schools on this
generation of children. Nationally, the back-to-school outlook is grim:
Legislatures in 11 states, including Massachusetts, cut funding for K-12
education this fiscal year, according to the National Conference of State
Locally, lawyers will be monitoring the budget shortfalls. The long-running
lawsuit challenging the way Massachusetts finances its public schools
is on trial in Suffolk Superior Court in Boston, with lawyers for families
in 19 school districts arguing that the state is falling short in its
constitutional duty to provide an adequate education. The state probably
will begin its defense in October.
Other challenges take root this school year. The state's new English-immersion
law takes effect, requiring that students with limited English learn in
all-English courses instead of bilingual education in their native tongues.
The federal No Child Left Behind Act enters its second year, bringing
districts closer to deadlines for raising test scores at schools where
parents can request transfers to better-performing schools.
Scores on the MCAS exam will be unveiled tomorrow, against the backdrop
of an 80 percent cut in the amount of state money available for tutoring
students on the test, which is a graduation requirement.
But the classroom cutbacks are commanding the most attention, including
teacher layoffs that could lead to more crowded classes.
Arlington schools open Thursday for grades 1-12 with far fewer perks after
officials shaved $4 million. Gone are eclectic classes at Arlington High
School such as music theory, television directing, and computerized accounting,
Donovan said. Students might have to take a study hall period instead.
The middle school gifted-and-talented program was eliminated, and the
weeklong environmental camp for fifth-graders was axed.
"It seems like we're not really going to be able to learn as much
as we want to, or of what we want to," said Arlington High School
ninth-grader Alexandra Carver, 14, who joined her parents in rallying
to save the town's gifted-and-talented program. "We're down to a
narrow list of choices."
That is also the case in Winthrop, where classes begin tomorrow. Consumer
sciences -- what was once known as home economics -- will not be offered
at Winthrop High School this year. Each of Winthrop's four school libraries
has been "padlocked" because the librarians were let go as part
of 22 layoffs and $1.5 million in cuts, Superintendent of Schools Thomas
Giancristiano said. And no after-school activities, such as drama or sports,
Giancristiano said he hopes some programs will be saved through parent
fees or donations. Those efforts help locally, but from a statewide perspective,
he fears they will exacerbate inequities that already plague the state's
public schools. "We're creating a public school system of have and
have-nots," Giancristiano said.
State Board of Education chairman James A. Peyser said schools have received
10 years of increased funding from the state. While money for perks such
as more varied electives is desirable, he said, it is not always feasible.
"These are decisions that communities need to make, but hopefully
they're making them with their eyes open and with an understanding of
what their core mission is all about," Peyser said.
But if the mission is to prepare students for work or college, some worry
that slashing extracurricular activities or gutting classes that could
spark a student's interest will only hurt.
"Colleges really want well-rounded individuals," said Mary Cobb,
vice chairwoman of the school committee in Milton, where parents are raising
up to $90,000 to pay for after-school activities such as the high school
newspaper. "When you don't have sports, extracurriculars, or electives,
it can slow that down a bit."
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