Amid 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 Legislatures.

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, were funded.

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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