Brooklyn Principal Wonders What She'll Cut Next: WNYC
good piece on budget cuts, though like her book, she gives far too much credence to the gains on the state test scores.
Brooklyn Principal Wonders What She'll Cut Next
NEW YORK, NY December 02, 2009 —City principals are gearing up for another round of budget cuts. The Education Department is preparing a 1.5 percent reduction to help the city close its mid-year deficit. That might not sound like a lot. But it follows a previous round of cuts that principals say has left the schools with no place left to trim. WNYC’s Beth Fertig visited an elementary school in East New York to see the impact.
AVERY: Ms Huger? Want to come next?
It’s 9 a.m. and Principal Melessa Avery of P.S. 273 in Brooklyn is looking at a packed schedule. She has to observe a few classes, meet with her cabinet, and hold a fire safety meeting.
Administrative manager Janet Huger helps Avery plan her day. The safety meeting has to include a teacher who’s also the union rep. But Huger and Avery say there’s no one to cover for him if he leaves the classroom.
HUGER: Normally we would have people to do coverages for that. We don’t have that anymore. That was a luxury last year. That’s gone.
AVERY: Because of budget cuts we don’t have like the extra staff.
Principal Avery had to let go of five of her 27 teachers, because the school’s budget was reduced by half a million dollars. To avoid a big increase in class sizes she made science and social studies teachers into classroom teachers. Kindergarten enrollment grew, however, and she was forced to hire another teacher recently.
If the 1.5 percent budget cut is applied equally to all schools, P.S. 273 will lose $63,000. Principal Avery is stumped when asked what she’ll cut next.
AVERY: Me. (Laughs) What is there left to cut? School aides.
School aides are among the lowest-paid employees in the system. They monitor cafeterias and hallways, and help with attendance. P.S. 273 has five aides. The school could save over $60,000 by eliminating three of them. Judy Martinez, who’s been working at the school for six years, says she’s worried.
MARTINEZ : We all in the edge, the school aides, we all worry about the school budget, and we all have families.
Martinez and another school aide are hovering over two classes of kindergarteners eating lunch. Avery says small children need this attention.
AVERY: They can’t open the milk by themselves. They can’t carry trays. So we take the school aides away that means I have to come in here, Ms. Huger has to come in here, so who’s watching the building? Who’s watching instruction?
The city has already laid off more than 500 school aides this year.
Until recently, money was flowing to the city’s public schools. The boom on Wall Street and a lawsuit over state education aid resulted in billions of dollars in additional money for schools. The Bloomberg administration gave principals more control over their budgets, calling them CEO's of their buildings. Avery, who’s in her fifth year heading P.S. 273, used her money for an extra phonics program to improve early literacy.
TEACHER: The sound of the K goes Kah, Kah, Kah.
This first grade teacher added his own guitar.
Avery was a teacher for 15 years before becoming a principal and enjoys having this autonomy over her building.
AVERY: I love it. I am CEO of this building along with my cabinet, along with my staff, we make decisions as group.
But with more cuts and more responsibility some principals say the job is harder than ever. As CEO’s they’re also responsible for performance, which is tracked now through regular assessments and annual exams.
AVERY: We look at the data for weaknesses. This is a group, we see that they’re weak in this. Alright, what are we going to do? Send a group in. Change this, change that, get ‘em into technology, get ‘em into extra 40 minutes of math. It’s strategic, it’s like chess, it’s playing chess with kids’ lives and make them successful. And it’s exciting to me.
Avery says it’s working. About two thirds of the students are reading at or above the state standards now, a 20 point increase in three years. And 80 percent met the standards in math.
But Avery had to cut afterschool and Saturday classes, along with four part-time teachers who gave struggling students extra help. Guidance counselor Abbe Berger has been at P.S. 273 for 19 years. She worries the school will lose more teachers.
BERGER: Because where does it go next? It usually goes to the least senior person and that’s the new teachers. So then you collapse a class. You lose a staff member. The classes become larger, the teachers become more overwhelmed and then the children feel it.
Teachers say these children need extra support. The school’s 550 students come from the projects and lower middle class neighborhoods of East New York.
TEACHER: I’m not chasing you. AVERY: I know you want me to bring it.
As the kindergarten and first grade lunch period ends, Principal Avery deals with a mini-crisis. A boy with special needs dropped his lunch and runs out of the cafeteria. The principal walks after him with a new lunch tray.
Avery brings him into the main office and sits him down at a desk. She helps him open a plastic-wrapped peanut butter and jelly sandwich and gives him a fork for his fish fillet.
BOY: I got fish!
Avery’s goal for the year is to get 70 percent of her students meeting standards for reading and 85 percent for math.
AVERY: We’re going to continue to do it but now we don’t have the resources that we had to continue this. So more than likely, and I don’t want to put negative in the air, more than likely we’re not going to meet that goal but we still going to work very hard and diligent to try to meet this goal.
The Department of Education says it should know exactly how schools will share the 1.5 percent budget cut in January. A spokeswoman says the agency will take as much as it can from central administration. But another 4 percent cut is already being considered for next fall.--
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