Chapter I pinch forces harsh choices on schools


Dozens of Baltimore elementary schools are reeling from the loss of nearly $3.5 million in federal funds that, up until this school year, paid for classroom tutors, field trips and other assistance for low-income students with academic problems.

Known as "Chapter I," the popular federal program has a loyal following among parents who see it as an important way to supplement the school system's chronic staff and resource shortages.

Though the entire program hasn't been cut back, school officials have decided to concentrate the $50 million in federal money in 79 of the city's most poverty-stricken schools. That meant dropping 33 other schools that failed to meet tough new poverty guidelines.

The change illustrates the harsh choices school officials face in distributing their scarce resources.

"It becomes a kind of educational 'triage' -- who do you save?" says Dr. Samuel L. Banks, who oversees Chapter I and other compensatory education programs. "In terms of fundamental fairness, you have to go to those who have the greatest need."

But some parents say the school system is hurting children with serious academic problems in its zeal to help the economically neediest.

"If you're in a much poorer neighborhood . . . you're going to have more resources at that school," says Howard Rollins, vice president of the Parent-Teacher Organization at Yorkwood Elementary School in Northeast Baltimore, which lost $137,833 in funding this year. "If you're in a working-class neighborhood, your kids are working with much less."

As a result, he warns, "the city is running the risk of having these families flee out of the city."

The matter boils down to a debate over how the city can best spend federal aid aimed at helping low-income elementary school students who perform below grade level.

At issue is Chapter I, a federal program that dates to 1965 and last school year served 112 of the city's 122 elementary schools, along with 38 non-public schools.

Chapter I money pays for extra teachers, classroom materials and other sorely needed services in the city's cash-strapped system. This year, the program will offer services to nearly 24,000 students.

In order to qualify, however, schools must have a certain percentage of low-income students. To measure that, the school system tallies the number of students qualifying for the free-meal program.

Formerly, a school was eligible for some Chapter I money if at least 25 percent of its students had a family income low enough to qualify for the free-meal program.

But in 1990, the school system proposed a change. It cited

research suggesting that the Chapter I money was being spread too thinly to help students with the most severe academic problems.

Instead, school officials decided to concentrate the money in schools whose students are neediest economically. It defined those as the schools where the number of students qualifying for free meals matched the citywide average, which is 62.4 percent this year.

All but two rural school systems in the state currently use a similar yardstick in allocating their Chapter I funds. But the proposed change drew fierce opposition from Baltimore parents and politicians who said it unfairly cut many needy schools.

After much debate, the new policy went into effect in Baltimore this school year -- forcing out of the Chapter I program 5,000 students and one-third of the participating schools.

School officials, though sympathetic, say the change will make the program more effective.

"Concentrate your resources"

"The best way to do it is to concentrate your resources, rather than spreading it out," says Lillian Gonzalez, deputy superintendent in charge of instruction. "It was a hard decision, but one we had to make."

Last year, for example, most Chapter I schools were allowed to use their money only for those students in pre-kindergarten through second grade who had the most serious math and reading problems.

But this year, every student at 36 elementary schools -- about 13,000 children in all -- will be eligible for the highest level of Chapter I service, some $1,800 per pupil. Last year, 6,000 received the maximum level of service at 16 schools.

School officials concede that many children with academic problems will go unserved simply because they attend schools that don't meet the new, low-income yardstick.

"The monies have to go where the needs are greatest," says Dr. Banks. "It's a painful dilemma, to be sure, but you still have to make a decision. . . . You have to teach those most in need."

Officials have tried to soften the blow. For example, the system is using state funds to maintain pre-kindergarten programs at schools that lost Chapter I money and will help recruit and train parent volunteers and student teachers to compensate for the loss of tutors.

But the schools that lost funding already have begun to feel the pinch.

Hardest hit was Beechfield Elementary School in Southwest Baltimore, a 1,200-student school that lost $623,968 in Chapter I funds.

That money paid for a full-time counselor, five full-time tutors, seven part-time tutors and a parent liaison, along with money for field trips and other cultural events.

As of last spring, nearly half the students at the school qualified for Chapter I services because of their low math and reading scores.

Teachers say the loss of tutors will make it harder to give individual attention to poorly performing pupils in crowded classes.

"They're not going to get the additional help that they need," says Deborah Dixon, a veteran teacher at Beechfield. "We're going to have to rely a lot on parents, a lot on the community."

She takes issue with claims that the program was spread too thinly in the past to be effective.

"The effect of the program has been fantastic," she says. "I understand their thinking about the neediest schools, but it benefits all the students."

"We all have choices"

And some parents complain that their children are being penalized because their families aren't poor enough.

"They cannot believe it's just based on income and not the children's educational needs," says Linda Chance, president of the Parent Teacher Association at Beechfield. "They feel now their child is not going to progress as he or she should."

That could actually drive some families from the city, warns Mr. Rollins, the Lakewood PTO official.

"We all have choices," he says. "If they don't feel that they're treated with some kind of respect and dignity with regard to their children's education, they're going to start fleeing out."

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