Two of Harford's neediest elementary schools fear they'll soon lose a federal program designed to help poor children keep up with their classmates.
The Chapter 1 program, which provides money for poor children at 12 county schools, likely will be dropped from Darlington and North Harford because of a cut of nearly $400,000, or about 15 percent, in federal funding for Harford, said Doris E. Carey, county supervisor of federal programs.
"This program is going into cardiac arrest," George Lisby, a school board member, said at a Monday night work session. Two other schools, Meadowvale and Dublin, could lose Chapter 1 money next year, he said.
The program, which reaches about 1,800 county children, costs about $2.9 million annually. In the next fiscal year, which starts July 1, the program will have only $2.7 million available, including money carried over from this fiscal year.
Some money carried over will help cushion the blow next fiscal year, Mr. Lisby said. But no money will be available to carry over into the following fiscal year, he said.
Chapter 1 programs include Reach, designed to improve reading skills in the first and second grades, a Home Visitors Program to get parents involved in their child's education, and a Parents Literacy program for parents who cannot read.
Susan Osborn, Darlington Elementary's principal, said that losing Chapter 1 could mean the loss of two full-time instructional assistants.
"Our concern is that even though we are a small school, we have a high percentage of 'at-risk' children. And if the Chapter 1
program is pulled, these children will not get that extra help in the classroom," she said.
Of the school's 160 children, about 36 participate in the Chapter 1 program, she said.
With the latest spending cuts, the county can afford to give Chapter 1 money to only 11 schools, Mrs. Carey said. A final decision on which schools keep or lose Chapter 1 money rests with the school board, which is expected to vote June 14.
Most of the Chapter 1 money, about $1,300 per child annually, is used to hire instructional assistants and some teachers, who work with children in regular classrooms.
Mrs. Carey said federal law mandates that Chapter 1 money be distributed to schools according to need, measured by the number of children receiving free or reduced-rate lunches. Countywide, an average of 16.4 percent of children received free or reduced-rate lunches. To qualify under federal guidelines for these lunches, a family with one child would have to make $8,600 a year or less.
At Joppatowne Elementary, which has never received Chapter 1 money, the number of children receiving free or reduced-rate lunches has grown to 21 percent this year, compared with about 20 percent at Darlington and 19 percent at North Harford.
Thus, the school system must add Joppatowne, even if that means cutting Darlington and North Harford from the program, Mrs. Carey said.
Once a school is selected, children are targeted for the program if their scores on state comprehensive tests fall in the lowest 22 percent of those who take the tests.
Next school year, county schools will be about $235,000 short of reaching the children at all 13 schools, including Joppatowne, officials say.
Mrs. Carey said Harford lost the $400,000 because, according to the 1990 Census, "Maryland is no longer a poor state, and Harford County is no longer a poor county."
The 15 people who make up the advisory board on the Chapter 1 project, which includes representatives from North Harford and Darlington, had voted unanimously to drop the two schools.
Trying to stretch the money to cover 13 schools would dilute the program's effectiveness considerably, hurting the children it targets, Mrs. Carey said.
"We looked at everything we could. Schools do not want to be cut from the program, but there is no other alternative," she added.
Ronald E. Friend, chief of the compensatory education branch for the Maryland Department of Education, said school systems across the state are facing the same decision -- and the same 15 percent cut to their Chapter 1 funding.
"We are encouraging school systems to concentrate their funds at the schools that need them the most," he said. "It's a difficult decision."
Mrs. Carey said the program has already been stretched to the point that it is serving only the children most in need. "We should be reaching the children who just need a little help to stay up with their peers," she added, "but we can't afford that."
Teachers had also asked for more Chapter 1 money to update supplies, equipment, books and programs. Their requests total about $674,000, but only $203,453 in Chapter 1 money is available.
"Chapter 1 teachers are asking for basics, like more computers orlibrary materials for children," Mrs. Carey said. "At Havre de Grace Elementary, the dictionary is from the 1960s. It is torn and falling apart."
Ron Eaton and Keith Williams, school board members, said they wanted to look for other sources of income to make up for the shortfall.
Mr. Eaton said reaching children from the poorest homes pays off because it helps keep students from lagging behind in schoolwork and getting into trouble.
"Many of the kids that come before us because of expulsions or long-term suspensions are here because they come from dysfunctional families, and here is a program that targets kids from just such families," he said.
"There has got to be something else we can cut."