Students graduating from high school this spring may be collecting their diplomas just in time, leaving institutions that are being badly weakened by the nation's economic downturn.
Across the country, mass layoffs of teachers, counselors and other staff members — caused in part by the drying up of federal stimulus dollars — are leading to larger classes and reductions in everything that is not a core subject, including music, art, clubs, sports and other after-school activities.
Educators and others worry the cuts could lead to higher dropout rates and lower college attendance as students receive less guidance and become less engaged in school. They fear a generation of young people could be left behind.
"It's going to be harder for everybody to get an opportunity to get into college," said Chelsea Braza, a 16-year-old sophomore at Silver Creek High School in San Jose. "People wouldn't be as motivated to do anything in school because there's no activities and there's no involvement."
The library at Silver Creek High is open for only an hour a day. The career center is closed. There is no more summer school. And student athletes must pay $200 each.
State budget cuts will make things even worse next year. The school will probably have five fewer classroom days and lose three of its four guidance counselors and three of its four custodians, as well as its health aide, mental health coordinator and student activities director. The future of student government, clubs, pep rallies, homecoming and prom is in doubt.
The federal government's $787 billion economic stimulus package saved an estimated 300,000 education jobs for this year, but many of those positions are once again in jeopardy as that money dries up.
"Literally tens of millions of students will experience these budget cuts in one way or another," said Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who is urging Congress to provide another round of emergency funding for schools. "If we do not help avert this state and local budget crisis, we could impede reform and fail another generation of children."
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, has introduced legislation that would create a $23 billion fund to help schools retain teachers, principals and other staff members. The fate of the bill is uncertain.
The American Association of School Administrators estimates that 275,000 education jobs will be cut in the coming school year, based on an April survey. Other AASA surveys found that 52 percent of administrators plan to cut extracurricular activities, and 51 percent are reducing elective courses not required for graduation.
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system in North Carolina, which cut $90 million last school year, plans to slice off an additional $78 million and eliminate more than 1,000 positions, including almost 650 teachers. The district will cut its middle school sports teams next year, and schools are cutting electives such as German and creative writing, Superintendent Peter Gorman said.
"I'm very concerned when we can't offer those courses which hook an individual student to pursue their passion, or what could be their life's vocation," Gorman said.
In the Tupper Lake Central Schools in New York, the rural district in the Adirondacks will lose 25 percent of its instructional staff in the upcoming school year, which will probably result in bigger classes and the elimination of electives such as photography, modern art and ceramics, said Superintendent Seth McGowan.
"It seriously compromises the depth of the education our students will be receiving," he said.
In Illinois, more than 20,000 jobs in schools — including an estimated 12,600 teachers and administrators — will be lost next school year, said Brent Clark, executive director of the Illinois Association of School Administrators.
South Florida's Broward County, the nation's sixth-largest school district, could lay off 800 to 1,000 teachers because of a $130 million budget shortfall. Officials are trying to figure out how to save sports and electives, considering options like sharing an art teacher between schools.
California's relentless budget crisis is taking its toll on schools like Silver Creek High, part of San Jose's East Side Union High School District, which is seeking to slash an additional 10 percent from its $200 million budget.
Over the past two years, the district, which has 12 campuses and 25,000 students, has eliminated more than 450 full-time positions, including nearly 200 teachers and certified staff, said Assistant Superintendent Cathy Giammona.
Class sizes have swelled to an average of 35 students, with more than 40 crammed into AP Calculus sections. And schools in the district won't offer any courses unless they are fully enrolled, leading to cuts in electives such as photography, business, woodworking and Japanese.
Silver Creek High senior Anthony Chavez, who credits his counselors with helping him win a scholarship to the University of California at Berkeley, said he worries that students won't get the same opportunities with just one counselor for more than 2,400 students.
"Through my four years here my counselors helped me with everything. I'm the first generation in my family to go to college," he said. "I didn't even know what SATs were."
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