AT Public School 308 in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, mornings officially begin with an address to teachers and students by the school’s tall and commanding principal, Gail Bell-Baptiste.
One morning this month, recent attendance figures were announced, teachers were reminded that “we are preparing for something magnificent here, the magnificent lives of these young people,” and students were invited to buy Valentine’s Day Candygrams from the chess club.
Back in her cluttered office, Dr. Bell-Baptiste reflected on a less cheerful aspect of her job: having to perform emergency midyear surgery on her school’s budget. The hard choices she made illustrate the ground-level impact of a $180 million cut in the citywide system’s annual operating budget of $10.3 billion, excluding teachers’ salaries.
“Principals are livid about this,” Dr. Bell-Baptiste said. “How can they cut our budget in February after we’ve already made our plans for the year?”
On Jan. 31, principals at public schools received an e-mail message from the city’s Department of Education ordering them to cut 1.75 percent from their operating and programming budget. By the next day, the money had disappeared from the schools’ online budgets, forcing administrators to make immediate decisions about whom to let go and which programs to drop.
The cut followed a $324 million cut the mayor announced for next year’s school budgets. The earlier cut was part of broad-based budget reductions that Mayor Bloomberg attributed to the city’s worsening economy and that affected every city agency.
P.S. 308, which is on Quincy Street near Malcolm X Boulevard, may turn out to be one of the luckier schools, in that Dr. Bell-Baptiste was able to trim the required $108,000 from the budget without firing anyone or cutting after-school programs. The school did, however, lose four teacher’s aides, who had to be transferred immediately to other schools. As a result, the student-teacher ratio in four classes has doubled.
Class sizes will also climb because of the disbanding of an early childhood “bridge” class that many parents prized, a mix of 16 kindergarten and first-grade students.
“Not all kids go to kindergarten; my daughter didn’t,” said Natira Kinsey, who has a son in kindergarten and a daughter in first grade. “That bridge class really helps some first graders play catch-up. It’s important for their self-esteem. Now those kids have to start all over in a new class.”
With a student body of more than 800 children that draws overwhelmingly from low-income families, P.S. 308 has been hailed by www.insideschools.org, a nonprofit Web site that evaluates city schools, as one of the top kindergarten-through-eighth-grade schools in the district, and in the top third citywide.
As with many other schools that succeed at educating children from low-income families, its success appears rooted in a combination of dedicated teachers, involved parents, and enriching field trips and after-school and weekend programs.
At P.S. 308 these programs were spared this year, but they may be next on the chopping block.
And like many an educator, Dr. Bell-Baptiste cautions that morale can be another casualty of budget cuts. “Some of my younger colleagues, newer principals and teachers, they just can’t believe it,” she said. “I’ve been around so I have thick skin, but one of my youngest teachers was in tears.”