When School Budget Is Starved, Challenging Courses Are Frills
The New York Times, Sept. 22, 2004
by Samuel G. Freedman

Several minutes into the first morning of the new school year at Midwood High School in Brooklyn, Olga Pikovskaya looked with dawning alarm at the computer printout showing her academic schedule. She had only four classes, and one of those was gym. Nowhere on the sheet were advanced placement French, orchestra, medieval literature -- all courses for which she had registered.

Entering her senior year first in her class, owner of a 98.71 average, Olga had signed up for such a rigorous regimen partly because she loved the French language and classical violin and partly because she knew that elite colleges expected it of applicants. Instead, in the very semester she would be seeking admission to the Ivy League, she had half a day for lunch.

Around Olga in Room 404, the homeroom for 40 of Midwood's top students, rose the groans and gripes of disbelief. Genna Ableman, the second-ranking senior, saw that she hadn't gotten A.P. physics. Others had been denied A.P. statistics. Fully 27 of the pupils had received only four classes a day.

Someone ran to find Laurie Gelles, the school's college counselor. She reached Room 404 with sleepless, tearful eyes. The schedules were not mistaken, she told the students; the budget cuts had been worse than expected. The best she could offer was to write an official letter to accompany the students' college applications, explaining that the curiously thin schedules were not their fault.

What happened in Midwood High on the morning of Sept. 13 -- what may well affect the futures of some of the most accomplished students in New York City's public schools -- is the human face of all those eye-glazing disquisitions about school finance. In the last two years at Midwood, budget cuts have meant halting an SAT-prep program for nearly 1,500 pupils; eliminating weekend sessions for immigrant students learning English; not replacing guidance counselors, deans and teachers on sabbatical; and dropping or curtailing advanced placement classes with enrollments as high as 110.

All this has befallen a school that ought to be celebrated as one of the city's educational success stories. Some 12,000 students applied last year for roughly 1,000 places in Midwood's freshman class; more than half of those aspirants sought places specifically in the school's accelerated programs in humanities and medical science. Many knew that since 1990 Midwood had produced more than 130 semifinalists in the national Intel science competition.

"It boggles the mind," said Fern Bren, the assistant principal for guidance. "We are an example of success and what works. Why are they looking to hurt us?"

Genna Ableman, not easily dissuaded, wrote directly to Chancellor Joel I. Klein. "You look to us to push ourselves to our potential and achieve as much as we can academically," the letter read in part. "You have always espoused the inclusion of challenging opportunities for the top students, as well as providing more help for those students in need of remedial courses." The letter continued, "Money is constantly problematic in public education, but why should budget cuts disproportionately hinder some of the more successful students and schools?"

Midwood's dilemma actually starts in Albany, with a State Legislature that has chronically underfinanced New York's public schools and proven incapable of rectifying the inequity even under a State Supreme Court order. This year, the Legislature passed the state budget at the latest date in history -- Aug. 12, more than four months behind schedule -- meaning that the city's Department of Education could not give firm, reliable allocations to principals for their respective schools in time for opening.

Within an overall arena of limited resources, however, the effort by Chancellor Klein to open 200 mini-schools has meant reducing per pupil overhead payments to some established larger schools like Midwood, which has 3,700 students. In the longer term, department officials maintain, the small schools will prove financially efficient by having leaner administrative staffs and higher graduation rates than big conventional high schools.

Whether or not that prognosis proves true over time, the temporal reality is that Midwood has taken cuts of about 7 percent last year and 4 percent this year on its annual budget, which is $15.1 million. The principal, Steve Zwisohn, puts the current deficit at $474,000, while Bruce Feig, the chief financial officer of the Education Department, calculates it at $323,000.

As a practical consequence, Mr. Zwisohn gave priority to offering courses that fulfill graduation requirements. Doing so meant that, even though Midwood operates on a 12-period day, no pupil was permitted to take more than seven periods of class.

At one end of the academic spectrum, the school did away with the extra remedial classes it formerly offered on weekends, because there was not enough money to pay teachers. At the other end, it reduced many of the advanced placement classes that required double periods and were not required for graduation, even though they are considered essential for admission to leading colleges.

"It's why these kids came here in the first place," Mr. Zwisohn said of Midwood's special curriculums in humanities and medical science. "They want to get into the best universities. They want to be intellectually challenged. But unfortunately, these are the luxury classes, not the requirements. And this budget prevents us from doing luxuries, no matter how valuable they are."

Postscript: As money from the belated state budget has reached the Department of Education's coffers, Mr. Feig, in turn, has authorized the release of about $250,000 to Midwood later this week. Nobody should think that the infusion, however welcome, alters the larger picture, or even aspects of the smaller one. It will be too late to restore all the classes Olga Pikovskaya, Genna Ableman and their classmates in Room 404 were counting on taking this fall.

Meanwhile, a panel of three court-appointed referees still must devise a new, presumably fairer formula for state aid. "If we get sufficient funds," Mr. Feig said, "then this year will be an anomaly. If we don't, then in our budget, like any budget, you have to balance competing needs."

It is worth remembering that the word he used was not "wants," but "needs."

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