Potential cuts to programs for gifted students and teen parents in the public school system drew 30 people out to speak before the Arlington School Board on Thursday night.
Arlington Public Schools Superintendent Pat Murphy's $520.4 million proposed budget cuts about 62 positions from the school system, including gifted services teachers at all three high schools and more than 14 positions from the teen parenting program.
The cuts are among nearly $8 million in reductions Murphy has proposed to balance the school's spending plan for next fiscal year, which begins July 1.
The majority of Thursday night's speakers were teachers, parents and students who extolled the benefits of having a gifted services teacher at Wakefield, Washington-Lee or Yorktown high schools.
By graduation, about one in four Arlington Public Schools students have been identified as needing gifted services in one or more academic areas or in the fine arts, according to a Feb. 1 memo from the school system's Gifted Services Advisory Committee.
Students talked about working with their gifted services teacher to identify and successfully apply to internships and summer learning opportunities. They talked about getting help for everything from science fairs to college applications.
"The gifted program and gifted teachers play a crucial role in our lives," said Sam Douthit, a junior at Washington-Lee High School. "While some may have the good fortune of a trusted adult … many, especially in disadvantaged communities, do not. This will diminish their ability to succeed."
Several speakers labeled gifted students as "special-needs" — that is, needing extra resources in order to fulfill their academic potential.
"I would like to remind everyone that we live in Arlington, Virginia, not Arlington, Texas — and please, don't take us there," said Russ Stemler, a Swanson Middle School parent.
Another parent complained that the school system offered opportunities to children at the "lower-end" but not as many to address the needs of the "higher-end."
Several speakers said Arlington Pubic Schools' gifted programs helped identify leaders among minority students, profoundly changing their lives.
"We are Arlington Public Schools. We are one of this nation's best educational systems for a reason," said Richard Tan, a junior at Wakefield High School.
Consolidating Teen Parenting
Murphy's budget also consolidates the school system's teen parenting programs to the Arlington Career Center on Walter Reed Drive, resulting in the reduction of about 14 positions and a 4-percent reduction to materials, supplies and equipment.
Elizabeth Gibbon, who teaches English in the teen parenting program, asked the board to cut fat from other programs or postpone changes instead.
"Arlington Public Schools' strength has long rested in looking at students as flesh-and-blood human beings — not numbers," she said. "I fear for the future if we are willing to throw away the instructional components of a program that has proved successful for our most vulnerable students."
Sally Brady, a member of the school system's Family and Consumer Sciences Advisory Committee, talked about the importance of keep young mothers in a safe and nurturing environment in order to help them become strong parents as adults.
"These girls are much more fragile than the general population," she said.
Karla Vasquez, who has benefited from the program, said when she enrolled she watched the interest in her education and her future grow and began to believe that she could succeed.
"I believe that without the years of support I received at the school, I would not be the person I am today," she said.
School board members will present their own budget next month. Chairwoman Emma Violand-Sanchez said she would be looking closely at the budget to see if cuts elsewhere — for technology upgrades, perhaps, or maybe to the school's residency verification program — might allow the board to restore some of the positions that have been proposed to be eliminated.
Two parents asked the board to implement Foreign Language in Elementary Schools, or FLES, at Tuckahoe. Tuckahoe is one of nine elementary schools that does not have the program. FLES is included in Murphy's budget as an "unfunded investment" — something he believes should be funded if dollars become available.
"It's going to be difficult this year," said school board member Noah Simon, citing the challenges presented by increased enrollment.
The school board will hold a public hearing on its proposed budget April 18.
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