State

Education's budget crisis in the eyes of a student, teacher and principal

Downey High School senior Jenna Meyers has made defending the arts her main priority as budget cuts have come into the forefront over the past four years.

"I've been worried about music getting cut, but apparently Superintendent (Arturo) Flores said that won't get cut, so that's good. I'm worried about other things getting cut, like dance, because the teacher at my school is new."

Meyers' perspective has been molded because of her involvement in the Downey High School choir program, which became a staple of her high school experience.

"A lot of my friends wouldn't be at school junior or senior year if they didn't have something like choir to keep them there," she said. "It's experiences like being in choir that lead you to make decisions that impact the rest of your life."

She also expressed her fear that programs will get cut after she graduates in June, and the worry she faces that some future students will not get to experience the same type of "safe haven" and tight-knit community that she enjoyed because of choir. Arts electives have been fundamental to Meyers' education.

"I think education is learning things that you want to learn, and what you're going to do the rest of your life, and if you don't find those things, it's kind of pointless," she said.

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Kerry Castellani has been a teacher at Modesto High School for 13 years. With the impending budget cuts, she admits that her biggest fears are that class sizes will be increased, especially in K-3 classes, and that younger teachers will be laid off.

"I think that I would rather have a reasonable salary cut," Castellani said. "Most teachers are willing to save programs and layoffs (in exchange for pay cuts)."

However, she added that pay cuts can be accepted only to an extent. "There's a certain point when they cut our pay that we begin to feel that they're devaluing us, and that we're worthless," she said.

She also mentions that often, students don't realize the impact of larger class sizes, as it prevents personalization in class and more feedback on papers and other assignments. If this service is reduced in elementary classes, the impact will be even greater.

Castellani believes that if there were more two-way communication between district administrators and the schools, there would be less outrage over budget cuts.

"The district office needs to make more clear what they're cutting and what they're willing to give up. It's hard for me to say they're cutting so much, but I don't even know what they're really cutting."

Castellani speculated that classrooms may differ in the coming years because increased class sizes will affect the students' relationship with the teacher and the personalization of learning.

"I think that the goal of education is to prepare students for their life, and I think there are different ways for that," she said. "I think that that's reading, writing and arithmetic, but I also think that it's teaching students to make good decisions. I don't think it's going to get lost; I think it may get harder with cuts, but we're going to do our best to keep that goal no matter what."

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At Downey High School, Principal Mike Henderson faces the budget issue from an administrative perspective.

He said the school districts and teachers still are in negotiation regarding what exactly will be cut, and exactly how much will be cut will be determined in May, when the governor's office will release a revision to its January budget.

Most decisions the district makes are based upon the ideas from school staff and community in public forums and surveys. He also said that both budget decisions and enrollment numbers contribute to the amount of faculty or programs that will be cut. Henderson is optimistic for fewer cuts in the coming years.

"Based on next year's number, our enrollment is stabilizing and we aren't seeing the reductions we did in the last two years," he said.

However, he said it is difficult to maintain many programs with the constant budget cuts, which are caused by how the state funds education, the amount of per-pupil spending and "some of the accounting maneuvers the state makes, which paralyze school districts."

Henderson also acknowledged the potential negative impact that the cuts have on students, though he hopes that cutting programs will not begin to contribute to that.

"Students were affected when layoff notifications went out to some teachers," he said. "I think students are impacted in that there has been a raised level of awareness, concern and anxiety about the overall budget news they've been hearing about.

"Our goal is to prepare students to be informed, productive citizens and to prepare them to have the skills and tools they need to be successful in whatever post-secondary option they choose. The economic and budgetary times we are going through now are unprecedented. It would be short-sighted to say that the budget situation hasn't caused an unusual level of anxiety or been a significant distraction. However, at Downey, my experience is that our students are incredibly resilient, and our teachers and staff members have pulled together to weather the storm in a focused, unified manner."

Finally, Henderson hopes that students understand the importance they have in preventing many cuts by doing simple things such as attending school and contacting representatives.

"When I was in school, a teacher once told me, 'If you're not bleeding, throwing up or have a 100-plus temperature, you will be in school.' The spirit of the rule makes the point," he said. "The difference in attendance for a school and district can be tens of thousands -- and over time -- millions of dollars. Second, I would encourage students and parents to contact their local and state political representatives to voice their concern about cuts to education."

Victoria Pardini is a senior at Modesto High School and a member of The Bee's Teens in the Newsroom program.

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