BY JULIA DUIN — Hyattsville Elementary School is facing the loss of five crucial staff after the school’s Title 1 status was removed earlier this year, reducing its budget by $200,000.
To receive Title 1 funds, 75 percent of a school’s students must be from families whose income qualifies them for free or reduced-priced meals in the school cafeteria. This year, that percentage dipped to 73.4 percent, barely missing the cut-off. The school’s free breakfast program will not be affected by the reduction.
Among the five positions to be cut is the bilingual parent liaison, Cecilia Penate. Of 511 enrolled students, 150 take English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes. And 48 percent of school families are Spanish-speaking.
Anguished Spanish-speaking parents protested the loss during an early afternoon PTA meeting on March 6. Several rose to say how much they would miss Penate, the only bilingual employee in the school office. She is constantly called on to translate conversations between parents and staff, the newsletter, various notices and even students’ homework. Hers is the voice parents hear on automatic phone calls relaying school announcements.
Four other staff, on the reading intervention team, will lose their jobs as well: Karen Stanford, who is also the school’s web master and edits the electronic sign on 43rd Avenue; Nick Richards, the technology coordinator; Johnette Boden, who works with kindergarten readers; and Leslie Marks, another reading specialist.
School officials have been researching how they can fund the five salaries through other grants, but so far nothing has come up. Some parents are coordinating a letter-writing campaign that will ask the county to step in.
“In a county with a growing Hispanic population, this [bilingual] position should be standard, not something that can only come from Title 1 funds,” said PTA officer Candace Hollingsworth.
A representative at the school district’s Title 1 office said that the federal program mandates a cutoff at the 75 percent mark. Schools that fall below that mark – no matter how infinitesimally – cannot get funding.
Another such school is the 385-student Princeton Elementary in Suitland, whose ratio is 73.2 percent. It stands to lose close to $300,000 in Title 1 funds next year, says its principal, Henina Bunch.
“There’s nothing we can do to make up that much money,” Bunch said, adding that the amount pays for four positions. “But we’re not going to allow money to discourage us from educating our children.”
But the school district appears to have quite a bit of leeway on how Title 1 funds are spent. According to a policy brief written last June by the D.C.-based Alliance for Excellent Education, districts can hand out Title 1 funds to schools with poverty levels as low as 35 percent. And those levels can be calculated by any of several formulas besides the school lunch counts.
Principal Jeanne Washburn says that when she arrived eight years ago, 69 percent of the student body qualified for the program – and yet the school was receiving the money, as it has done every year since.
The school district has held to the 75 percent mark only recently because of the failing economy, which has thrown many families into poverty status. That in turn has made more schools eligible for Title 1. Last year, the federal government made cuts to Title 1 funds, making less money available for an increasing number of schools.
The poor economy may have worked against Hyattsville Elementary because middle-income families that might have sent their children to private school are sending them to HES, lowering the school’s poverty percentage.
“We’re getting wealthier people, but we’re still getting a lot of people who qualify [for Title 1],” Washburn said.
Prince George’s County has 48 Title 1 schools this year. Neighboring counties Montgomery and Howard have 25 and six, respectively.
Julia Duin is the mother of a kindergartener at Hyattsville Elementary. Parents wishing to express their concerns to the school district can call Andrea Phillips-Hughs at 301.618.8390 at the Title 1 office. They can also email Amber Waller, the school board member for District 3 at firstname.lastname@example.org.