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Parents Want Reading Teachers Retained

More than two dozen residents and teachers lobby the School Board during public hearing.

When Mariam Osman’s son Zak entered the first grade at Arlington Science Focus, he struggled with reading and could only name five letters.

THANKS TO daily instruction by the elementary school’s two reading specialists, Zak was reading on grade-level by the end of the year and is now one of the most highly skilled readers in his class.

This fall students at both Arlington Science Focus and Glebe Elementary School are scheduled to lose one of their two reading specialists, due to a change in the schools’ population that will cause an elimination of federal funding.

Osman was one of more than a dozen Arlington Science Focus and Glebe parents who lobbied the School Board during a budget hearing last week to provide funding to keep the reading specialists in the two schools. Each instructor earns approximately $70,000 per year.

“In a budget or more than $390 million, surely the citizens of Arlington would want this relatively small amount to be spent on such a basic and vital element of education," said Dee Doyle, whose daughter is in the fourth grade at Science Focus.

Arlington parents and teachers also urged the School Board to work to close the minority achievement gap and increase the salaries of school employees and substitute teachers.

In schools where more than 35 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch, federal Title I funding pays for an additional reading specialist. For the current school year, both Glebe and Science Focus dipped below that threshold, but the school system paid for the teachers out of its general operating fund.

This Superintendent’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2007 does not include funding for the two positions.

THE NUMBER of students eligible for free or reduced lunch actually increased at Glebe this year, but the total percentage dropped below 35 percent because of an influx of students.

During an emotional hour and a half of public testimony, parents recounted how their children’s academic skills had been enhanced by the dedication of reading specialists.

“Falling behind in something as fundamental as reading can be crippling both academically and socially,” said Laura Armstrong, a Science Focus parent.

The specialists provide daily instruction to more than 130 students at Arlington Science Focus. Parents are concerned that the program may falter if only one individual has to care for the needs of so many students.

“Eliminating one reading teacher would be detrimental to the program,” said parent Sharon Shafer. “How do we decide who gets instruction?”

Though volunteers and parents can provide some instruction, they do not have the professional experience that the teachers do, parents at the meeting said.

Others said that the board would be short-sighted not to appropriate additional funds to retain the positions, citing the long-term benefit to the children.

“If the board cuts funding for the most basic educational services, further down the road they will only have to spend more on remedial services,” said Jack Zetkulic, a parent at Long Branch Elementary School, where a reading specialist position was cut this year.

Board members said they were aware of the issue, but declined to discuss whether they would shift funding from other priorities in order to keep the two positions.

“We’re looking at it, but we won’t abandon our support for reading instruction,” School Board Chair Dave Foster said.

Members of the board said it was time to re-evaluate the school system’s policy on reading, noting that other schools besides Glebe and Science Focus need additional reading instructors.

In the coming years, hundreds of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch are expected to leave the county due to conversion of garden apartments into condos, and the escalating costs of homes in the county.

THEREFORE, other schools may soon fall below the 35 percent threshold and face the possibility of losing reading teachers.

“As the school size decreases, and the mix changes, this is an important conversation we need to have,” said School Board Vice Chair Mary Hynes. “What level of reading support do we need?”

Several speakers at the meeting called for the School Board to increase the salaries of Arlington teachers. The superintendent’s proposed budget includes a 2 percent compensation adjustment for all employees.

Of all the school districts in the region, Arlington is the only jurisdiction whose proposed cost of living increase falls below 3 percent, said Gerry Collins, president of the Arlington Education Association.

Arlington teacher Michelle Milden called on the board to raise the pay of substitute teachers, which lags behind the rate Loudoun County now pays its substitutes.

Multiple speakers discussed the school system’s goal of reducing the minority achievement gap. Beth Wolffe, chair of the Civic Federation’s Schools Committee, lauded the board for the progress made in recent years, but asked it to be more open about the county’s objective and statistics.

“If we are going to improve that pace, there should be better identification of the obstacles to our goals and better identification of the most effective means to overcome them,” she said.