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Advisory Committees Submit Requests to School Board

Residents ask for more math specialists, laptop computers and services for children with special needs.

Six citizen advisory committees submitted recommendations to the School Board last week, asking for more math specialists at elementary schools, additional laptops for middle school and high school science classrooms and greater funding for students with special needs.

As the School Board puts together the final touches on the fiscal year 2007 budget, the members heard pleas for funding for 27 new initiatives from six committees of the Advisory Council on Instruction.

DUE TO a total increase in county revenue, the school system learned last week that it will receive an additional $1.64 million for the upcoming budget, to be approved on Thursday.

More than $1.5 million of the new money will go toward the capital reserve fund, with the remaining portion supplementing the inaugural Chinese and Arabic course program and providing for a principal’s assistant at Arlington Science Focus Elementary School, Superintendent Robert Smith said.

The mathematics advisory committee beseeched the five School Board members during its April 27 meeting to supply each elementary school with a full-time math specialist to augment the work of regular classroom teachers.

Currently, 11 such specialists, called math instruction resource teachers, serve 13 of Arlington’s 22 elementary schools. The specialists supply model lessons to teachers, tutor students who are struggling with math and provide additional enrichment to advanced students.

"They empower teachers to deliver high quality math instruction," said Geraldine Oliveto, a member of the mathematics advisory committee. "They are a wonderful resource for the teachers."

Oliveto decried the inequality in the school system, asking board members why it was possible that some students could benefit from the services of the specialists while others were deprived of their assistance.

THE MATH advisory committee also requested that a math acceleration program be introduced countywide, rather than at just the seven elementary schools where it is now offered. The program exposes students to a year and half of the math curriculum in a single academic year.

While School Board members agreed that there is a disparity between the way mathematics is taught in the different schools, they were lukewarm to the committee’s recommendation of adding specialists to each school.

School Board Vice Chair Mary Hynes called the issue of teacher specialists "a vexing problem," but implied that the board had yet to reach consensus on funding the positions.

"We are conflicted about how to move forward in a context of declining enrollment," Hynes said. "I understand people are frustrated with us.’

Since Arlington elementary schools vary in size, School Board Chairman Dave Foster said it did not make sense for each school to have a specialist work the same number of hours.

Hynes also questioned why a specialist would need to remain in one school for long durations. "If we’ve invested six years of intensive on-site development, do we have to keep investing on that level in the building forever?" she asked.

The science advisory committee urged the board to provide middle and high school science classrooms with new laptop computers in order for students to fully take advantage of educational software and teaching techniques.

While science teachers may need computers for week-long experiments, they currently have to share the few available laptops with teachers from other disciplines, said Aaron Manka, co-chair of the science advisory committee.

"Computers are to the science lab and classroom what the microscope was 40 years ago," Manka said.

Without the aid of computers, teachers are unable to maximize the software that comes with expensive science textbooks, putting students at a disadvantage, Manka added.

The committee estimates that each of the county’s 100 science teachers would need six computers for their class. Each laptop would have a shelf life of five years, and the total yearly cost to the school system would be nearly $130,000.

Representatives of the special education committee lobbied board members for funding for a variety of programs to aid those with disabilities or special needs.

In the upcoming 2007 budget the School Board approved four special education buses, ensuring those students would not have to take long trips to school or be forced to transfer vehicles. This was one of the committee’s leading recommendations.

COMMITTEE member Donna Budway asked the board to implement training for all staff members to learn how to better work with and relate to students with disabilities. "We hear from parents that staff need to be trained on these particular issues," Budway said.

Other funding recommendations included requiring each school to teach a social skills course, further partnering with the county to provide intensive transition services and developing an expert within the school system to advise students grappling with mental illness.

School Board member Ed Fendley said that the Arlington schools must bolster its support for students with disabilities.

"We all as a community are going to benefit by doing a better job of helping every one of these kids to employ their skills and their potential," Fendley said.