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Stalling Economy Forces Pennsylvania Schools to Put Dreams on Hold

October 11, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
The weak economy is contributing to -- and magnifying the problems -- of some school districts around the United States. John Merrow, the NewsHour's special correspondent for education, reports on the problems one Pennsylvania district is facing.
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GWEN IFILL: Now, how the weak economy is contributing to — and magnifying the problems of — some school districts.

The NewsHour’s special correspondent for education, John Merrow, reports on the problems one district faces.

JOHN MERROW: Six years ago, Mifflin County, Pa., had a vision for a better high school. It would offer students an outstanding education in a state-of-the-art facility.

ROBERT POSTAL, Mifflin County Industrial Development Corporation: Oh, I was really excited when I went through that school. Everybody that went through with me was, “This is such a great place.”

JOHN MERROW: Local business leader Robert Postal hoped the school would draw businesses and revenue to the area.

ROBERT POSTAL: It’s the school, it’s the hospital, it’s other areas that show quality of life and quality of place.

JOHN MERROW: The new high school opened in August under the leadership of principal Mark Crosson.

MARK CROSSON, Mifflin County High School: The statement that we want to make to kids is that we value you. Your education is important way beyond the four years you’re with us.

JOHN MERROW: This $64 million school, including $141,000 worth of new gym equipment, was paid for with a municipal bond. It was a vote of confidence for a blue-collar industrial community that was struggling economically.

Nearly half of the district’s 5,500 students qualified for free or reduced lunch. Then the economic crisis hit. And Mifflin County, like rural school districts all across the country, had to put its ambitious dreams on hold. Almost overnight, the challenge became to make ends meet.

In Mifflin County, that job fell to its new superintendent, James Estep.

JAMES ESTEP, Mifflin County School District: Things are going to change dramatically.

JOHN MERROW: Change started with the school budget. The state cut over 12 percent from its allocation, about $4.3 million. The bond that paid for the high school wasn’t affected, but just about everything else seemed to be up for grabs.

Declining enrollment also meant fewer state dollars, giving Estep a $6.5 million deficit for the approaching year.

JAMES ESTEP: We will do what we have to do to balance the budget and still be able to offer as much as we can offer to the kids.

JOHN MERROW: In a radical and dramatic step, Estep closed five of Mifflin’s 13 schools.

JAMES ESTEP: Eighty percent of our staff had to be moved to a different building and/or grade level and/or subject.

JOHN MERROW: And the kids? A lot of kids are in different buildings.

JAMES ESTEP: Everyone has moved.

JOHN MERROW: The move has not been easy. Here at this elementary school, we found the librarian single-handedly unpacking boxes of books during the third week of school.

WOMAN: The day I came here, it was all I could do to get in the door. My goal is the 1st of October that I can get the rest of these books on the shelves.

JOHN MERROW: Are you doing all this yourself?

WOMAN: Yes.

JOHN MERROW: Debbie Himes (ph) is one of the lucky ones. She still has a job.

BRYAN PATTON, former Mifflin County teacher: I knew, if there was going to be cuts in the district, that I was going to be one of them cut.

JOHN MERROW: Bryan Patton, who caught health education in Mifflin County, was one of 33 teachers who lost their jobs.

BRYAN PATTON: I was at the bottom of the list on the seniority list. But when it actually occurred at the beginning of May, it was definitely — definitely a shock.

JOHN MERROW: You tried to get other teaching jobs.

BRYAN PATTON: I applied in other states, Virginia, West Virginia, New York. I was getting maybe one call a week. That’s with 10 hours of applying every day.

JOHN MERROW: With an estimated 280,000 teaching jobs at risk this year, that’s not surprising.

JAMES ESTEP: I feel terrible. Can I sleep at night with the decision? Yes, because I feel, to a great degree, things beyond their control and mine have led to this.

JOHN MERROW: In August, Bryan finally found a job as a sales manager of a new Verizon store in Lewistown.

Is there a part of you that wishes you were teaching?

BRYAN PATTON: I mean, yes. That’s where my heart is. But I truly appreciate where I’m at now.

MAN: Let’s open our books to…

JOHN MERROW: Fewer teachers means larger classes, on average, seven to 10 more students per class.

PEGGY FISHER, Mifflin County School District: You’re teaching to 30 kids. And even a couple of them need additional attention, and the level of skill is very different. So as a teacher, you want to teach so that the higher kids get what they need, but you can’t ignore the lower kids, no child left behind. So, what does a teacher do? They’re overwhelmed.

JOHN MERROW: Peggy Fisher has been teaching for nine years after a long career as a computer programmer.

PEGGY FISHER: So if you go to the numbers, numbers is where you can do the — the pick random.

I teach Web design and I teach programming. So this year, the kids are going to learn about how to program, how to design, how to analyze a problem.

And we’re going to set that to the X-value, because, remember, X goes across. You got it. You got it. Good, good, good, good.

JOHN MERROW: Fisher may have a job, but she can no longer teach all the classes she’d like to, like advanced placement computer science.

PEGGY FISHER: According to the numbers, we only had 13 people signed up, which is still a lot for an AP class. We needed 15. And so they made us cancel the class.

JOHN MERROW: Courses have been cut all across the district, including 25 percent of the high school AP classes. Although many new AP classes are now being offered online, students must pay $700 per class per year. For some, that’s not an option.

DAVID EBERLY, Mifflin County School District: I’m going into agricultural engineering. So, the courses that would be very helpful would be the computer science and the physics and things like that. But they just weren’t available.

JARED STRUFFT, Mifflin County School District: I’m a little angry. I’m really angry actually about it, because, like I said, I mean, I’m going to be way behind all the other students in my college classes. I’m collectively forgetting all the things I learned in physics one.

JOHN MERROW: As bad as the cuts may be, Superintendent Estep says they could have been worse.

JAMES ESTEP: We were very seriously going to have to consider whether or not we could continue to operate full-day kindergarten, whether we could continue to offer elementary art, music and phys ed.

JOHN MERROW: Could they be worse next year?

JAMES ESTEP: Every reading that I get is that, for the next several years, we are going to have to do either the same with less or more with less, depending on our choice. And the only way that I know of to do more with less is to fundamentally change how you do things.

We’re doing more and more with technology in the public schools. Maybe there’s more opportunities for blended learning, where we’re combining the use of online or distance learning, coupled with traditional face-to-face. It’s not hard to see where I know we want to go. It’s hard to see how we’re going to get there. It’s new territory for sure.

JOHN MERROW: It’s probably no consolation to Estep and Mifflin County, but most of the nation’s 14,000 school districts are living with the same uncertainty.