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Back to school with less

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I still vividly remember all those days back in winter, walking to my second-period Spanish class. Instead of going into the unheated trailer where our class usually meets, we met in the back of my Durham middle school's auditorium for the entire winter.

Unfortunately, my classmates and I fared no better there than we would have in the rickety old trailer we had to evacuate. All we could do was sit around and shiver in long-sleeved shirts and jackets, while we reviewed lessons out of old Spanish books. Seeing as it was too cold to concentrate most of the time, we hardly ever got anything done.

It doesn't take a genius to realize that public schools in Durham are underfunded. Almost all of the functioning equipment at Shepard Middle School, where I'm a student, has been paid for through individual contributions and donations from local companies. The same auditorium where I attended Spanish class didn't have a working sound system until the parents of one student got a local company to donate the money.

Now, the state has cut $1.7 million from the Durham school system's budget (the county was going to implement big cuts, too, but a letter-writing campaign led them to raise residential property taxes instead). The worst effect of the reductions, for students at least, will be classroom size. I have between 20 and 30 students in all of my core classes--math, language arts, science, and social studies. It makes it very hard, especially in classes with end-of-course tests, to get the proper attention. State budget reductions have meant 48 fewer teachers and 38 fewer teacher's assistants for Durham Public Schools alone.

Another casualty of the cuts will be the racial achievement gap between white and non-white students. More than $30,000 has been taken from classes for students with limited English, and another $10,000 from at-risk student services. Maybe $40,000 doesn't seem like much out of a total budget of $247 million, but with the achievement gap as big as it is, any amount dedicated to solving the problem helps--and any cutback hurts.

I hope the $3.5 million that is being used to implement state-mandated salary increases actually works its way down to the teachers. Good teachers are few and far between at public schools. The lousy pay just isn't enough to make talented teachers want to stay. Many teachers wind up teaching students how to take tests instead of teaching them real material. That way, they can get bonuses if their students do well on standardized tests.

Public schools in Durham are in a sorry state, but I believe they could be salvaged. The bottom line is that public schools need more funding for larger classroom facilities, more teacher positions and larger teacher salaries. That way, students can get more teacher attention, and teachers can be encouraged to stay on the job.

Oh, and additional funding for the basics--like heating systems--would be nice, too.

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