RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Fifty-six million children are heading back to school this fall. It's shaping up to be a year when schools face more demands with fewer resources. We asked three reporters to tell us about the challenges confronting schools in their areas.
We hear first from Seattle and Jennifer Wing of member station KPLU.
JENNIFER WING: The Seattle School District had to plug a $34 million deficit. It closed schools, ended programs, and laid off more than 100 teachers. Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson made this promise.
Dr. MARIA GOODLOE-JOHNSON (Superintendent, Seattle School District): Our goal is to provide for parents a stronger school and a stronger system and stronger choices.
WING: A lot of parents are not impressed. Dora Taylor is the mother of a 16-year-old high school student.
Ms. DORA TAYLOR: She's not strengthening anything. She's dividing it and weakening the system.
WING: Taylor is angry. Her daughter's alternative school, called Nova, was closed. It was a place for teens that don't do well in a traditional classroom setting. Losing the school is sad for Taylor and her daughter, but it could be worse. Students and teachers will be able to stay together. Their new home is an old middle school. Nova will be sharing this space with another program that supports immigrant children.
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WING: On this day, Taylor visits the new site. The doors are locked, so she presses her nose against the glass to get a better look inside.
Ms. TAYLOR: Oh, my gosh. Not even maintenance came in and cleaned up. So we're moving into a mess of a building, on top of everything else.
WING: The district promises everything will be in order by September 9th, the first day of school. Not everyone is unhappy with the changes being made.
Ms. LISA BILLSON (Kindergarten Teacher, Seattle School District): My principal came to me and said they had only put 27 students in my classroom for this coming year, and then now it has dwindled down to, I think 21 or 22.
WING: That's Lisa Billson. She's a kindergarten teacher at Laurelhurst Elementary. She normally has at least 30, 5- and 6-year-olds in her class, but not this year. With all the restructuring going on, a school up the road was repurposed from K-12, and is now for students in kindergarten though the eighth grade only. That means more elementary spaces there takes the pressures off of Billson's classroom.
Ms. BILLSON: I feel like with less kids, I might, you know, might be able to loosen up a little or have a little more fun.
WING: The good times for Billson might not last for long. Even though the federal stimulus money has made it possible for the district to hire back many of the teachers it laid off, the financial forecast for the next two years is pretty gloomy. The district is just getting started on the next budget, which is already 10 to 15 million in the red. More cuts will have to be made, and everything is on the table.
For NPR News, I'm Jennifer Wing.
GREG ALLEN: I'm Greg Allen in Miami. School opens today for more than 300,000 students in the nation's fourth largest school district. Even though it's the middle of an economic recession, officials here have so far largely avoided big cuts. They've done it by judiciously trimming, and aggressively lobbying for federal help in the form of stimulus money.
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ALLEN: At Palmetto Senior High School in the Miami suburb of Pinecrest, there are few signs of a funding crisis. Even before the school year began, the marching band was already rehearsing, and leaders of student activity groups were meeting to make plans for the upcoming school year.
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ALLEN: In the administrative office, Harry Nerenberg is helping students and parents register for school. He's been a guidance counselor since he fell into the job as a young teacher working at his first school.
Mr. HARRY NERENBERG (Guidance counselor, Palmetto Senior High School): One of the counselors got sick, and the principal asked me to step in. So I stepped in temporarily, and I loved it. It was just the best thing. I found my calling.
ALLEN: Last spring, though, the job of guidance counselor became endangered because of budget cuts. Miami-Dade was looking at more than a $200 million deficit. With declining revenues, the state of Florida withdrew funding for all of the district's nearly 700 guidance counselors.
Mr. NERENBERG: We were surprised. When it was all going down, obviously, we were getting ready for graduation and getting ready for next year's course selection. The last thing I was worried about was my job.
ALLEN: Miami-Dade's superintendent of schools, Alberto Carvalho, says while the state was taking the money away, it encouraged districts to replace it by applying to the federal stimulus program. Carvalho says as far as he's concerned, guidance counselors are indispensable.
Mr. ALBERTO CARVALHO: (Superintendent, Miami-Dade Schools): We were not going to sacrifice these people. They are as important as a support system to kids in schools as the classroom teacher is.
ALLEN: Miami-Dade County schools are receiving more than $300 million in federal stimulus money over two years. Even so, with declining revenue from the state and from property taxes, more cuts were needed. But Miami-Dade avoided having to lay off hundreds of teachers, something that happened in neighboring Broward County. Carvalho says he was able to avoid teacher layoffs by cutting administrative positions.
Mr. CARVALHO: Four hundred individuals, in essence, went from either central office to the street or to the classroom, the vast majority of them to the classroom. The one area that we absolutely did not impact were the schools.
ALLEN: What Carvalho is concerned about now is what happens in two years, when stimulus money is no longer available. Without additional funding from state and federal sources, he worries that the massive cuts avoided so far in Miami-Dade County may yet come to pass.
Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.
INSKEEP: Tight budgets are not the only problem for schools this fall. They are also preparing for a return of swine flu. Kelley Weiss of Capitol Public Radio in Sacramento, California, reports on one school's efforts to keep the virus at bay.
KELLY WEISS: Melinda Wilson has been a teacher at Folsom High School, near Sacramento, for almost 20 years, and now she's asking for new supplies to stock her classroom.
Ms. MELINDA WILSON (Teacher, Folsom High School): This year, I'm adding to the list bottles of Purell for the kids.
WEISS: Wilson wants the hand sanitizer because of the new H1N1 virus that hit in the spring. Plus, she has a different cleaning regimen.
Ms. WILSON: I was in getting my room ready and spent two days scrubbing down all the surfaces, all of the desktops. And my TAs, who used to do that when they had time, it's become - it'll be one of their weekly chores.
WEISS: Down the hall, as part of a routine exam, veteran nurse Maryanne Delaney(ph) takes a student's temperature.
Ms. MARYANNE DELANEY (Nurse, Folsom High School): All right. So let's put this under your tongue and lift your tongue up. Okay. Close your mouth. Thank you. Oh, you feel like you might be a little warm.
WEISS: A freshman girl says she has a stomach ache. Delaney asks the student if she has asthma and in fact, she does.
Ms. DELANEY: Well, kids with asthma really need to be real careful. You know, we're in the midst of looking at swine flu virus, right? So if you become short of breath or you have difficulty breathing or your asthma gets really bad, you'll want to see your physician. Okay?
WEISS: Since April, this school district has seen a number of confirmed cases of swine flu. One actually surfaced on the first day of school earlier this month. Delaney says this is another sign it's a novel flu virus.
Ms. DELANEY: We are concerned that the virus itself may mutate and become more severe this fall. We don't know what's going to happen with it. And in that case, we need to be prepared for the worst-case scenario.
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WEISS: Administrative assistant Sherry Graston(ph) watches students walk to their next class. Her son Dillon(ph) is a junior here. She says she's not caught up in the hype about swine flu, even though her son's at high risk of getting the virus. And how's Dillon feeling?
Ms. SHERRY GRASTON: He is aware of it, and teachers are talking about it. So I feel really good about that.
WEISS: So it's on the radar of the kids, but you don't get the sense from your son that he's really scared about it?
Ms. GRATSON: No, no. He's real nonchalant, real casual about it.
WEISS: But Gratson says not so casual that he's not using that hand sanitizer popping up in all the classrooms.
For NPR News, I'm Kelley Weiss.
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INSKEEP: This is NPR News.