Signature Program faces more hurdles at Churchill
School petitions to lift freeze on program's budget
Parents say the Signature Program at Winston Churchill High School is "floundering" after cutbacks in staffing hours for the program's coordinator and a freeze this year to the program's budget.
The Signature Program encompasses three "academies," or small, focused learning communities within the school with rigorous requirements. Through the program, students can round out their interests in their chosen subject area mathematics, technology and science; international studies or the arts through summer activities, internships, portfolios, master classes and guest lecturers.
Signature Programs at schools countywide have been affected by cutbacks, but Churchill parents say their school is more adversely affected because it has only one coordinator to juggle three academies.
Coordinators say the program already suffered a blow last school year, when the position for the program's coordinator was cut back and the school was forced to begin phasing out the International Studies academy. Now, they say a freeze on about $12,000 that funded stipends for school staff to work with Signature Program students outside of school hours has left the program struggling.
For example, freshmen in the math, technology and science academy take an after-school course to help them prepare for an independent experiment they conduct as sophomores, according to Wendy Tilles, administrative assistant to the Signature Program coordinator. Part of the program's budget helped pay a stipend to the science teacher who taught that course, but now, there's no money available. In the International Studies academy, there are no funds to pay mentors who help students develop an independent project, Tilles said.
"These kids have worked very hard, and they've had the rug pulled out from under them," Tilles said.
About 535 students take part in the program, Tilles said. The $12,000 was already a "bare-bones" budget, Tilles said, compared to funds in previous years that paid for things like special guests to conduct master classes. Parents have provided donations and are banding together to try to advocate for more funding for the program, Tilles said.
Marshall Spatz, Montgomery County Public Schools director of management, budget and planning, confirmed that the $12,000 had been frozen along with similar freezes in expenses across the school system in light of the dire economic situation. The school has applied through a review process that would allow the money to become available again if it can demonstrate a hardship, Spatz said. That request is currently under review.
Elsewhere in the Potomac area, budget woes are affecting special programs at schools. At Thomas S. Wootton High School, the coordinator for the College Institute Program, which allows students to take college courses through Montgomery College, had her position reduced in this school years' budget.
The coordinator position has also been cut back at other schools that offer the College Institute program, including Gaithersburg High School.
And at Potomac Elementary School, parents are considering creating a foundation to help support the arts integration program. The program, in which teachers use the arts for instruction in core subjects like reading and math, no longer has a "lead teacher" position to help train teachers and coordinate the program, according to Principal Linda Goldberg.
Marla Hirsch, a parent of a sophomore and a senior who are both in the International Studies program at Churchill, said that the program's costs were minimal compared to the benefit it can provide for students. "The kids put a lot of effort to do the work and to graduate with distinction, and to see the whole program being treated like this is very troublesome," Hirsch said.