One day early in the 1967 school year, Garth Bywater came home from Brentwood Elementary School in Prince George's County with a note from his first grade teacher. His mother Raquel was irate when she read the report. It said Garth, then 7, should be enrolled in a special learning program called Title I.
"I stomped into school and said 'What do you think's the matter with my child?'" Bywater recalls.
She says she had noticed, however, that Garth was a "fidgety child."
"He would rather be looking out the window than reading a book," she said. It was just that, Bywater learned during her first meeting with Garth's teacher, that was her son's problem. And she came to believe that Title I was part of the solution.
Title I refers to the first section of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. It provides for federal grants to schools for the purpose of helping children who have a hard time grasping the fundamental aspects of reading and math.
"I wasn't threatened once I found out how Title I works," Bywater said in a recent interview."Essentially, it gives the slower learners extra help, attention and reinforcement on specific subjects right in the classroom, without separating them from the rest of the students."
Bywater's son joined Title I 14 years ago, a year after the federal funds came to schools in Maryland. In those years, the program became an integral part of the curriculum in both counties, reaching 6,000 pupils in Prince George's and 3,400 in Montgomery. Bywater became active in the parent advisory councils linking the children, the program and the schools.
Garth Bywater was graduated from Northwestern Senior High last year and has a job with a dyemaking firm. Bywater also credits Title I with helping her daughter Regan, now 16, progress from a slow reader to an honors student who wants to be a doctor. Maria, 7, is in the Title I program this year at Thomas Stone Elementary.
This year, as President Ronald Reagan's efforts to reduce federal education subsidies take shape, Title I is one of the endangered programs. Raquel wants to save the program she once feared.
"The cuts that Reagan is proposing are downright dumb," said Bywater, 43. "They're going to hurt our children. He's not thinking about the future. What happens to us when they're (the children) running the country?"
But even as Bywater and scores of other concerned parents in Maryland writer their congressmen urging that Title I funds be saved, the budget-cutting scissors are snipping away on Capitol Hill. This week and next, as children begin their summer vacations, members of Congress are meeting daily to strip $10 billion from school and social programs. While Title I is popular in Congress and educators say it has been very effective, it is not immune to the knife.
In Prince George's and Montgomery counties, school leaders are bracing for Title I cuts of approximately 15 percent in September and 25 percent more in the 1982 school year. The first reductions will force cuts in the number of instructional aides, whose salaries are paid from Title I funds.
We anticipate a loss of $450,000 out of the current budget of $2.3 million," said Dr. John Sadler, Title I director in Montgomery County. Administrators already have notified teaching aides by letter that their hours will be reduced in September.
Dr. George McKlinney, director of federal programs for Prince George's County public schools, said he is resigned to the impending cuts but uncertain of their full impact. McKinney said the county received about $18 million in federal money this year, and $4.2 million was for Title I programs.
"The only place we can cut back is in personnel," said McKinney. He added that enrollment in the program could drop, considerably.
Title I is the nation's largest federal aid program for public schools.This year, nearly 6 million students and 90 percent of the country's school districts will participate.
Through tests, the program identifies children who have difficulty in reading or math, then concentrates on helping them to learn by giving them special attention and using innovative teaching techniques. Educators regard it as one of the most successful federal ventures into the schools, and they point to test scores to prove Title I works.
While the assistance is directed at school districts with a high proportion of children from poor families, students from all backgrounds can be eligible for the special help. Eligibility for Title I assistance is determined by a formula that is based on the number of children in a school's free lunch program. In Montgomery County, for example, 8.7 percent of its enrollment getting free lunches can qualify for Title I. In Prince George's, the formula is based on a countywide average of 23.7 percent.
"The education needs span income levels," said Yvonne Brown, Title I coordinator in Prince George's. "Surely we have a larger percentage of low-income children, but we also serve children from middle- and upper-income families."
Essentially, the assistance allows schools to hire additional instructors, or teaching aides, who are specially trained but may or may not have college degrees. How these aides fit into the curriculum is a local decision, but in Prince George's and Montgomery, they work in the classroom under the guidance of the regular teacher.
One day last week, as Congress considered whether to make her job a relic of the 1970s, Joan Ropko was probing the mysteries of monkeys with kindergarten children at Lamont Elementary School in New Carrollton. Ropko, 43, has been an aide in the Title I program since 1971.
The class had visited the zoo the day before, and the morning's session on reading, writing and counting was about animals. After spending some time with Ropko and the teacher, Gilla Saltzman, the class of 29 was organized into three groups.
One group of eight children sat in a circle and read "Babar." Another group worked on writing skills with Saltzman. Ropko and six children in the Title I program sat around a little table in the back of the room and talked about monkeys: they colored monkeys on a sheet of construction paper, cut the shapes out and make their own monkeys while Ropko talked about where monkeys live. By the end of the session, just about everyone could spell m-o-n-k-e-y.
Classroom work is the backbone of Title I in two suburban counties, but the program also allows teachers and aides to use progressive techniques both in and out of the school:
At Woodlin Elementary School in Silver Spring, the kindergarten and first grade classes staged a mock inauguration in January, under the direction of Title I resource teachers, who are specially trained to oversee the program's activities.
Fifth and sixth graders at Woodside Elementary in Silver Spring produced a film that was presented at the Montgomery County Film Festival.
Title I pupils at Beacon Heights Elementary in Prince George's composed and edited their own books, which will be unveiled at an author's fair this week.
In Montgomery County, 30 schools and four institutions for neglected or delinquent children are eligible for Title I funds. Sadler said the schools are in all parts of the county, but most are around Rockville and Silver Spring. Of Maryland's 23 counties, Montgomery has the fourth highest number of students from low-income families, he said.
Prince George's has the highest number of children from poor families of all Maryland counties, according to Sadler. But again, not all the children served by Title I are economically disadvantaged. For example, Larry Williams, head of the county's Title I Parent Advisory Council, is a patent examiner and far from poor, yet his daughter Kimberly, now in fifth grade at Lewisdale Elementary, needed special help in reading in second and third grade.
"I worked with her at home, but her reading was still below grade level," said Williams. "After those two years in Title I, she's doing fine."
Williams, 41, went to Colesville Elementary back when it was a segregated school and one teacher taught three classes in one room.If a child had trouble in learning the basics, he or she was simply held back to repeat the grade, Williams recalled.
"The teacher really didn't have time to give to the slow learners," he said. "Now we're fortunate enough to have a program like Title I, and President Reagan wants to cut it back.
"Education is such a key thing," he added. "I see it as the bulward of society. Being a good American, I can understand the need to cut the budget, but I can't see why we have to make cuts as high as 35 percent in programs like Title I."