A student at Oxon Hill High School had a terrible secret she wanted to share with guidance counselor Joyce Parker last month. But when the girl went to Parker's office to tell an adult for the first time that she had been raped recently, she was told to come back at the end of the day. The guidance counselor was in a classroom, substitute teaching.
That student's experience is an example of the hardships and hassles created at some public schools in Prince George's County since the school board began requiring counselors, librarians, reading specialists and school-based administrators to pull duty as substitute teachers. The policy was adopted in late December as an emergency cost-saving measure to avert a projected $9.8 million deficit in the county's education budget.
"It really bothers me when I can't be there for the students in crisis," said Parker, who has been substituting an average of one period three days a week. "We have a lot of teen pregnancies and kids reporting child abuse and neglect. They don't feel comfortable talking to a secretary, and if they can't tell someone, they'll hold on to it until they explode."
Although the consequences of the redeployment scheme have usually not been as dramatic as in the rape victim's case, principals and resource teachers say the policy, which requires them to teach one or two days a week before an outside substitute may be hired, is affecting the way they perform their jobs and the way their schools operate.
Some elementary school libraries have been closed one or two days a week when their media specialists are teaching. Reading teachers have had to scale back the number of sessions they hold with students who need extra attention.
Guidance counselors have been scrambling to meet requests for student transcripts and references in time for college application deadlines this month. Classroom teachers have had to refrain from sending students causing discipline problems to the principal's office because their principals are in the classroom too.
"It does affect the program, no doubt about it," said Dorothea Coss, the librarian at Suitland High School. Although Coss's aide has kept the library open on the two days a week Coss has been teaching, Coss said, "When teachers know I'm not going to be there, they don't sign up for periods in the media center." The special program for black history month that Coss wanted to give all classes will be taught to a smaller number of students as a result, she said.
Coss said her time as a substitute has given her new respect for the temporary teachers. Trained in library science and social studies, the librarian has filled in for accounting, biology, English and art classes, subjects of which she has "rudimentary" knowledge.
The reaction has not been all negative, however. Paul Lewis, principal at James Madison Middle School in Upper Marlboro, described his school's adjustment to the policy as "relatively smooth." His time teaching as a substitute has been "almost refreshing, like a break," he said. Other principals said that since they are still able to hire some outside substitutes, their staffs have not been overburdened to the point where morale is suffering.
Even those who dislike the policy acknowledge that the board's action was preferable to more extreme cost-saving measures, such as mandatory furloughs or layoffs.