Lauded Dallas campus could help shoulder Texas school cuts

DALLAS Tue May 24, 2011 5:49pm EDT

1 of 2. Nadia Ramirez, 18, a senior at Dallas Independent School District's School for Talented and Gifted is framed among painted portraits in the school's atrium in Dallas, Texas on Thursday, May 19, 2011. The TAG magnet school is consistently named one of the best in the country but will be impacted by state budget cuts next year.

Credit: Reuters/Laurie Fox

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DALLAS (Reuters) - Philip Templet listened intently and leaned in as his students debated poetic literary devices, engaging them and pushing for deeper answers.

The 31 students in his rigorous English class hung onto his questions, ready to fire back a response. When it came time to practice writing essays, he gently encouraged them.

"Write the theme. Don't worry if it's good. Just write. The words will come," said Templet, a 38-year teaching veteran, as he circled the room.

Templet's high-achieving students are part of the Dallas Independent School District's School for the Talented and Gifted, which consistently is named among the top high schools in the country by national publications. The school was largely protected from budget cuts in the past.

But this year is different.

Schools in Texas and throughout the country face unprecedented cuts, as states try to balance their budgets in lean economic times.

Already thousands of teachers in states like California, Illinois, Wisconsin and New York have lost their jobs. The American Federation of Teachers estimates that 2 percent of the nation's local government education workers have been affected by job cuts.

School districts also are doing away with popular classroom programs and enrichment activities.

Texas lawmakers are expected to chop $4 billion in education funding from the state's two-year budget.

Because of this, unique schools like Talented and Gifted must now fight to maintain the staffing levels and other factors that have made them a success.

"The one talented and gifted strategy that you learn is that small class size is optimal," said the school's principal, Michael Satarino. "When you get away from that, you worry."

Next year, many of Satarino's teachers will log an additional class with no planning period and more district students may be admitted to the prestigious school.

"You just adjust as best you can and pray you find teachers who are the right fit and who stay," he said.

'COMPETITION IS KEEN'

Talented and Gifted is one of the schools in the Dallas district's Yvonne A. Ewell Townview Magnet Center, which also include programs for government and law, education and social services, science and engineering, health professions and business and management.

The magnet programs, by design, are among the Dallas district's premier schools. But the district is struggling with parity in a year of potentially historic funding shortfalls.

"While you would like to protect every campus - even those who are lauded in national publications - you have to treat everyone equitably," said Jon Dahlander, a district spokesman.

"It's been as challenging a spring as any of us in education has ever faced."

Dallas district officials likely will cut $120 million from next year's $1.2 billion budget before trustees approve it at the end of June.

Some teachers and staff already have been lost. More than 600 district teachers resigned through an incentive program and around 200 central office staff positions were eliminated in April.

District officials said a possible 274 teaching positions and 858 support staff positions could be cut for the upcoming school year.

The district employs 13,839 professional staff, which includes 10,864 teachers. Another 6,310 support staff, such as custodians, cafeteria workers, teacher's assistants and secretaries, also work in the district.

As Templet wrapped up his English class, he lectured his students about punctuation in their writing, his advice hanging heavy in the still classroom.

"You are brilliant, you've already proven that," he said quietly. "But the competition is keen."

(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Tim Gaynor)

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