Fernbank Science Center, a decades old institution owned and operated by the DeKalb County public schools is in danger of being closed due to a budget shortfall of $73 million. The annual cost of operating Fernbank is about $4.7 million, and it is on the list of cuts that the DeKalb school board is considering.
Fernbank was one of the first science education centers that I visited when I first came to Atlanta as an Assistant Professor of Science Education at Georgia State University in 1969. Fernbank is a remarkable institution having its own planetarium, and a staff of scientists, and science teachers who provided professional development programs for teachers, instruction for students, and programs for the DeKalb and surrounding communities. And its a public school institution.
It should not be shut down.
Also on the cutting block are 25 media specialists in school libraries, 70 central office staff, $8 million from the transportation budget, 52 magnet school teachers, 28 Montessori teachers, cutting over 200 teacher positions resulting in large class sizes.
Any of these cuts are difficult to make. School districts around the state are faced with similar problems, although DeKalb County’s budget problems appear to larger than other districts.
An article in the Athens Patch, written by the Teaching Georgia Writing Collective, called for the continued investment in media centers, and not to consider them for budget cutting. As the authors pointed out in their article Invest in Media Centers, Invest in Society: The Work of a Media Center Paraprofessional, cutting media specialists is risky business. It would result in diminished time that students would receive for hand-on contact.
In case facing the Fernbank Science Center, school board members will be faced with shutting down one of the best science education programs in the Southeast. Fernbank has always been staffed with the finest of teachers, and they have provided a first-rate science education program for the public schools, as well as its community.
But a deeper issue here is the effects of the standards-based high-stakes testing movement that running havoc on school districts. Some advocates of cutting Fernbank simply look at the cost of supporting Fernbank. Nothing is said about what it is, and how it could help teachers in the district. But because the focus is on student achievement scores, and teaching to the test, the approaches to discovery and inquiry which are at the heart of Fernbank, is put in the back seat—although now, a powerful part of the DeKalb public school system might be thrown out.
Media centers and Fernbank Science Center are environments that support informal learning. Research on Informal learning shows that students are highly motivated, and that experiences in informal settings contribute positively to students affect, which has been shown to be connected to cognitive learning. Like art, music, and recess, informal learning is unfortunately is not valued as much as the traditional academic subjects.
Tags: Budget Cuts, DeKalb County Public Schools, Fernbank Science Center, Media Centers, science centers, science learning centers, Teaching Georgia Writing Collective