Layoffs leave parents in limbo

Staff WriterApril 22, 2010 

— Hundreds of Wake County parents, some who had appointments and classes this week, have been left without counseling help as a result of the Wake County school system's budget woes.

The school board's vote Tuesday night to lay off 68 employees went into effect immediately. The cuts eliminated the parent counseling section for Project Enlightenment, a school system program that provides services to children from birth through kindergarten

"We were regarded nationally as a forward-looking system," said Sylvia Henderson, one of the laid-off parent counselors, who has worked for Project Enlightenment since 1969. "It seems we're going backward."

To help balance this year's budget, school administrators had recommended laying off 68 employees and eliminating 57 vacant positions. It's part of $20 million in cuts to the Central Services area, basically employees and programs not based at schools.

The layoffs took a large chunk out of Project Enlightenment's 47-person staff. Cynthia Chamblee, the program's director, said she lost all nine of her parent counselors. She said three of her four secretaries were transferred to other departments.

Chamblee said she didn't learn who was going to be laid off until after the school board's vote Tuesday. The recommended list of layoffs was presented to school board members behind closed doors before a public vote led to the release of the names.

Chamblee said she had to immediately shut down her telephone help service that worked with 741 parents last school year. She also shut down the parental workshops that served 1,389 parents last school year.

In addition, Chamblee said she shut down the parental consulting service that works with hundreds each year.

"We're going through a grieving period," said Chamblee, who noted that the laid-off employees had worked for many years with Project Enlightenment. "We will grieve, and then we will move forward."

In addition to the firing of the parent counselors, the layoffs include 16 parent liaisons who work for a different department. The liaisons are charged with helping bridge the communication gap between parents and schools.

Parent counselors and parent liaisons accounted for 25 of the 68 layoffs. Attempts to contact school administrators about the layoffs were unsuccessful Wednesday.

Founded in 1969, Project Enlightenment provides counseling, training and education services, many of them free or at low cost, to parents and child-care providers. Its goal is to help children get ready for kindergarten and beyond. Supporters argue that catching behavioral and special-needs problems early can have a major effect on children's development.

"For years we've been helping families make their children happy and successful learners," said Deborah Jeffress, who had been a parent counselor for 33 years.

More than 2,800 parents joined a Facebook group in an unsuccessful attempt to save Project Enlightenment from the layoffs. Aylett Colston, a Raleigh parent who has been active in the Facebook group, said they're still talking about what might be done to bring the positions back.

"The job losses at Project Enlightenment are devastating," Colston said. "So many people, so many children, will not get the help that they need."

keung.hui@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4534

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