Point of view

Tossing out a program and people

May 1, 2010 

In corporate America, employees are often terminated in a "surprise attack." The employee arrives at work and is told to pack up and vacate the premises. While collecting his or her personal items, the shocked employee is supervised and then escorted off the premises

On Tuesday, the Wake County Board of Education approved a Reduction in Force plan. Immediately, school system administrators executed a procedure to call and lay off 68 school district employees. These employees, of whom I am one, experienced a scenario as cold and callous as any corporate surprise attack.

The layoff process was demeaning, disrespectful and traumatizing, both to the staff members, their families, interns, co-workers and, most important, to the unsuspecting parents, teachers and children we serve.

At Project Enlightenment, we are professional counselors, social workers and psychologists deeply committed to our profession and dedicated to the project's mission. We teach parent education classes, lead parent support groups, answer TALKline (our phone line to answer questions about young children) and work with families to strengthen parenting skills and solve the puzzling issues that interfere with some children's learning.

Forty-eight percent of the families we serve are economically challenged. All are concerned about their children's development and are motivated to help them be successful learners and citizens. Our goal is to close the achievement gap and help at-risk children be successful at school by offering help before they enter school and during the kindergarten year. Project Enlightenment is recognized across the state and nation for its exemplary model of prevention and early intervention.

On Wednesday morning, staff members were in shock. Parents and teachers were calling about services. Workshops, for which parents had already paid, were suddenly canceled. Counseling sessions with parents and children were called off at the last minute, as were meetings with parents and teachers to discuss students with complex needs. Computers, some containing essential documents, were shut down. There was no time even to call parents to help them find a referral source, much less have a closing session.

At Project Enlightenment, we do not work with objects on an assembly line. We are a human service and educational program. Parents and teachers trust us to discuss and resolve confidential, complex concerns. We value and are held to the standard of professional ethics, including "Do No Harm" and not to abandon our clients in the middle of a counseling process.

Even while we were reeling from the turmoil of losing nine staff members, three of the four essential administrative assistants were told to report to new jobs in other departments after lunch. Employees were being treated like chess pieces being moved around the chessboard without regard to the effect of those decisions on the employee or the program

Not only was the entire Parent Counselor/Parent Educator team of Project Enlightenment eliminated, a team of 14 parent liaisons and its director from another department were also fired immediately.

For a school board whose members were elected because of their promise to be sensitive to parent voices, this is incongruous. Why were the school employees and Wake County residents not afforded planning time? Rather than experiencing "shock and awe," we could have had an orderly procedure that showed respect for parents, children and teachers as well as employees. This could have allowed us to maintain our professional standards and reflected more positively on the reputation of the school system and the board.

Does the next inevitable round of layoffs have to copy a degrading and inhumane example of corporate America? Those who say yes should ask what kind of an example that sets for the next generation. We at Project Enlightenment have always put this question first in all we do. Even in an economic disaster, human dignity is priceless and should be preserved.

Lynne Johnston is a licensed clinical social worker who worked at Project Enlightenment for 27 years.

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