If a 12-year-old Yonkers girl's heartfelt song dedication to a special teacher on YouTube doesn't get to you, the ironic song choice certainly will. It's called "On My Own."That's exactly where Merissa Beddows finds herself after budget cuts took away her vocal music teacher and beloved after-school choir.
"I lament the fact I can no longer be instrumental in her musical development," said Steve Kaplan, one of many Yonkers music teachers laid off this school year. "And the school has lost the extraordinary chorus that meant so much to so many."
Merissa, a plucky seventh-grader at Yonkers Middle School whose single mom cannot afford private music lessons, lends a perfect voice to show how hurtful budget cuts can be.
Posted recently on YouTube, Merissa's video of the haunting song from "Les Miserables" was recorded last year and dedicated to her sixth-grade teacher, Ilene Dillon.
Kaplan worked on the musical number with Merissa, one of his general music students, after Dillon encouraged her to learn the song as part of a social studies project.
"We worked as often as we could during my free periods," said Kaplan, who taught Merissa exercises and techniques to strengthen her voice. "With the right training, I really believe she could develop a career in musical theater."
But after budget cuts eliminated 15 music teachers in Yonkers, Merissa's school no longer offers much beyond the required general music course, and Kaplan's award-winning after-school choir is gone, too.
"When I found out Mr. Kaplan was getting laid off, I was in total shock," Merissa said. "This school year is totally different. Now there's no music at all."
Yonkers' elementary and middle school music programs "have been devastated, along with countless other 'heart and soul' programs," said Yonkers Federation of Teachers President Pat Puleo. "It's so bad on so many levels that we're all just numb."
The harsh reality is that 385 staff positions were eliminated in a district that still hasn't recovered from the layoff of hundreds of staff in 2004. "We're at the point where we're way past bone and cutting off limbs," Puleo said. "We've lost huge numbers of school psychologists, elementary librarians, school counselors, social workers and reading teachers."
The depth of program cuts is heartwrenching: a waiting list of 350 4-year-olds for a pre-kindergarten program that has been hailed for delivering documented results in student achievement and improving the graduation rate. (A 10-year study found a significant advantage gained through participation in pre-K.)
Eighty percent of Yonkers' elementary schools do not have art, music or physical education teachers, Puleo said. In some high schools, art appreciation courses are being taught by social studies and science teachers. Advanced Placement offerings are limited.
The district's desperately needed after-school programming was partially resurrected only after community groups stepped up to fill the void. Popular career and technical programs like culinary arts and industrial arts are lost. Across the district, class sizes are up to 34 students.
Yonkers is by no means alone, as districts large and small around the state started their school year with painful staff reductions and program cuts.
Class sizes have skyrocketed. Librarians, school counselors, art and music teachers, teaching assistants and other integral support staff have been among the first casualties.
"We know the pain is palpable around the state," said NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi, who spoke with many laid-off teachers and other staffers at the One Nation march in early October.
NYSUT is continuing to make the case for more state and federal funding and urging districts to restore as many jobs as possible.
A $600 million federal Education Jobs bill was approved too late for many school districts to prevent layoffs for this school year. That money can still be used to save jobs in the coming school year, which threatens to be just as financially challenging.
"Our elected leaders and school board are sitting on the Jobs funding like a chick sits on an egg, waiting for it to hatch next year," Puleo said. "That's infuriating to me when you're decimating all these essential programs."
Headlines around the state and anecdotal examples reported by NYSUT's regional offices from Long Island to western New York offer a sobering statewide picture.