VINELAND - The Board of Education laid the foundation for revamping Vineland High School's small learning communities Wednesday by cutting the positions of the people who lead them.

Board members voted 8-1 to eliminate the eight positions, seven of which are currently filled. Diamaris Rios was the lone dissenter.

Not all of the administrative assistants have tenure or seniority. However, "None of them are losing their jobs," Board President Frank Giordano said.

Board members have indicated some district employees could lose their jobs if state education aid cuts are as big as they expect. Gov. Chris Christie is set to release his proposed state budget next week.

Regardless of how that plays out, students, parents and faculty appealed to board members to retain the people who have led the eight small-learning communities.

Aaron Berry, a junior and Student Council member, described the administrative assistants that head the SLCs as "father figures."

"They really are the glue that holds Vineland High School together," Berry said.

Dorothy Burke, an assistant principal at Vineland High School, backed that assessment.

"The students trust them," Burke said. "The students listen to them. They respect them. In some way, keep them as leaders."

The administrative assistants all have teaching experience, so some could return to the classrooms to teach if they retain their jobs.

Many say the SLCs are flawed, but some of those same people believe they can be fixed and should not be abolished.

For example, Vineland High School senior and Student Council member Constance Graves suggested the district stop grouping students in grades nine through 12 in the same small learning community. Instead, the district should return to the practice of segregating the high school by grade level and combine it with the SLCs, she said. The high school used to keep the two upper grades at one building and the two lower grades at another. Graves says that should be done, with small learning communities at each.

Likewise, Michael Adams, one of the administrative assistants whose position is being cut, said improvements can be made without doing away with the entire system.

"I don't think it has to be all or nothing," said Adams, who has tenure.

Giordano said Superintendent Maryann Banks would be meeting with staff members to determine how to divvy up the responsibilities of the administrative assistants.

Wednesday's board meeting was packed with faculty, parents and students who were concerned about these and other potential job cuts. Last week, school officials indicated assistant principals also could be cut, but Giordano said Wednesday that will not be happening.

School leaders did have to address a more tragic issue, however: The unexpected death of Petway Elementary School fourth-grade teacher Gregg Hughes, who died of a heart attack Tuesday at his Somers Point home.

The district sent counselors into the school Wednesday to help with those who might be grieving. Petway Principal Jennifer Frederico went into Hughes' class to speak to his students, and all parents were called with explanations of what happened, school board member Patricia Phillips said.

Phillips, who worked with Hughes, said he was someone who went to work early every day, and she praised his work as a teacher.

For a sense of how Hughes did his job, one can view the Web site he designed for his class at www.vineland.org/petway/ghughes1/index.html. At its top is this quote from journalist Dan Rather: "The dream begins, most of the time, with a teacher who believes in you, who tugs and pushes and leads you on to the next plateau."

Contact Daniel Walsh:

856-649-2074