Tight budgets, crowded schools, frustrated teachers and the effort to produce graduates who can use what they have learned in the real world are among the challenges area school systems face in the school year that begins Tuesday.
The issues and problems stretch across geographical boundaries, as do the solutions.
From Baltimore's urban streets to Carroll County's pastoral fields, administrators are no longer content with having students learn the three R's. The new curriculum in Carroll County hopes to teach a new way of learning. In fact, the county's 22,000 students will be "learning how to learn," said Brian Lockard, assistant superintendent for instruction.
"There will be more hands-on learning, application and development of life skills . . . not just learning something and forgetting it three weeks later," he said.
A similar approach is under way in Baltimore, where a new curriculum will be taught to children from kindergarten through fifth grade. One aim is to show students how what they learn can be used in various careers.
Administrators also hope to instill in students a continuing desire to learn.
"The bottom line is we want our children to be lifelong learners," said Alice Morgan-Brown, assistant superintendent for curriculum development.
The city's school administrators hope their new approach will gradually change the way subjects are taught and learned by the system's 109,000 students. For example, school spokesman Douglas J. Neilson said that the teaching of language arts will include more than simply reading a book.
"Now, it's let's sit down and read the book. Let's write about the book. Let's talk about the book," he said. "It's integrating much more into that one little area."
Administrators stress that the changes will be gradual.
"It's going to take at least two years to turn this around," Mrs. Morgan-Brown said. "If the research is right, three years, and I'm talking about a total difference."
Baltimore's new curriculum also will include what administrators are calling an "infusion" of information about the contributions of Africans and African Americans.
A similar emphasis will occur this year in Anne Arundel County's school system, where students will learn more about the contributions of minorities in science, art, music, literature and social studies.
While more than 66,000 Anne Arundel County students will be getting more of a multicultural emphasis in their education, county school administrators are faced with the unenviable task of trying to do more with less money.
Effect of budget cuts
Budget cuts have meant no across-the-board raises for staff, only step increases. And the school system has been warned to trim $5 million from its $341 million budget -- probably through a 20 percent cut in supplies -- by next month.
Similar budget constraints in Howard County have laid the groundwork for a possible confrontation between top administrators and teachers upset about not getting negotiated raises. The teachers say they may protest the situation by employing a "work-to-rule" policy. This means the county's teachers would do only what is required and avoid voluntary services such as chaperoning events or attending committee meetings.
"There will be tension in the school buildings from day one," said Michael E. Hickey, the superintendent of the county school system rated among the best academically in Maryland.
Karen Dunlop, vice president of the Howard County Education Association, which represents teachers and some administrators, and chairwoman of the committee leading the protest, said, "The membership is very determined. We consider our actions a legitimate strategy." She said the association's strategy will continue until its members see support from the county executive and County Council for higher teacher salaries and what they consider the proper funding of education.
In addition to the teacher protests, the Howard County school system, which has nearly 30,000 students, is bracing for 1,200 to 1,300 more. To contend with the increase, the school system will be opening an elementary school in Clarksville and a middle school in Elkridge, the sixth and seventh schools opened in the county since 1988.
In Carroll County, the school system is responding to its own population boom by opening new elementary schools in Eldersburg and Hampstead.
Baltimore County growth
No new schools will be opening in Baltimore County this year, where last year 39 out of 94 elementary schools were over capacity.
School officials have been forced into using converted trailers, known in bureaucratic jargon as "relocatables," as temporary classrooms. Relief won't come until next year, when a new elementary school will open and an elementary and middle school will reopen.
Those schools may barely keep up with the increases. School officials expect the current Baltimore County enrollment of 90,000 students to increase by about 4,000 students each year for the rest of the decade.