City elementary first to go year-round SCHOOL'S IN FOR THE SUMMER

August 02, 1994|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,Sun Staff Writer

Maryland's first year-round public school opened for business yesterday in West Baltimore with bawling kindergartners, relieved parents and refreshed teachers, freshly shined shoes and newly braided hair.

Except for some extra razzmatazz at Robert W. Coleman Elementary School, including banners and confetti, it was like any other opening day. But this was a muggy Aug. 1 -- a month before other public schools in Maryland open their doors.

Some parents welcomed the experiment in year-round schooling, designed to save money and to attack the "academic atrophy" that occurs over long vacations.

"I think it's a great idea," said Phyllis Dixon, who has a fifth-grader, Vernell, at Coleman. "It makes sense to keep kids in school most of the year. They need the education.

"Besides," she sighed, "it's time. Two months [of summer vacation] is long enough."

Students at Coleman, in the 2400 block of Windsor Ave., will continue to attend school for 180 days, the state-mandated minimum. The change is in their calendar, which now divides the year into four blocks of 45 days, with 15-day "intersessions" between. That does not include the standard Christmas vacation and a month-long hiatus in July.

Although planning for the experiment goes back three years, Coleman is the first school to open in a pilot program recommended by Gov. William Donald Schaefer primarily as a way of saving money by using school buildings year-round.

The 1994 General Assembly approved $405,000 in seed money to six districts considering year-round education. Coleman gets $64,000 of the $91,000 allocated to Baltimore, in addition to a three-year, $75,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.

Another purpose of the year-round school is to attack what educators call "academic atrophy" -- the decline in academic skills experienced by students during the traditional 90-day summer vacation.

"We think the new calendar will provide much more continuity," said Addie E. Johnson, principal of Coleman. She plans to use some of the state money to provide enrichment and remedial study during the intersessions.

Remedial work is likely to be more effective if a student has fallen behind for 45 days rather than for 180 days, a state Department of Education spokeswoman said.

Ms. Johnson added that the Coleman calendar, based on one in Las Vegas, should provide more scheduling flexibility. For example, snow days can be handled easily by extending one of the 45-day sessions. And one of the 15-day intersessions is scheduled in January, when Maryland schools this year experienced a miserable streak of snow and ice.

Five other Maryland districts -- Allegany, Anne Arundel, Calvert, Howard and Montgomery -- shared in the state grant, but some are simply studying the year-round concept. Coleman is the first to implement it.

Many parents escorted their children yesterday to Coleman, a modern brick building on a hill just south of Douglass High School. The parents had been notified of the new schedule by mail, and many had been interviewed by school administrators in the past year.

At day's end, 82 percent of Coleman's 484 students were in school, as were all 39 teachers, Ms. Johnson said. The attendance was more than 10 percent under the school's average last year, but she said she expected improvement in a few days.

Waiting outside for his special education students to arrive by bus, Michael Bennett said most teachers were enthusiastic about the change. Teachers, unlike parents, were given the option of transferring if they objected to the new schedule. Four took that option, said Ms. Johnson.

Coleman is a school with 80 percent of its students eligible for free lunches and a 25 percent student turnover, the principal said.

"I'm hoping the year-round program will help stabilize the school," she said. "We want to prepare these kids to go on to middle school and high school, and to live beyond 18 years old. Otherwise, why do it?"

On the school's front lawn near day's end, third-grade teacher Larrie Norris gathered her class in a circle, played some numbers games and celebrated a midsummer day's school by throwing confetti into the sodden air.

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