Fearful that a renewed emphasis on academics in middle schools will reduce time for music and home economics, parents, teachers and students last night urged the Howard County school board to preserve instruction in those areas.
"I consider the study of art to be an integral part of education," said Susan Craig, a parent at Elkridge Landing Middle School. "I question the implication that music and art are not academic subjects."
In the first public hearing on the county's 18-month evaluation of Howard middle schools and the school system's response to the assessment, several parents also asked the board to look more closely at such areas as program disparities among middle schools and the grouping of students by ability levels.
The 180-page evaluation -- released in October with 800 pages of supporting data -- contained two reports on the middle schools. One was by a 16-member citizens committee that called for sweeping changes to improve academic achievement, saying middle schools had lost sight of that primary goal.
The other evaluation -- by two university professors hired as consultants -- produced recommendations that frequently differed.
The citizens committee's recommendations struck a chord among many Howard parents, who long have complained that middle schools focus more on self-esteem than academics and at times seem to be directionless.
At issue is the changing view of middle schools.
For many years, education officials have tended to view the role of middle schools as providing a gentle transition from elementary school to high school. But a growing number of parents appear to want middle schools to spend more time preparing students for the academic rigors of high school.
Last month, Howard schools Superintendent Michael E. Hickey announced his priorities for changes in middle schools, including increasing the time spent on basic instruction and establishing tests and standards of performance for each grade.
During last night's 90-minute hearing, the biggest concern among most parents, students and teachers was a perception that increasing time on basic instruction and changing middle school schedules would make home economics and technology education optional and reduce opportunities for music and band.
"If we want a quality band program and choose not to have 'electives,' then there must be a time each day for the bands to rehearse when the students who are not in the band also have worthwhile learning opportunities," said Robert W. Miller, band director at Hammond Middle School. He said the middle school schedule gives students that time.
Eleven-year-old Peggy Fulda, who will be a sixth-grader at Wilde Lake Middle School in the fall, told the board that "without music, my life would be dull. We middle-schoolers need something to feel worthwhile. Without music, there will be one less thing to turn to."
Teachers and parents also told the board that instruction in home economics -- or family and consumer science, as many educators now call it -- is particularly important in the 1990s because there are more families in which both parents work.
"The sixth-grade latch-key program helps students make better decisions about personal safety," said Cindy Dupski, home economics teacher at Patapsco Middle School.
Army Maj. Tim Rainey, an Owen Brown Middle School parent, said home economics lessons are critical for students who hope to enter the military.
"These survival skills learned at this age are not only important now, but later," Rainey said. "It is just assumed soldiers can cook. Where do they learn it? We do not teach it in basic training."
In other testimony, several parents who were members of the citizens review committee -- as well as several members of the group People for Accountability in the School System -- criticized the school system's response to its recommendations and what they saw as its failure to answer certain questions.
"Why does the staff recommend spending our tax money to educate teachers rather than to educate students?" asked Deb Schultz, a member of PASS and the citizens committee. She said the school system already spends $2 million on teacher training and $1 million on textbooks -- yet the system's response calls for more staff development money.
Howard PTA Council President Susan Poole also criticized the system's response, saying there was a "great unevenness in responses" and describing some of the answers as deceptive.
The Howard school board plans to hold a second public hearing on middle schools Sept. 25.
It also will meet with the middle school citizens review committee June 24 and begin discussing the evaluation and response at a public work session July 8.
Pub Date: 6/11/97