Criticisms alter middle school ways 90-minute periods, more honor rolls are among changes

'I love this,' says teacher

But skeptics question how rearranging days will help performance

September 21, 1997|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

Before Donna Mamula's second-period reading class at Murray Hill Middle School took its first test of the year Friday, students spent 30 minutes on last-minute spelling drills and then heard a pep talk on test-taking from their teacher.

Mamula then gave them the three-part test and started on this week's lessons before it was time for the period to end.

If this doesn't sound like the time-crunched atmosphere that some teachers bemoan, that's because it isn't -- classes at Murray Hill in Laurel are 90 minutes each.

The schedules at this new school and three other middle schools are perhaps the most concrete sign that change is afoot in Howard County's middle schools.

"We wouldn't have had this kind of time before, no way," Mamula says. "Now, we'll take the tests and grade them and talk about them before class is over. I love this."

Almost a year after a parents' group released a sweeping, largely critical evaluation of middle schools in Howard County, the school board has yet to take official action.

But nearly every campus has made changes -- some small, some big -- that have altered many of the fundamentals in the schools, according to Alice Haskins, the county's instructional coordinator in charge of middle schools.

Although once considered unfair to below-average students, honor rolls are being used in more middle schools than ever.

Many have squeezed a few minutes out of lunch and most have increased classroom time by as much as 60 minutes daily.

The so-called exploratory period -- once reserved for some electives and instruction on such topics as interpersonal conduct -- has been incorporated into other periods at some schools, renamed and revamped at others.

Although standards -- academic material that students are expected to understand by the end of each grade level -- were put in place last year for sixth-graders, this year, for the first time, seventh- and eighth-grade standards were issued to all teachers.

Momentum for revisions

"In my tenure in county schools, this is one of the first times I've seen such a momentum to change in middle schools," says Haskins, who has been in the Howard system 23 years.

"I'm seeing more emphasis on group involvement and building higher thinking skills," she says. "Now, we're seeing the very system involved in charting a course for middle schools."

Conversations with dozens of middle school students, parents, teachers and administrators reveal that so far, most changes have been well-received.

"I think the school and our community has been thinking, and that's one of the best things that's happened out of the evaluation," said Michael Goins, principal at Owen Brown Middle School, which has a new schedule this year. "It's getting people thinking about what we do and why we do it that way. The climate for change is ripe."

Dozens of recommendations

The 180-page middle school evaluation, released in October, and a concurrent report by two consultants contain dozens of recommendations about Howard County's middle schools.

Both struck a chord among many Howard parents, who have long complained that county middle schools focus more on self-esteem than academics, and at times seem to lack direction.

"I do think middle schools focus too much on self-esteem sometimes," says Anna Fiorio, whose son and daughter attend Clarksville Middle. "I think self-esteem is important, but you have to balance it out."

In May, Howard school officials issued a response to the evaluation. A public hearing was held in June, and the school board has held three work sessions on the topic.

A second public hearing is scheduled for Thursday at county education department headquarters.

The cost of change

Although school board members have yet to take official action in response to the evaluation, the board has set aside $80,000 for schools to start making changes.

Schools Superintendent Michael E. Hickey this month laid out his priorities in response to the parents' evaluations. Among them are revamping the report card, instituting in-school suspensions and increasing time for academic instruction.

So far, about $12,000 has been spent to devise new class schedules in some schools, Haskins says. In March, the school board hired a consultant to give workshops on so-called block scheduling, and in-service planning sessions were held during the summer.

Several versions of the schedules are being used at Owen Brown, Murray Hill, Clarksville and Patuxent Valley middle schools.

Though each school has a different schedule, students don't take every class every day, and those they do take last up to 90 minutes, twice as long as before.

Scheduling methods

At Murray Hill, students switch between two schedules, called A and B days. (Signs are posted throughout the school each day to remind students which day it is.) They have periods in math and reading/English every day. On alternate days, students take either social studies or science, along with an elective and physical education/health.

Similar schedules are in place at other schools.

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