Middle school changes planned Hickey proposes new guidelines for homework, schedules

Goal is to increase focus on academics

November 14, 1997|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

By next fall, Howard County middle schools could have new homework guidelines and class schedules that would increase the time spent on academics under a plan presented to the school board last night by Superintendent Michael E. Hickey.

New guidelines on how to group students of different ability levels and how to include disabled students in standard classrooms also would be in place, under Hickey's plan.

Also last night, the board approved expanding the technology magnet program to Columbia's Oakland Mills High School. That means there will be three such locations and some 125 more spaces in a program that was oversubscribed last year.

Hickey's wide-ranging plan for reforming the middle schools would cost at least $5 million -- including $80,000 this fiscal year -- if approved as planned during the Dec. 11 board meeting.

Preliminary discussions after Hickey's report last night indicated the board generally supports the plan.

"This reflects our discussions and reflects what the school board members have said," said Sandra H. French, who heads the panel.

The long-awaited report was a response to an 18-month middle school evaluation that was released last month. Evaluators criticized middle schools for emphasizing self-esteem over academic instruction and not adequately preparing students for high school.

The evaluation called for sweeping changes in such areas as curriculum, assessments and scheduling -- changes many parents, teachers and educators have been discussing for years.

Hickey's proposals, which included a time line spanning at least five years, adhered to many suggestions made in the evaluation by a 16-member citizens' committee -- the Middle School Review Committee (MSRC) -- and two university professors hired as consultants.

They also mirrored detailed discussions by the school board in five public work sessions that French called "historic."

"We had five long work sessions on this," she said. "We've never dealt with any issue in that much detail."

If Hickey's proposals are approved, middle schools would begin using new, automated report cards next fall. Such a system, which resembles one used in high schools, would allow school administrators to track grade patterns systemwide.

Details on some proposals, such as homework guidelines, are being worked out, the board said.

Under Hickey's plan, all middle schools would be expected to adopt new schedules, but not all would be expected to use the same type of schedule, said Alice Haskins, instructional coordinator in charge of middle schools who helped Hickey draft the plan.

Rather, each school would tailor a schedule to suit the student population and school needs, she said.

"I've always felt the block schedules for midlevel is the best way, but we will not mandate a plan," Haskins said. "We want to let schools experiment and see what works for them."

Last night, the board barely touched on the issue of how to incorporate such subjects as music and band into middle school schedules, which has been heatedly discussed at public hearings. Board members said last night they would work out those details before approving Hickey's plan.

Under Hickey's plan, students would be required to take reading courses taught by a specialist assigned to each school. By next fall, under the plan, at least one county middle school will have a reading teacher on staff to pilot the program.

Also, all middle schools would offer -- but not require -- foreign language instruction, under the plan.

Many of Hickey's proposals, including programs dealing with disruptive students and some scheduling and report card changes, are in place in some middle schools. Many of the changes came this year as an early response to the evaluation.

Hickey also called for middle schools to:

* Establish standards for academics, testing and keeping track of student progress.

* Have continuing training for teachers and administrators through workshops and courses.

* Recruit and hire teachers who are experts in subject areas to provide a mix of generalists and specialists on school staffs.

* Set tougher guidelines for admission and curricula in gifted and talented classes.

* Create evaluations for teachers and administrators to improve accountability.

L Each recommendation came with time lines and cost estimates.

"A lot of these items sound realistic," said Diane Cohen, whose son attends Burleigh Manor Middle School. "They sound good."

Also last night, the board was given standardized test results that indicated nearly 1,100 Howard County students took the rigorous advanced placement tests in 1996, more than ever before, and about 81 percent scored passing grades of 3 or higher. The 1996 figure tops the 71 percent state pass rate and the 64 percent national rate, according to Leslie Wilson, a school testing official.

Results of the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test showed Howard students' scores dipped slightly in 1996 to a combined verbal and math score of 105, compared with 106 in 1995.

The 1997 Scholastic Aptitude Test results, released last month, showed a drop of several points over the year before. The combined verbal and math score was 1080 in 1996 and 1074 this year.

Pub Date: 11/14/97

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