10-point plan for grades 6-8 approved School board modifies proposal from Hickey

December 15, 1997|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

After debating the future of Howard County middle schools for more than 2 1/2 years, school board members have approved widespread changes for grades six through eight.

The plan, passed at a school board meeting Thursday, puts into effect -- with slight modifications -- a proposal released last month by school Superintendent Michael E. Hickey.

The changes -- which call for an emphasis on core academic subjects -- will not affect fine arts and related arts programs. School board members requested that those programs remain in the middle school schedule unaltered.

This includes the preservation of school time for middle school music, a topic discussed at length by parents during the middle school evaluation work sessions.

"Hallelujah," said Karen Douglas, head of Howard County Parents for School Music. "Every now and then, you actually hear good news."

The 10-point plan for middle schools will go into effect during the next five years at a cost of more than $5 million, including $80,000 this fiscal year.

The middle school plan comes in response to an 180-page evaluation of Howard middle schools released in October 1996 after 18 months of study by a parents group. It criticized middle schools for emphasizing self-esteem over academic instruction and not adequately preparing students for high school.

The evaluation, which was accompanied by an assessment by professional consultants, called for sweeping changes in such areas as curriculum, assessments and scheduling.

It sparked a detailed response by school officials, two public hearings and five school board work sessions -- the most exhaustive treatment of an issue by the Howard school board.

Despite the lengthy review, school board members spent more than two hours Thursday discussing the final plan -- and called for several clarifications -- before approving it.

"We are done with the middle school implementation plan -- for now," new board Chairman Stephen Bounds said after the board voted.

Addressing board members and some 30 school staff members and parents in the board room audience, he said: "Thank you all for your interest. Some of you have been with this for the long haul."

Many of the policies instituted by the board for all county middle schools are in place at some schools, including new schedules on at least two campuses and new discipline policies.

The board approved changes in homework guidelines, a new report card and increased class time on academics. It also called for new guidelines for grouping students of different ability levels, increasing staff accountability and including disabled students in standard classrooms.

Under the plan, middle schools must adopt new schedules by the start of the next school year, but not all would be expected to use the same type of schedule.

Middle schools will also offer -- but not require -- foreign language instruction by fall 2000.

Tougher guidelines for admission into gifted and talented classes, which will also have a new curriculum assessments, will also be put in place by next fall.

By fall 1999, middle school students will be required to take reading courses. As many as three schools will have a full-time reading teacher by fall to pilot the program.

Results of Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) test scores released last week seemed to bear out concerns that reading instruction in Howard middle schools may be inadequate: In tests they took in the spring, third- and fifth-grade students improved their MSPAP reading scores by several percentage points each. But eighth-grade reading dropped more than seven points -- the second consecutive decline on the annual tests.

In 1995, Howard eighth-graders achieved their highest MSPAP reading scores ever, said Leslie Wilson, who is in charge of testing for the county school system. .

"Given where we were in eighth-grade reading in 1995, it's not looking like we're making much progress in middle schools," she said at the meeting Thursday.

Also at the school board meeting Thursday, board members elected Bounds as new chairman and Karen Campbell as vice chairwoman.

A school official also told the board that elementary schools will have access to funds to pilot new in-school discipline programs.

Nearly $70,000 has been set aside for three schools to address the problems of disruptive youth, said Eugene Streagle, high school instructional coordinator.

The schools that receive the money will be chosen from among those that submit applications between Tuesday and Jan. 16. The schools will create and implement the programs independently, Streagle said. In future years, those programs likely will be expanded to other schools based on need and funding, he said.

Pub Date: 12/15/97

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