Pilot math course OK'd All students will take accelerated program in middle, high school

Test scores improve

Staff, parents show qualified support for block schedules

January 09, 1998|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

Starting in the fall, all Howard County middle and high school students will take new, accelerated mathematics courses that combine algebra and geometry and get some students into calculus as much as a year earlier than normal, school board members decided last night.

In pilot courses, students enrolled in so-called integrated algebra/geometry scored higher on math proficiency tests than those who took traditional algebra and geometry classes, education officials said.

Also at the meeting, officials reported that most students, staff and parents at Atholton and Howard high schools gave overall approval of the four-period block schedules, but they complained that they have caused class sizes to swell slightly.

The integrated math courses have been tried at Atholton, Mount Hebron and Hammond high schools for more than 2 1/2 years.

The courses emphasize concepts in mathematics rather than rules memorization and better prepare students for chemistry and physics -- sciences that involve math -- said Janie Zimmer, math coordinator for Howard schools.

"This program has a shift in emphasis from memorization of facts to an emphasis on conceptual applications and problem solving," Zimmer said. "It connects mathematics to real-life situations.

"If students understand concepts, then the rules makes sense," she continued. "Those who can't understand the concepts can't remember the rules."

Nationally, the SAT scores of students who take integrated math increased as much as 78 points on average over scores of students in traditional math and geometry, Zimmer said.

Howard educators conducted their own test, and results showed that the scores of students taking integrated algebra/geometry were as much as 49 percent higher than those of students in traditional courses.

"These students are going to understand these [math] concepts," said Karen B. Campbell, vice chairwoman of the board. "What we are doing is raising the bar."

Money to pay for new textbooks to implement the course systemwide was included in the operating budget submitted to the board Tuesday by Superintendent Michael E. Hickey, said Sandra Erickson, associate superintendent for instructional services.

In reporting on block schedules, Eugene Streagle, instructional coordinator for the high schools, told the board that two different ones have been used successfully at Atholton and Howard highs since the 1993-1994 school year. But they seem to have driven up class sizes by about 2 1/2 students a class, he said.

More classes were created under the schedules, allowing students to earn more academic credits each year, but no additional teachers were hired, according to a report issued at last night's meeting.

Increased costs have been avoided, but students may have been harmed, the report said.

"I read here that the [schedule] was added at no extra cost," Campbell said, "but I wonder if the extra costs are being paid by students who have to deal with crowding in their classes."

Reducing each class in the system by just one student would cost about $1 million -- a prohibitive cost in an era when the school system continues to grow exponentially each year, Hickey has said.

According to a survey of students, parents and staff conducted by school officials last year, as many as 67 percent of teachers and students in certain classes at Atholton and Howard reported their classes were "always" too crowded.

The crowding resulted when the schools offered more classes so that students could earn more credits each scholastic year but did not hire additional teachers.

"It shouldn't be that half our classes are over 30," said Sandra French, a board member. "Our teachers are burning out, and we've heard over and over again that teaching strategies get more conservative when class sizes get larger."

Officials said they are looking at ways to shrink class sizes, such as setting a minimum enrollment figure or offering some electives every other year, to free up some teachers.

"We either have to learn to live with class-size challenges or we've got to go digging and looking for money to change it," Bounds said.

At Atholton, the block schedule -- dubbed a rotation model -- includes four 90-minute classes a day and a 45-minute lunch period. One course is offered daily, and three others are offered every other day. Students earn seven credits a year.

At Howard, students take four 86-minute classes a day under the so-called 4 x 4 model. The schedule, which condenses yearlong courses into half a year, includes a 30-minute lunch period and allows students to earn eight credits a year.

Block schedules also are being tried at two middle schools -- Clarksville and Manor Woods -- this year.

Also last night, school officials announced they have hired an in-house attorney, Mark C. Blom, who is legal counsel for Frederick County schools. He is expected to join Howard in mid-February.

Blom's position is a new one. In the past, Howard contracted out legal services but having in-house counsel is expected to be more cost effective, said Patti Caplan, a school spokeswoman.

The board approved the formation of a study group to identify the needs of students with learning disabilities. The group of parents and school staff will contribute to a study of preschool-age children with learning disabilities being conducted by the State Department of Education.

Pub Date: 1/09/98

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