Improving student skills suggested Panel recommends programs on reading, college partnerships

Many ideas cost money

Implementing them considered challenge with budget situation

July 01, 1998|By Kris Antonelli | Kris Antonelli,SUN STAFF

As the Anne Arundel County school board was slashing its budget to meet a $9 million shortfall, a panel appointed by schools Superintendent Carol S. Parham issued a host of recommendations, many of them costing money, to improve student performance.

Yesterday, Parham conceded that schools will be limited in what they can do, but said that if educators can "only do enough to help a handful of students, that will be something."

The inch-thick report by the 88-member Task Force for Student Achievement calls for programs to improve reading and study skills among middle school students to prepare them for high school, greater contact among parents and educators, and partnership programs with community colleges, colleges and universities for staff development programs.

But all of that costs money -- just how much, school officials couldn't say -- and teachers and board members are complaining they barely have enough money to meet current expenses.

"I think Dr. Parham was really counting on getting started with these recommendations in the fall," said Tom Clowes, a social studies teacher at Northeast High School who was on the task force. "But with this budget situation, we will be lucky to open the schoolhouse doors."

Implementing the recommendations "will be a challenge," said Diane Finch, co-chairman of the task force and coordinator of the school system's guidance and counseling programs. "But the task force came up with a number of recommendations that don't cost money. It's not going to put a damper on everything that we want to do."

The task force is looking for ways to help the estimated 4,700 Anne Arundel students who have less than C averages to improve their marks, focusing on high school students and especially ninth-graders.

Ninth grade is a crucial time for students, educators say: It is often difficult for them to make the transition from middle school, where the demands are not as great, to high school.

"The sense of being overwhelmed in ninth grade is high," said Finch. "Suddenly, the kids are changing classes and have papers and projects due concurrently."

The task force recommended such things as holding middle school students to some of the same attendance rules as high school students. A high school student who misses six days in a 90-day semester, even if they are excused absences, can lose credit for a class and fail. Middle school students do not have to adhere to such a requirement.

"The kids that have chronic attendance problems in middle school are the ones who are likely to give up in high school and drop out," Clowes said. "I try to set my class up like a job and I tell them if you don't show up for five days in a row at work, you will be fired, so if you don't show up here, you will be gone."

The task force also recommended changing the starting time of the high school day from 7: 15 a.m. to no earlier than 8: 30 a.m. Research has shown that adolescents have a biological need to stay up later at night than younger students and to sleep later in the morning, the task force found. Starting high schools later would "enable students to be in school during their optimum learning hours," it said in the report.

"There are bags under their eyes," Clowes said. "I have to spend a lot of time waking them up in the morning. They are falling asleep. They are not mean and nasty about it when I wake them, but it's hard."

Rose Morris, a task force member whose daughter graduated from Northeast in May, said the teachers and schools cannot be expected to do it all.

"I think the parents are going to have to step up and take a role," she said. "We are all delusional if we think that the school is going to solve all the problems."

Other recommendations include:

Starting an attendance incentive program to encourage students come to class.

Separating ninth-graders from students in higher grades to ease peer pressure and putting them in smaller classes.

Teaching high school students conflict-management skills.

Allowing high school students who receive an A in both terms to skip the final exam in that course.

Shortening final exams so they take no more than an hour.

Pub Date: 7/01/98

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