Anne Arundel students grieve loss of program Middle school project eliminated in board's $9 million budget cuts

July 05, 1998|By Kris Antonelli | Kris Antonelli,SUN STAFF

Students, teachers and parents say the school board cut out the "heart and soul" of gifted-and-talented education and ensured that middle schools will be a little more boring and mediocre when it ended a beloved independent study program last week.

School board members, trying to slash $9 million from a school budget county officials rejected as bloated, voted reluctantly but unanimously 7-0 to drop the Renzoulli Enrichment Model program. By doing so, they will save $950,000.

Program supporters can only think of what they will lose.

"The entire school will suffer from this," said Richard Burger, an enrichment teacher at Severn Middle School. "This was not an elitist program. It was for the brightest children as well as the special education students. I had all kinds of students involved."

About 3,500 of the 15,006 middle school students in the county got involved in a program that began as a pilot at two schools seven years ago. By 1995, all 18 middle schools had a teacher and classroom set aside for students to work on independent projects outside their regular class work.

And while some advanced classes will still be offered for bright students, some experts say eliminating these enrichment opportunities is a step toward mediocrity. Schoolwide, grades are likely to drop, they say, and begin to settle around the middle where most students perform.

"It's crucial at this age to address these kids," said Jack Campbell, an education professor at Mount St. Mary's College. "If these kids remain unchallenged, their motivation to excel will drastically diminish."

James Borland, chairman of the teaching and curriculum department at Columbia University Teachers College, said the impact on a school system will depend on how true the program was to the model developed in the late 1970s and early '80s by Joseph Renzoulli, an education professor at the University of Connecticut.

"It involves students who are charged with investigating real problems," Borland said.

And that is what Lindsay Payne said she did in Bonnie Schupp's enrichment room at George Fox Middle School in Pasadena.

Lindsay, an eighth-grader, learned to scan still-life pictures and convert them into a video show starring her younger siblings. Her computer project won first place in the Anne Arundel County media competition for middle school students.

"My daughter is a straight-A student," said Lindsay's mother, Diana. "And this was like an extra challenge for her to keep her going. It keeps her off the street and with a good group of people who always keep her thinking."

Lindsay, who planned on writing plays next year and entering them in competitions, e-mailed Schupp when she heard that the favorite part of her school day had been eliminated.

"This is really sad for us," she said later. "There really is nothing else for us to do except for some classes at the Naval Academy during the summer."

"I am going to be bored," said Jill Kelly, one of Lindsay's classmates. "I helped make the school Web page. It was the only reason I looked forward to going to school."

Burger relied on the students' interest to bring them back to his classroom, where he had six computers, four printers, Internet hookups and a full video-editing system for students who were limited only by their imaginations.

"With some of the students, I used a carrot-and-stick approach," he said. "One of my students was not a great student in the classroom, but he loved working on computer projects in my room. So when his grades slipped, I would tell him that he couldn't come back until his grades were better. Suddenly he was working harder and his grades were up."

Although county school Superintendent Carol S. Parham cautioned the school board that cutting back on an enrichment program would set the school system back, ultimately, the board cut it anyway.

After a lengthy debate at the June 17 meeting, when the budget-cutting began, the board held on to the program. Five members would not vote to drop it.

"I think if one of our goals is to allow every student to achieve their potential, this is necessary to do that," member Joseph Foster had said in defense of the enrichment classes. "We have to decide if we want to be a second- or third-rate school system."

But board Vice President Paul Rudolph said he was voting to cut the program because only a fourth of the student body would be affected. That reason, ultimately, was what doomed the enrichment program.

"If we have to cut positions, we should do it here," he said.

Monday, with another $3.2 million in budget trims needed, the gifted program fell.

"It was an agonizing decision," said board member Vaughn Brown. "We had gone through everything else on the list and we were still $1.5 million away from the target. We were left with no choices."

But that is of little consolation to demoralized parents and teachers.

"Because of all the state mandates, classroom teachers don't have time to develop extended activities like this," said Doug Jovan, who teaches at Severn Middle School. "There is no room for creativity, and the kids will suffer."

Pub Date: 7/05/98

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