In Md. schools, smaller classes a bigger priority

With space lacking and teacher shortage, lessons in creativity

August 23, 1999|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,Sun Staff

When Maryland first- and second-graders return to school over the next few weeks, many will find themselves enjoying one of the fastest-spreading school reforms of the 1990s: smaller classes.

Driven by a growing demand to boost achievement -- particularly in reading -- schools and districts across the state are trying to find ways to decrease the number of pupils assigned to qualified teachers in early grades.

For some educational researchers, the jury is still out on whether lowering class sizes leads to better pupil performance, though the latest research points more and more that way for children learning to read.

State schools Superintendent Nancy L. Grasmick says there's little question: "The research seems to be clear that significantly lowering the class sizes for children in grades one, two and three can improve achievement. Lowering class sizes has to be a high priority."

This fall, a state task force examining class-size reductions is to issue a report to the governor recommending how such reductions might be accomplished, how much they would cost and how quickly they could be done.

But decreasing the number of pupils in the classrooms of more than 800 Maryland public elementary schools will be far from easy -- especially if the state is to avoid the problems encountered elsewhere of too few qualified teachers and too little space in buildings.

In fact, the state's much-publicized teacher shortage likely would be worsened in the lower-paying (and lower-performing) school systems if the wealthiest districts suddenly need to grab more of the limited pool of talented teachers.

"We have to find a way to get our society to produce more teachers, so our wealthiest systems don't end up recruiting qualified teachers from everyone else," says Carmela Veit, former president of the Maryland PTA and a member of the state task force.

Nor is it clear when funds might become available for such an effort. While the federal government has provided some money to all 24 Maryland school systems to hire extra teachers, this year, the governor and General Assembly have given additional funds for that purpose to only one district -- Montgomery County.

In the meantime, school systems and individual schools are trying to find funding and devise creative solutions to make smaller classes.

For example, at Fifth District Elementary School in northern Baltimore County, Principal Susan Deise has essentially done away with the position of assistant principal to create smaller classes. Instead, she has two "advisers" who divide their time between teaching pupils and helping other teachers improve instruction.

"By making adjustments to our schedule, we're able to create groups for instruction in reading that range from eight to no more than 20, depending on the skills of the students and how much attention they need," Deise says. "Sure, I'd love to get more teachers, but there's a limit and we need to work within it."

While the specifics of Fifth District's plan can't be copied by too many other schools, many elementaries across the state have their own ways of juggling teacher scheduling to try to create smaller classes, particularly for beginning reading instruction.

Leading the pack this fall with broad efforts at cutting class sizes are Howard and Montgomery counties.

Montgomery's plan -- the only one the governor felt was developed enough to be worthy of state funding -- calls for all first- and second-graders to receive 90 minutes of continuous reading instruction in groups of no more than 15 pupils. Teachers being added to schools aren't assigned full-time to classrooms, but switch between the two grades for reading instruction.

The county's 61 neediest elementaries had the class-size reduction plan in place last school year, and this fall -- with the help of the state funding -- it is expanding to Montgomery's remaining 67 elementaries.

Howard County is pursuing class-size reductions in a more traditional and targeted way this fall, aiming to cut the average number of pupils from 25 to 19 in first- and second-grade classes at 17 of its neediest elementary schools. The school system's other 20 elementary schools are each receiving one extra teacher for first grade, which will reduce first-grade class sizes in some of those schools to as few as 20 pupils.

Howard has added a total of about 56 teachers for the class-size effort and a companion plan to improve fourth- and fifth-grade special education instruction. Ten of the teachers are paid for by federal funds, with most of the rest coming from a tax increase approved by the Howard County Council in the spring.

"This is where we can make the biggest difference with extra teachers," says Patricia Tidgewell, Howard's elementary instruction coordinator. She said she hopes the reductions can be extended to all of Howard's elementary schools in the 2000-2001 academic year.

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