Md. schools put reading, safety first

Parents to be involved in board's proposal to help pupils read

Another term for Grasmick

Security initiatives include reviewing crisis response plans

August 25, 1999|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

On the eve of pupils returning to classes, Maryland's top educators and elected officials announced plans yesterday to improve two of the state's most pressing concerns: reading and safety.

In an unexpected move, the state school board also voted yesterday to give state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick another four-year term, 10 months before her contract expires.

The effort to improve early reading achievement includes a new program to give parents custom-made menus of reading activities they can do at home with their children.

Under the "Family Reading Plan," teachers will check their pupils' reading skills and provide parents with specific reading activities to improve the weaknesses.

"It is the beginning of saying that parents and adults are partners with us in the teaching of reading," Grasmick said. "We have children for only about 9 or 10 percent of the children's time, and there is so much that can happen outside the confines of school."

All of Maryland's 24 school systems will be allowed to pick one elementary school to participate in the new program this fall, and the materials also will be available on the Maryland State Department of Education's Web site for other schools to join on their own. State educators hope to have the plan in place in all elementary schools by fall 2000.

The new reading initiatives also include a $14.2 million federal grant -- one of 17 given to states under the federal Reading Excellence Act -- aimed at improving reading instruction in counties with large numbers of children living in poverty.

"I'm excited about this grant," said Democratic Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, who attended yesterday's state board meeting to help announce the grant. "This will help buttress teachers so they can help children to read and so they can help parents."

The money must be used for reading instruction based on the most current research, including training for teachers, tutoring and summer programs for struggling readers. State educators estimate as many as eight school systems would be eligible to apply, including Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Harford and Howard counties.

On school safety, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend said that while students are returning to school this year with both "excitement" and "trepidation," parents must not forget that "schools are still some of the safest places for children to be."

`Precautions and paranoia'

"As we return to school, we have to strike a balance between responsible precautions and paranoia," Townsend said. "Students should be looking at their books, not over their shoulders."

During the summer, a task force led by Townsend and Grasmick developed several safety initiatives, including:

Ensuring that all schools and school systems have crisis response plans that are practiced regularly. Most schools have such plans, and the state education agency will begin reviewing them annually, Grasmick said. The Maryland State Police also are working with schools on the plans, including gathering aerial photos of every school in case of an emergency, said Col. David B. Mitchell, the state police superintendent.

Creating a uniform statewide reporting system for school violence, suspensions, expulsions and other incidents. "We don't want to burden our schools with more paperwork, but we need to know which schools are having problems so we can help," Grasmick said.

Setting up a statewide toll-free hot line next month for students, teachers and staff members to anonymously report guns or other safety concerns at their schools.

Providing grants to 22 schools for "Clean Our School Teams." The teams -- to be put in at schools that have probation officers through another state program -- would punish students who break discipline rules and help clean schools.

Establishing school-based mental health teams at four schools in a pilot program for early identification of students who need help. The schools will include a middle school in Dorchester County, Sandalwood Elementary and Deep Creek Middle in Baltimore County, and one yet-to-be identified Baltimore school.

Unexpected move

In other business during yesterday's board meeting, the board's unexpectedly early decision to give Grasmick another four-year contract will enable her to continue her run as one of the nation's longest-serving state superintendents. Grasmick has been Maryland's superintendent since 1991 and earns $119,000 per year. Her new contract will begin July 1, 2000.

Grasmick also spelled out more details of the teacher recruitment plan that she announced last month, including proposing that the board seek $32.7 million for the 2000-2001 school year to combat Maryland's growing shortage of teachers.

The plan includes $500,000 to better market the teaching profession, $4 million to modernize the state's certification process, $16 million to expand mentoring programs for new teachers and $10 million for local school systems to recruit teachers in such hard-to-find subject areas as special education, math and science. She also wants to appoint a state task force to try to solve a growing shortage of teachers who want to become principals.

The board agreed to add the money for teacher recruitment to the $3.5 billion budget request it approved yesterday for the 2001 fiscal year. Most of the money in the request is funding that gets passed along to local school systems.

Pub Date: 8/25/99

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