School brings all sorts of tests

Tightened security, shortage of teachers greet Maryland students

August 29, 1999|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

More testing. More security. Some teacher shortages. And lots of talk about the millennium.

More than 850,000 students will find that -- and more -- as they return to Maryland's 1,357 public schools for the 1999-2000 school year.

Students in 16 of Maryland's 24 school systems return to classes tomorrow, including Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll and Howard counties.

Four districts began last week, and the other four open between Wednesday and Sept. 8, including Harford County on Thursday.

Changes big and small can be found throughout the state's schools: new tan-and-red school uniforms at Hampstead Elementary School in Carroll County; police officers permanently assigned to seven more Baltimore County high schools; the end of a decade-long practice by Frederick County's school board of sending congratulatory letters to black honor roll students but not white ones.

The state's pupils begin a school year in which, as a group, they are all but guaranteed to fall short of the achievement goals set by the state eight years ago for this coming spring.

A greater number of students will find themselves in smaller classes to learn how to read, and more teachers will be better trained in reading instruction.

And two of the state's largest systems -- Montgomery and Prince George's counties -- will begin with new superintendents, while Baltimore and Howard counties will be busy searching for replacements for their retiring leaders.

But for students like Tiffany Kelly, 14, the first day of classes has nothing to do with policies.

It's about new schools and making new friends, navigating unfamiliar hallways and hoping that Algebra 2 isn't as hard as it sounds.

It's about trying to fit in.

"I don't know anyone here because I went to a middle school, so I hope I have friends," says Tiffany, who will start tomorrow as a freshman at Randallstown High School. "I'm a little nervous about it."

Like most of her fellow freshmen, she has scoped out her class schedule in order to locate the classrooms on her school map -- though she still worries about finding them.

"Every class is on a different floor, up and down, up and down," Tiffany says. "I don't need that much exercise in school."

With memories of last spring's massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., still fresh, all 24 Maryland districts start 1999-2000 with a far stronger focus on safety.

"For students and all of the citizens of Maryland, school safety is a very important topic," says state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. "We must take the appropriate steps and precautions."

Crisis plans required

Every school in the state is now expected to have its own crisis plan, regularly practiced and ready to be activated in case of a shooting or other disaster. The Maryland State Police are gathering aerial photos of every school in the state.

"We need to get students involved, to give them a voice in security," says 11-year-old Jonquil Patterson, a seventh-grader at the Stadium School in Baltimore. "We're worried about safety, too."

A school safety summit for students has been planned for the fall, with one of the featured speakers to be Littleton's superintendent of schools -- a former Maryland educator.

Last week in Anne Arundel County, school officials, police, parents and students rehearsed one Pasadena school's plan with a drill involving students supposedly armed with automatic weapons.

Even such rural systems as Allegany and Washington counties increased safety precautions when they opened last week, with local police stepping up routine patrols.

Washington County's superintendent ordered all school employees to wear identification badges this fall and is considering doing the same for students.

"It's a community problem, not just a school or law enforcement problem," says Col. David B. Mitchell, state police superintendent. "We all need to work together on this."

Shortage of teachers

But school safety isn't the only concern of educators this school year. They're also worried about whether the state will have enough teachers.

This summer marked the most difficult teacher-hiring period in about two decades, with even wealthy suburban school systems -- typically flush with applications -- scrambling to fill openings.

By the end of last week, Baltimore City had the most unfilled positions -- about 130 -- of any area school system. No districts expect any opening-day classes to begin without teachers. Instead, they'll turn to retired teachers, substitutes and -- if needed -- central office administrators.

In the coming years, the shortage is expected to get worse, particularly as the state's baby-boom generation teachers approach retirement. Almost a third of Maryland's 51,000 teachers have more than 20 years in classrooms.

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