New year, new solutions

Education: Officials open the school year with new teachers, new curricula and better-trained teachers and volunteers.

August 30, 1999|By Liz Bowie and Lynn Anderson | Liz Bowie and Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

Despite fears that a growing teacher shortage would leave local school systems unprepared, administrators say that no student will lack a teacher when classrooms open today, the first day of school.

Baltimore school officials, who launched a national search for qualified teachers last winter in hopes of attracting good candidates, say they will open schools with 130 vacancies for about 7,000 teaching positions. Baltimore County will open with 15 vacancies for about 7,700 positions.

Those vacant positions will be filled by substitutes, some of whom are retired teachers who, under a special provision in the law, can accept temporary assignments without risking retirement benefits.

New faces at the blackboard might not be the only change the estimated 212,000 city and county students face today. County secondary students will use new geometry textbooks as part of a revised mathematics curriculum. Administrators had chosen not to implement the curriculum until they had some idea of the content of new state achievement exams -- which will require students to write short essay answers -- to be phased in during the next several years.

For the first time in recent history, all pupils in county primary schools will use the same math textbook so children who move from school to school within the county can follow lessons more easily.

In the past, school principals picked their own textbooks from a pre-approved list.

New resource officers -- Baltimore County police officers who work as campus security guards -- will greet students at seven county high schools, bringing the total of campus police to nine. More resource officers could be hired later in the school year, officials said. Last year, Pikesville and Milford Mill Academy reported a decrease in crime after they hired resource officers.

In an attempt to ensure that all children can read by the time they reach third grade, county elementary school reading specialists were trained last week to teach community volunteers -- parents, grandparents and teacher aides -- how to work with young readers.

The start of the school year also heralds a milestone for county Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione, who will retire June 2000 after 45 years in the county school system. Today, he'll visit Golden Ring Middle School, where he started his education career as a math teacher.

In Baltimore City, students -- from age 6 to 18 -- will be handed new math textbooks, and their teachers should be better prepared to teach the subject after a summer training program.

Third- and fourth-graders will have fewer classmates as the city school system continues an initiative to reduce class sizes in all elementary grades. Middle school pupils are likely to find reading teachers in their schools who can improve their skills.

For many city high school students, the question will be whether the scheduling debacles of past years are repeated.

Chief Executive Officer Robert Booker said he believes all but transfer students will receive schedules for their classes. In an attempt to reduce the stress on students and teachers, school officials opened some schools Saturday to process applications from transfers and new students.

For years, the city has been losing its youngest teachers to county school systems where pay was higher and teaching assignments were perceived as less challenging. But some differences between the systems are disappearing. Last week, pay for beginning teachers in the city increased 4 percent to $28,449, compared with $29,500 for Baltimore County. Dai- ly pay for the city's substitute teachers recently increased as well.

Baltimore City also has improved support for new teachers by providing a monthlong summer orientation program taught by veteran teachers. The program was designed to give novices techniques to help keep their classes under control and their principals happy.

This year, the city will provide a mentor for each new teacher to help them get through that first tough year of teaching, a program the county initiated last year.

"I am very optimistic for the school year," said Betty Morgan, city chief academic officer. "I think that we realize we are only as good as our weakest teacher, and our goal is to make our teachers strong."

Difficulty finding teachers

For the first time, Baltimore, with its student population of 106,000 roughly equal to the county's, is hiring about the same number of new teachers for the start of the school year -- about 865. Both systems have had the most trouble finding special education, math, and science teachers.

"As the special needs populations have been better addressed, they've required additional staffing," said John E. Smeallie, Baltimore County's personnel director. "This isn't just a local problem. There's an increasing demand for special education teachers across the nation."

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