Systems need to do better job with snow days

The Education Beat

Change: Instead of planning for emergencies, many local educators gambled that this winter would be as mild as recent years. They lost.

February 02, 2000|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

STATE SCHOOLS Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick got permission from her board yesterday to waive up to four of the 180 days local systems are required to hold classes. Two of the four are hurricane days from Floyd last fall, while the other two are snow days from last week's nor'easter.

But local systems might be surprised to find the superintendent in an ungenerous mood.

"I'm going to be tough about it," she said. "We need to value educational time."

Good for her.

Local educators gambled that La Nina would winter in Baltimore indefinitely. They cut the number of snow days built into the required 180-day calendar. Now they're gambling that the state will cave in to teachers and parents who would be terribly inconvenienced by an extended school year in June.

American students spend an average of 180 days a year in school. Almost all industrialized nations require a longer year (although not necessarily a longer school day), and almost all put U.S. students to shame in international comparisons of achievement.

We're plenty brief on the length of the school day, too. A few years ago, Maryland changed the yearly time requirement from days to hours -- 1,080 hours for elementary and middle school students, 1,170 for high schoolers.

That's six hours a day for 10-year-olds, 6 1/2 for 15-year-olds. As working parents know -- and who isn't these days? -- the schedule allows kids to be home at midafternoon -- or to be on the streets. The brevity of the school day is one reason after-school programs are booming across the fruited plains.

To some extent, Grasmick's hands are tied. When the governor declares a state of emergency, as Parris N. Glendening did last week, the schools have no choice but to close. But giving in to poor planning and schedule gambling is something else.

The school systems could do a better job of coordinating emergency planning. Schools could prepare "snow packets" to be taken home in early autumn. When schools are closed for extended periods, the packets could be opened and lessons completed at home.

Maryland Public Television, which gets much of its funding from the same taxpayers as the school systems, could be prepared to telecast lessons during emergencies.

And as Grasmick said, "If every kid had access to a computer, they could communicate with teachers by e-mail during an extended emergency."

Extending the school day or year is one of those ideas like reducing class size: We know intuitively that it should improve achievement, but research (some of it conducted at the Johns Hopkins University) shows that the relationship between time and learning is complex and problematic.

If the time added by extending the day or year is wasted, then why do it? We also know that Americans spend less time than their peers elsewhere studying core subjects like English, science, history or math.

The snow-day discussion presents an opportunity for Maryland schools to re-examine what they do with time and how they behave in emergencies.

Single-sex education in city goes back many, many years

Washingtonian Lydell C. Bridgeford was the subject of this column on Jan. 5. Bridgeford remembered that he attended an all-boy class at Matthew A. Henson Elementary School in West Baltimore in 1974, years before the media discovered all-male classes at Henson and elsewhere.

I predicted that we would learn that single-sex education had been invented in Baltimore long before 1974. I was right.

First came a note from Bridgeford's 1974 principal, Mae G. Cornish, who said that his memory was sharp. All-boy classes were started at Henson in 1973, she said.

"We weren't thinking, `Has this been done before?' or `Are we starting something new?' " Cornish said. "It was an organizational procedure brought about by an overflow of [second-grade boys]."

Reader Dolores DuPont followed with a note that she had attended an all-female class at what was then Roland Park Elementary and Junior High School in 1944.

She and many of her classmates went on to Eastern High School, since melded into Lake Clifton High but then the highly regarded rival of all-girl Western High School.

Finally, faithful reader Louise White directed me to a building at Greene and Fayette streets in West Baltimore, now a part of the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

Still visible over the doorway: "Male Primary School No. 1."

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