School board OKs plan for sixth-graders

Daily 2-hour block set for language arts next academic year

`Program ... not producing'

County 8th-graders score below average on statewide tests

Anne Arundel

January 04, 2001|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

The statistics got the school board's attention: Fifth-graders in Anne Arundel County are reading and writing better than their peers statewide. But county eighth-graders score below the average on state standardized tests in reading and writing. And they're not showing improvement.

The reason, the school board learned, is that elementary schools pound away at teaching the mechanics of reading for up to two hours a day, but that stops once sixth grade starts.

Board members changed that yesterday, starting by creating a two-hour language-arts block for sixth-graders that will start next year. Part of that time will be used to continue the how-to's of reading and writing, which a study committee found out is what the most improved and most successful Maryland middle schools are doing. The reading classes probably will take up some of the time now devoted to art and music instruction.

"The assumption is youngsters, when they leave fifth grade, are proficient readers, and that's not necessarily the case," said Peter Nicolini, one of the system's directors of instruction, who is a former middle school principal and a member of the committee. "We need to have reading instruction."

"For the past X number of years, our middle-level program is not producing," said Old Mill Middle School-North Principal Deborah Montgomery. "We would like a clear, `OK, go ahead, do it.'"

Board members threw their support behind the plan, defending it against critics who said it would hamper cultural arts instruction for brighter students who might not need intensive language arts instruction.

"The thought of taking away one entire period of cultural arts learning frightens me," said Brenda Reiber, president of the county's Council of PTAs.

Reiber said she has a daughter at Crofton Middle who has two periods of electives a day.

"The motivated students, they need the opportunity to be exposed to these other things," she said.

Board member Michael J. McNelly responded.

"Are we not at a crisis state in reference to our ninth-grade failure rate?" McNelly said. " ... I know the minute someone starts up the rumor flag that we're going to do away with cultural arts, we'll fill up this room. I don't want to do away with cultural arts, but I want our children to be able to read. Can we have it equally both ways? I don't think so in the middle of a crisis."

Parent Debra Curro, whose son is a sixth-grader and won't be affected by the changes, said she wonders what would happen if her son had been affected.

"If he had to choose between art and band, it would be a dilemma," she said.

Nicolini is part of a team of administrators that spent much of the past year trying to figure out what Anne Arundel County is doing wrong when it comes to middle-school achievement.

Besides new reading teachers, the group wants more language arts training for middle school teachers, more flexibility in scheduling and more team lesson-planning time.

Most elementary schools devote two hours a day to language arts, about half of it reading instruction. Most middle schools have 50 to 55 minutes of language arts and no reading instruction.

Recently, a Maryland State Department of Education task force recommended formalized reading instruction in middle schools.

Anne Arundel Superintendent Carol S. Parham asked board members for support and a little room to see how things work out.

"Our folks, all of us, want to hear we're not going to be punished for trying as hard as we can," Parham said.

"This is not about punishment," said board member Joseph H. Foster. "This is not about finding fault. We want to support the middle school principals. We see students who seem to do well in elementary school, and they get into middle school. You see a pattern where their performance drops, and by the time they get to high school, they're in trouble.

"If you don't swing at the ball, you'll never hit it."

Board business

Yesterday, the Anne Arundel County school board:

Learned that it would be difficult to build Mayo Elementary School on an alternative site favored by parents and neighbors. Representatives from KCI Technologies told board members that it would be hard to persuade state agencies to allow them to build on the larger but more environmentally sensitive site because building on the original site is easier on the environment. The board also heard that it would cost $2 million more and take 16 months more to build on a new site than to rebuild on the original site. The board made no decision.

Approved a calendar for the 2001-2002 school year without an extra day at the end of the year to give teachers time to finish their work. Board members considered eliminating a teacher training day in October and replacing it with the day at the end of the year, but several instructional directors implored the board not to, saying that day is vital for professional development at schools. One idea discussed was adding a day to the 191-day work calendar for teachers. That would cost about $1 million, teachers union officials said.

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