Slighting of arts courses feared

Parents decry move to add reading time in middle schools

`Rumors are rampant'

Anne Arundel

January 30, 2001|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

They're angry in Severna Park. Parents are panicked, convinced that the school board has with one quick move gutted the cultural arts programs for future middle school pupils.

The board endorsed a plan this month to add an extra period of reading instruction in Anne Arundel County middle schools. The superintendent's budget seeks money for extra reading teachers. The push is the school district's answer to reading scores that have been plummeting as pupils progress from fifth grade to eighth grade.

Board members said they wouldn't get rid of arts electives such as band and chorus to find room for reading. But with limited time in the school day, something had to go -- and the answer may be a scaled-down menu of cultural arts electives in middle school.

"Students will still have the opportunity to choose," said Judy Jenkins, director of instruction. "Will they have the same number of choices? No, there will be fewer in sixth grade next year and seventh grade the following year."

She will speak to Severna Park Middle School parents at a meeting Thursday. A group of about 150 parents met last week to discuss the ramifications, and many people signed a petition against tinkering with the arts. The changes would take place at all 18 middle schools.

"Rumors are rampant, and we're working on ways to communicate exactly what the program will be," Nancy M. Mann, assistant superintendent for instruction, said yesterday. "No cultural arts class is being eliminated."

Currently, most middle school pupils take practical and fine arts in a trimester block each year for three years -- family and consumer sciences, technical education and art -- and then take other electives on an every-other-day schedule, such as music, physical education or foreign language. Pupils can take up to five electives a year.

Parents are concerned that the decision to add the extra reading period was done without enough community input. It was reviewed at the Jan. 3 meeting for the first time, and the board gave the superintendent the go-ahead.

"It looks like it was done in tremendous haste, like we looked at the scores, and we said something had to be done and -- boom -- we had a decision," said Lynda McIntyre, president of the PTO at Severna Park Middle. "When money gets tight, the first thing to go is the arts, and basically that's what they'd be doing."

Under the new system, still being tweaked, the trimester requirements would disappear, while the pupils would get extra reading courses every day and would have the chance to take two to three electives a year.

"I hate to see anything taken away, and essentially, they're taking it away," said parent Pam McGregor, chairwoman of the school's Citizens Advisory Committee.

But, she added, "the MSPAP scores have been falling at the middle school. If the middle-schoolers hadn't been [fooling] around and not doing well on the tests, we wouldn't be in the position of having to take away the arts. If they're not taking this seriously, then privileges are being taken away."[Superintendent Carol S.] Parham's between a rock and a hard spot."

School district data show that 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 improving.

Jathan Biddlecomb, a Severna Park High School junior, worries that adding middle school reading would have "damaging effects to the electives."

He said at last night's school board public hearing that he is concerned the school board is making its decision based on the MSPAP, a test he says he and his peers don't take very seriously because it doesn't affect their grades. "The attitude of the students causes it to be an inaccurate meter of judging a student's ability to read and write," he said.

Some parents argue that their children are good readers and don't need to be wasting time on reviewing the basics. Instead, they argue, they should be given the chance to explore what interests them most, whether that may be singing or playing the oboe. But, Mann said, the new reading time will not simply be for those who struggle.

"This is not a remedial program," she said. "This will meet every student's needs, regardless of what level they're on. It's a matter of preparing them for high school, and it will truly be an enriched curriculum."

Pupils who are reading at or above grade level by eighth grade would not have to participate in the double language-arts block at that point, officials said.

Meanwhile, parents sing the praises of the music programs at the middle school, which have won countless awards. They also worry about what would happen to the highly regarded programs at Severna Park High School.

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