Schools gird for results of strict policy

Tougher standards for Howard pupils are focus of effort

Officials see motivation

After-school classes for middle grades help with basic skills

April 08, 2001|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

Six months into the Howard County school system's strict promotion and retention policy, middle schools are still focusing on preparing parents and pupils for the new rules.

A tour through the county schools shows that the past six months have been filled with parent education -- introductory assemblies, teacher conferences and warning letters sent home.

It's also been six months of preparations for pupils -- making 11-, 12- and 13-year-olds ready for academic realities possibly harsher than any they' have known.

As pupils embark on spring break, signaling the downhill slide to summer vacation, the county's middle schools want to ensure that as many as possible of the 10,671 middle-graders will have those months off.

"We don't want to fail kids. And if we can help it, we don't want them to have to go to summer school either," said Alice Haskins, the district's director of middle schools. "Teachers want their kids to succeed, and the principals want their kids to succeed. Now there's a consistent plan for dealing with those students who may be in danger of not succeeding."

It was a powerful push that instigated the development of such plans: the school board's introduction of its new, strict middle school promotion and retention policy.

The policy toughens standards in middle school for advancing from one grade to the next and prohibits pupils with low marks in eighth grade from participating in extracurricular activities -- such as sports -- in ninth grade.

Pupils must pass all courses and cannot earn a final grade lower than C in the core subjects of language arts, social studies, reading, math and science; they also must pass all Maryland functional tests to be promoted.

Children who don't meet the new requirements will automatically be considered for retention or summer school. So uniquely strict, the approach has been recognized by state education officials and noted in a report called "The Middle Years: Are U.S. Middle Schools Up to the Task," published by the American School Board Journal.

Administrators began preparing their students by announcing the policy at orientations, first-day-of-school assemblies and back-to-school nights. Each portion of the new policy was carefully explained, to eliminate any room to claim ignorance come report cards.

"One of the issues we always face when we change policies is awareness," said schools spokeswoman Patti Caplan. "So we've put a lot of time and energy into really communicating the change, to make sure that everyone is aware of the policy."

Middle school teachers and principals say the awareness campaign is working.

"The kids are aware, and they want to do well," said Oakland Mills Middle School seventh-grade English teacher Jeanne Longford. "Kids are coming up saying, `What can I do to improve my grades? Can I do extra credit?' I think it's making a difference."

Many middle-schoolers seem not only to be aware of the policy, but also to appreciate it.

"I think you should have passable grades to get to the next grade," said Clarksville seventh-grader Darol Smith, 13. "It teaches kids, makes them study so they won't stay back."

Even before preparing the students for the changes, the schools had to prepare the parents. Introductory letters were followed up with parent notification when students' poor grades put them in danger of being held back, and there were more letters and one-on-one meetings during spring conferences in February.

Harper's Choice Middle School Principal Anthony Harold said most parents understand the policy and its ramifications.

"I'm seeing the concerns from a number of parents and students," Harold said. "They're listening and hearing that the school itself means business."

With funding available with implementation of the policy, most of the county's middle schools have initiated tightly focused after-school academic programs. Schools needed the parents to sign on to help ensure pupils' attendance at the programs, which was strongly recommended but not mandatory.

"It's really important to have a true partnership between the parents and the school in order for the kids to be successful," said Tom Saunders, Wilde Lake Middle School's assistant principal. "You can have a wonderful program, but if the kids don't show up, it doesn't help."

So far, schools have reported positive results from the after-school programs, even if only anecdotally.

Oakland Mills' Longford and English teacher Elvira Brown teach one of the after-school classes together. Both said the students in the class are more energetic, more eager to share and to pick up the missing pieces of their middle school education than they are during the day.

`He's suddenly awake'

"I can even see the carryover into my regular classes," Brown said. "I have one of these kids in my class, and he's suddenly awake now. I think he really needed that smaller class size."

Brown and Longford said they've seen grades in their daily classes improve this year.

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