Heavier reading schedule hits snag

Senators join parents' protest of changes to 6th-grade curriculum

May 18, 2001|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

Unrelenting protests by a coalition of parents and intervention by four state senators have delayed the school board's final approval of an ambitious instruction program that would double the time spent on reading in Anne Arundel County's middle schools.

The county's senators implored the school board to wait to expand reading instruction long enough to answer their growing list of questions. Though the board did hold off this week on rubber-stamping the plan's final details, school system officials said they will forge ahead with their plans for the fall.

Started by a vocal group of parents and joined recently by County Executive Janet S. Owens, the flurry of opposition to spending extra time on something as fundamental as reading is causing one of the biggest disagreements over a school program this county has seen.

"In all our years as elected officials, we have not experienced the unrest and dissatisfaction associated with a curriculum change as we have with this proposal," reads a letter from the four senators to the school board. "We respectfully request that you defer action so that we have a little more time to understand this very important change."

The statistics convinced the school board in January: The county's fifth-graders are, on average, reading and writing better than their peers statewide. But when county pupils get to eighth grade, they score below average on Maryland's standardized tests in reading and writing.

Fifth-graders have a two-hour language arts block every day devoted to these skills. Middle-schoolers do not. They have 50 to 55 minutes a day devoted to the subject.

Superintendent Carol S. Parham and her staff developed a plan to create two language arts periods instead of one, starting with next year's sixth-graders. But the time has to be taken from somewhere, so reading will take the place of some art, music and foreign language instruction.

It's the sacrifice of the electives, as the parents call it, that has drawn the most ire.

The Coalition for Balanced Excellence in Education, an outspoken group of parents, has lobbied anyone who will listen: Parham, Owens, the school board, the County Council, state legislators. Group members say it's not that they are against reading. It's just that they don't want their children - many of them overachievers - to lose one of two periods a day devoted to enrichment like painting and cooking and singing.

They suggest adding an extra period to the day to allow for both (a near impossibility economically) or requiring only those pupils who struggle to double reading time. They also point out that state school regulations require physical education and art to be taught to each middle school pupil, something that would not happen under the new plan.

"Although I can read a book or write a story at home ... I can't have an orchestra in my living room," Sage Snider, a fifth-grader at Jones Elementary School in Severna Park, told board members in February. "Let the students have a better education by leaving the electives alone."

School officials say that each pupil would benefit from extra time spent on reading and writing. There will be time for more in-depth discussions, silent reading, grammar and SAT preparation. Pupils who read on a higher level would be given more challenging work, they promise, while those who need remedial tutoring would get that. Officials hope to see a difference in the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program test scores.

The parents who support the plan have been all but mum: A few weeks ago, a parent who called herself part of a "silent majority" thanked the board for its perseverance. Another called the electives "niceties" not "necessities" and told the board that without reading there is no education.

On Wednesday night, the school board was expected to rubber stamp the final wording of the new sixth-grade curriculum, a vote that technically isn't needed for the plan to continue. Members had twice approved the theory behind it: once, in February, by a vote of 7-1 with President Paul G. Rudolph of Severna Park voting against; and again two weeks ago, to reaffirm their position after Owens warned them they were moving too quickly and she would withhold money from the budget to pay for the 19 reading teachers slated to support it.

Instead, the school board - after reading an unusual request sent by fax to Rudolph and signed by Democratic Sens. John C. Astle of Annapolis, James E. DeGrange Sr. of Glen Burnie, Philip C. Jimeno of Brooklyn Park and Robert R. Neall of Crofton - voted to wait.

The senators asked the board to delay the vote at least two weeks, until after a meeting of the countywide Citizens' Advisory Council, after the County Council votes on the schools' budget (including the request for 19 teachers to support the additional reading) and after a meeting of members of the board and the legislative delegation.

One of the central concerns, the senators - led by former County Executive Neall - wrote, is that "we have been hearing that this change in the reading curriculum is mandatory for all regardless of a student's proficiency in reading, suggesting that a program such as this should be limited to those students who are deficient in reading."

The senators say they aren't for or against what the school board is doing. They just want more time to discuss it before implementation. The board first approved the plan at a public meeting in January.

And they say they don't want to stick their noses where they don't belong - that education decisions should be made by educators.

Some schools have made deep cuts in their elective programs, in some cases eliminating classes like home economics, general music and art. A training session for sixth-grade teachers is scheduled next month. Extra language arts teachers are being hired.

Wednesday's action - or inaction - will have little or no effect on that.

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