Educators extend reforms to middle schools in city

Magnet programs, higher standards

May 23, 2001|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

With new test scores showing that Baltimore middle-school students lack basic reading and math skills, school system officials launched a major reform initiative yesterday.

Results of standardized tests given this spring and released yesterday show that about 75 percent of sixth- and seventh-grade students scored below the national average. The scores rose only slightly over last year's.

Administrators say they hope to make the same kind of progress in middle schools as has occurred in elementary schools, where scores on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills rose for the third straight year. They will raise standards for all students in grades six through eight and offer opportunities for students who want to focus on math and science, the arts or to take honors classes.

Students will have a choice of attending one of 10 citywide, or magnet, middle schools, where they can take more academically rigorous classes. The school system also will give more help to failing students, continue buying new textbooks and take steps to improve teaching.

Continuing gains

"It is now time to implement middle-school reforms to assure that our students have the opportunity to continue their gains through sixth, seventh and eighth grade," Carmen V. Russo, the city schools chief executive officer.

"I am hoping we have a particular focus on sixth-graders," she said.

The elementary school scores released last week showed that for the first time in at least a decade, the majority of first-graders are scoring above the national average.

These improvements come four years into a major reform of Baltimore schools that concentrated efforts and money on the early grades. But educators are concerned because higher-achieving students are heading off to middle schools that are often large, chaotic and low performing.

Under the new plan, which requires school board approval, the system would spend about $4 million more next year to improve middle schools. The money comes, in part, from additional state aid the governor has given the schools. Funding for subsequent years is not in place, school officials said.

Belief is widespread among teachers, principals and parents that the problems of middle schools have been ignored for too long. The results of the tests given this spring only reinforce that belief.

Although there were slight gains, the scores are as many as 20 points short of the elementary schools' performance.

Of sixth-graders citywide, only 23 percent scored above the national average in reading and 22 percent in math.

Seventh-graders did slightly better. Twenty-seven percent scored above the national average in reading and 25 percent in math.

School officials didn't highlight the small increases, saying instead that the results were clearly unacceptable and were evidence of the need for reform.

"We know we need to improve the quality of instruction in the middle schools," said Betty Morgan, chief academic officer.

Daunting for teachers

Teaching in the middle schools can often be daunting, said David Miller, who taught at Calverton Middle School for nearly three years before leaving for a fellowship in 1999.

Calverton was a violent place, he said, where neighborhood rivalries often resulted in vicious fighting in the halls, where students brought razor blades, knives and guns to school and where teachers were sometimes assaulted.

Miller said he loved working with his students and believed there were some excellent teachers there. But he said teaching could often become a "living hell" for the many inexperienced teachers whose education courses never prepared them to deal with urban middle-schoolers.

Young teachers, he said, often got little support from the administration, and felt isolated in their classrooms. They were sometimes fighting to keep control even as half a dozen students were chased down the hall by a security guard or "a girl [cursed] out a teacher at the top of her lungs" just outside the classroom door.

Then there was the lack of textbooks and curriculum, he said, as well as frequent evacuations at the school because a student had pulled a fire alarm as a prank.

"People don't want to know what is going on in the middle schools," he said.

Karl Perry, the new principal at Calverton Middle, said systemwide reforms at the elementary level have begun to pay off, so it's time to "continue the ball rolling" and turn the focus to the middle grades.

"We need to put some emphasis on the middle-school improvement now, so that everything will mesh," said Perry, who leads a school of 1,100 students.

Calverton has been one of the worst-performing schools in the city, although its sixth grade scores improved in reading and math this year. It is far different from Roland Park Elementary /Middle, which had the highest scores in the city.

The majority of sixth- and seventh-graders there scored above the national average in math and reading for the past two years. School system officials are not planning to change its program.

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