City eyes plan to combine lower, middle school sites

Four elementaries would be enlarged

May 26, 2001|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

To Frank Whorley, the advantages of keeping children in one school from kindergarten through eighth grade seem clear.

"I like the fact that you ... could get to know every child, and know them well," said the former principal of Mount Royal Elementary/Middle School in Baltimore.

When children leave elementary school for larger, often more distant middle schools, parents can feel more removed from their education. But Whorley kept in touch with parents easily at his combined school, sometimes engaging them in informal chats as they accompanied a child to class.

Whorley, now director of middle school improvement in the city, will have a hand in creating at least four more combined schools as part of a new overhaul of middle-grade education.

School officials have tentatively identified the four elementaries that would be enlarged: Pimlico in Northwest Baltimore, and Steuart Hill, Franklin Square and North Bend in West Baltimore.

But how far the city should move in reducing the number of separate middle schools is being debated. Proponents of separate middle schools say they can work well, and the reform plan announced Tuesday is intended to improve the performance of all children from sixth to eighth grade, regardless of the school they attend.

That plan would raise academic standards in all middle schools; create magnet, or citywide, middle schools for math and science and the humanities; and provide more challenges for gifted students.

The plan was unveiled the same day as the latest standardized reading and math scores for sixth- and seventh-graders were released, which showed little improvement over last year's disappointing results. About 75 percent of the students scored below the national average.

Many of the top-performing schools were combined schools, including Roland Park, Woodhome, Ashburton and Francis Scott Key.

Not surprisingly, that kind of school is popular among parents in many neighborhoods.

There are now 18 kindergarten-through-eighth-grade schools, and 30 middle schools. On Wednesday, the state school board gave Edison Schools, a for-profit company that has a contract to run three elementaries, permission to add a sixth grade.

Although city school officials have tentatively identified the four elementaries to be enlarged, the list might change because of a decision to close other schools. Pimlico, for example, is now expected to take students from one of those schools, raising questions about its capacity to handle more grades.

Carmen V. Russo, the school system's chief executive officer, said she has asked a consultant for recommendations on which elementary schools could be expanded.

Combined schools tend to be smaller than the traditional middle school, which can have as many as 1,200 children. Educators say size is important because keeping classes small and having children believe there are teachers and staff in the building who know them well is key to running a successful middle school.

Laura Weeldreyer, a member of the committee that helped formulate the middle school reform plan, said there is little national research that would conclude one model is better than another. But she said principals of successful combined middle schools attribute their success to that model.

She said expanding some elementary schools might be useful in reducing the number of students attending the biggest middle schools. Weeldreyer also noted that a number of communities have requested combined schools.

School board members have generally supported expanding some elementary schools. One, Sam Stringfield, said perhaps the system ought to add a grade a year at 10 or 15 elementary schools.

"I think in Baltimore City it is a good idea, it is a direction worth going in," he said.

But not everyone in the system is convinced. Doris Shaw, principal of Robert Poole Middle, said she likes separating 10-to-14- year-olds from elementary students.

Traditional middle schools can afford to offer a wider variety of classes and better facilities with playing fields, science laboratories and extracurricular activities such as band and chess that typically aren't found in the smaller kindergarten-through-eighth-grade environment.

"Traditional middle schools work, provided they are structured," Shaw said, "and provided they are not too large."

Traditional middle schools also prepare children to make a smooth transition to large high schools, Shaw says.

Mariale Hardiman, principal of Roland Park Elementary/Middle School, runs a hybrid. Only 30 percent of her middle-schoolers went to the elementary. The rest transferred from other schools.

She said her school's success - Roland Park Middle had the highest scores on the latest tests - stems from several factors unrelated to the elementary-middle configuration.

Hardiman says what is most important for middle-school pupils is making sure they are in small groups where teachers and staff know them, maintaining discipline and a rigorous curriculum.

"I have focused on middle-school reform for the eight years I have been here," she said. "We have pretty high standards for our children here. They know there is a lot of accountability."

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