The Anne Arundel school district vowed yesterday to give sixth-graders two reading classes every day this year - no matter what happens with a challenge to that program that is before the State Board of Education.
In a 22-page legal argument filed with the state board, the county defended its "bold program" to double reading instruction for middle school pupils while reducing time spent on electives such as physical education and fine arts.
The plan has riled many parents, who say they support extra reading time but don't want it at the expense of electives. A group of parents appealed the reading program to the state board in June.
The parents point to a state law requiring that pupils be provided with physical education, health education and fine arts courses every year. That's impossible, the parents say, under a reading program that squeezes electives into one period per day.
But Anne Arundel school officials say the law means that the electives must be offered to, but are not required of, every pupil. And even if the state board sides with the parents, Arundel officials say they can fit the electives into one period.
"Even if the state department of education were to say, `You must make sure that every kid gets some physical education this year,' that doesn't mean we've got to do away with the extra reading period," said P. Tyson Bennett, attorney for the Arundel school board.
"There's a way to accommodate all the programming," Bennett said. "Nobody really wants to get into redoing the entire schedule at the beginning of the school year, but can it be done? Yeah."
With creative scheduling, he said, all the state-required electives could fit into the single period left for electives once the reading class time has been doubled.
The state education board has asked attorneys for the local school board and the parents to file written arguments this month. The school board filed this week, and the parents are expected to file their response next week.
At the state board's meeting Aug. 28 and 29, it will consider the arguments and issue a ruling, or schedule oral arguments for next month.
Anne Arundel's argument is essentially this: Win or lose, the county will schedule two reading periods and one electives period for sixth-graders this year. If the county wins, the district will offer pupils almost all the electives they were offered last year, but pupils will be able take fewer of them.
If the county loses, it will fit physical education and fine arts into one period and require pupils to take both, on alternating days or semesters, because the law doesn't specify the frequency of the required classes.
In its filing, the county said: "Although they may wish it were so, [the parents] will not defeat the Reading the Language Arts initiative simply by establishing that all middle school students must take Physical Education."
An attorney for the group of parents, collectively known as the Coalition for Balanced Excellence in Education, said yesterday he would not comment on the school board's filing. He said he will issue his comments in his written response to the board next week.
Anne Arundel schools Superintendent Carol S. Parham proposed to double language arts classes to give middle school pupils better preparation in reading, grammar and spelling, and to boost their test scores.
The program would be phased in with sixth-graders this year, follow them through seventh and eighth grades, and be offered to subsequent classes of sixth-graders so that by 2003, all middle school pupils would have two reading periods daily.
Anne Arundel fifth-graders score above the state average on the reading and writing portions of the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program test. But by the time they are in eighth grade, Anne Arundel pupils score below average in both.