State rejects reading plan

Arundel program to boost academics is illegal, board rules

Neglects arts, phys ed

September 15, 2001|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

The Anne Arundel County school system is violating a state curriculum law that requires all middle schoolers to take physical education, health education and fine arts every year, a unanimous Maryland State Board of Education ruled yesterday.

The ruling casts doubt on the county's ability to continue a reading program that assigns sixth-graders two periods of reading instruction every day. The program, which the county instituted three weeks ago, reduces the time allotted for elective courses from two periods a day to one.

That reduction angered many parents, who said the physical education and fine arts courses are vital to their children's development - and required by state law. A group of parents made an appeal on the issue to the state board in June.

Yesterday, the board sided with the parents, who were thrilled.

"We're very encouraged," said Lyn Horan, a Severna Park parent. "Taking courses in the arts benefits children in so many ways, preparing them for the workplace and for an enriched life."

In a sharp rebuke to the school system, the state board ordered Anne Arundel County schools to change their schedules by January so all pupils will have time to take physical education, fine arts and health education - courses that the county had considered electives.

Almost all of Anne Arundel's 19 middle schools run a six-period school day. The state board suggested the county consider adding more periods to the school day to allow for fine arts and physical education.

The state board said the county school system had not followed the "plain meaning" of state law, adding, "We do not find it fair that students have to choose these courses as electives when the regulation requires otherwise."

The decision comes three weeks after Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend expressed concern about the effect of the reading program on arts education in a letter to Horan and in conversations with state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.

In a letter to Horan dated Aug. 30, Townsend wrote: "As you know, for many students, the arts are so vital to helping them see their potential. Arts education does not have to be exclusive of reading. In fact, a more creative response may have been to develop a reading course that was taught through the arts."

Townsend wrote in the letter that she was "committed to making sure that all local education agencies comply with state regulations concerning providing adequate and high quality arts education."

Townsend's chief of staff, Alan Fleischmann, said the lieutenant governor was not trying to influence the State Board of Education. While noting that Townsend is a strong supporter of the arts, Fleischmann said she would leave the question of Anne Arundel County's compliance with state law to the state board.

County school officials and school board members declined to comment on Townsend's letter or the state board's decision. They said they hadn't seen the ruling and needed time to evaluate it before commenting.

The county school board has not decided whether it will appeal the decision, said board attorney B. Darren Burns. Nor has the board decided how it will comply with the order to provide physical education, fine arts and health education to all students.

The order poses a huge scheduling and staffing problem for the county. This school year, to make room for new reading teachers, the county's middle schools eliminated 41 fine arts teaching positions.

The middle schools also would have to hire more physical education teachers. This year, two-thirds of the county's sixth-graders are taking physical education, down from 80 percent last year. Under the state order, they all must be taking it by January.

Thirty-eight percent of sixth-graders are taking art classes, compared with 97 percent last year. The extra period of reading also reduced time for other electives, such as technical education, and family and computer sciences.

The school system had argued that state law meant physical education, fine arts and health education must be offered to students, but not required of them.

The law in question reads: "Each local school system shall provide an instructional program in physical education each year for all students in grades K-8." The same language is used regarding fine arts and health education.

In its decision, the state board said, "the language ... is not ambiguous."

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