Arundel won't back down on middle school reading

Principals seek ways to offer electives demanded by state

September 19, 2001|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County middle school principals vowed yesterday to continue providing pupils with almost two hours of reading instruction every day, despite a state order to spend more time on fine arts, health and physical education.

The State Board of Education ordered last week that all middle school pupils take those courses every year. Principals said they can accomplish that without sacrificing reading time.

"We'll come up with some creative scheduling to offer the extra electives," said Paul Strickler, the principal of Arundel Middle in Odenton. "We're going to keep the reading plan in place."

Members of the county school board, who will meet tonight, said they probably would not appeal last week's ruling, but they also said the two daily reading periods must stay.

"We're still going to have two periods of language arts," said county school board member Janet Bury, adding that she opposed an appeal. "I just would really like to get on with things."

Getting on with things will not be easy, officials said. The state requires that all 17,800 middle school pupils be taking gym, fine arts and health classes by February. A third of the county's sixth-graders and a quarter of seventh- and eighth-graders aren't currently taking gym.

And almost a third of sixth-graders and about 10 percent of seventh- and eighth-graders, aren't taking fine arts. The health requirement is easier to meet because it can be built into classes such as gym and language arts.

Some principals said they want to move to a seven-period day, so students can take math, social studies, science, two periods of reading and two periods of electives. But they doubt the school system could find -- or pay for -- the additional teachers that would require.

"It's difficult enough to do the summer hiring, when people are coming out of college," said Principal Chris Truffer of Corkran Middle School in Glen Burnie. "But to do midyear hiring -- there aren't all these fully certified people sitting out there waiting for our phone call."

If he can't hire more teachers, Strickler, the Arundel Middle principal, said that he might ask teachers to take bigger classes. He is considering combining seventh- and eighth-grade art classes, which each have about 15 pupils, so the art teacher could pick up a sixth-grade class.

The schools are looking at a variety of ways to fit the required courses into the existing six-period day. They might break one elective period into four nine-week sections to get all the courses in. It's possible that schools could count the folk-dance component of gym class as fulfilling the fine arts requirement, said Brooklyn Park Middle Principal Brenda Hurbanis.

But that's not what the parents who brought the issue to the state board want. Although they have no quarrel with two periods of reading per day, they say the time for electives must be increased. They also say some courses would be eviscerated if they were taught for just nine weeks a year.

State regulations don't specify how much time pupils must spend in each of the required electives, only that they must take each course sometime during each academic year.

"You can't teach instrumental music in nine weeks, you can't have a school band in nine weeks and you can't teach a foreign language in nine weeks," said Terra Ziproyn Snider, who has two children at Severna Park Middle School.

That school faces perhaps the toughest challenge in meeting the state order. Only half of Severna Park Middle sixth-graders are taking gym this year, and 44 percent are taking fine arts.

Principals said the double reading classes have been so successful since they began three weeks ago that they can't be lost.

"It's tremendously valuable for kids," Strickler said. "I can see the kids getting tremendously excited about reading."

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