Needy children baffle the odds for education

Challenges: Public schools in Annapolis are underenrolled, and students are poorer, more diverse and perform at lower levels than the rest of the county.

October 21, 2001|By STEPHEN KIEHL | By STEPHEN KIEHL,SUS STAFF

In her bright, colorful classroom at Germantown Elementary School, Nannette Simmons perches on a stool in front of her three pupils and asks, "Que hiciste durante el fin de semana?"

What did you do over the weekend? The children - two fourth-graders and a fifth-grader - pick up their pencils and write in Spanish for three minutes about watching television, going to the park and playing games.

"The more literate they are in their native language, the better the transfer of knowledge" to English, Simmons said. She is one of two full-time teathers of ESOL - English for Speakers of Other Languages - at Germantown, where almost 100 pupils do not claim English as their native language.

It's one of many challenges facing the 12 Annapolis-area public schools, where students are among the poorest-performing- and just plain poorest-in the county. To address their needs, the school system has begun several programs unique to Annapolis.

This year, an intensive after-school program began at Germantown and Mills-Parole elementaries. All pupils at each school will be able, if they choose, to stay until 8 p.m. each day to get help with homework and participate in organized activities. Other schools are offering preschool, full-day kindergarten and smaller classes.

And a program known as GEAR-UP - Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs - is entering its third year at Annapolis Middle School. All 540 children at the school participate in the college-preparatory program, which provides tutoring, mentoring, field trips and college visits.

The program also provides workshops for parents on college admissions and costs.

"It's getting them to think about college and letting them know this is what you have to do to get there," said Assistant Principal Daryl Watson, tht program director. Many parents, he said, didn't go to college and don't know how to prepare their children for it.

On standardized state tests, the scores of the Annapolis schools have remained stubbornly below average. Six of the nine elementary schools scored below the county average last year on the third-grade Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests.

Annapolis High School students averaged 1,032 on the SAT last year, 20 points below the county average.

"Despite the hard work we're not getting the student achievement we'd like," said Roy Skiles, the director of Instruction for the Annapolis schools. "We're looking for answers."

Part of the problem, officials say, is that many children come from families that lack a strong educational background and that are at or below the poverty line.

About 47 percent of the pupils at the nine Annapolis elementary schools receive a free or reduced-cost school lunch, compared with 19 percent of students countywide. And six of the 10 county schools with the highest portion of children in the lunch program are in Annapolis.

'You have kids who come to school and their basic need is something to eat for breakfast," Skiles said.

The Annapolis schools are also the most diverse in the county. Annapolis High School and the two middle schools and nine elementary schools that feed into it are 51 percent black 38 percent white, 6 percent Hispanic and 2 percent Asian. Over-all, the county's schools are 75 percent white, 20 percent black, 3 percent Asian and 2 percent Hispanic.

The growth of Hispanics in Annapolis has fueled the county's ESOL program, which has shot from 284 participants seven years ago to 1,001 today. In that same time, the number of ESOL teachers in the county rose from 10 to 30.

The Annapolis area has more children in ESOL than any other region of the county, said Patricia Orndorff, school system's ESOL coordinator.

The county's 30 ESOL teachers race among 105 schools to cover all the students. But Germantown Elementary, with almost 100 ESOL pupils, is the only school in Anne Arundel County with two full-time ESOL teachers.

That allows them to not only pull the children out of class for English instruction, but also to sit with them occasionally in regular classes, translating the teachers' lessons.

"In courses like math and science, that gives them an understanding of what the teacher is doing, and allows the child to feel successful," Simmons said.

Annapolis public schools also are some of the least crowded in the county.

While parents in fast-growing areas such as Crofton demand new schools to ease over-crowding, many Annapolis classrooms sit empty.

Annapolis Middle School has 540 pupils this year in a school built for 1,736. The Annapolis feeder system - including the high school, two middle schools and nine elementary schools -has room for 8,270 students, but last year enrolled 5,291.

Though they have no data to prove it, some school system administrators say the Annapolis public schools are so underenrolled because many parents choose to send their children to private and parochial schools.

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