Pupils facing course change at midyear

Arundel principals must revise middle school schedules

Gym, fine arts are required

November 04, 2001|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

Crusading parent Terra Ziporyn Snider says that even her daughter hates her now.

The Severna Park Middle eighth-grader is only the latest one to blame Snider for the upheaval that is about to rock Anne Arundel County middle schools.

Come February, some 8,500 pupils, including Snider's daughter, will be tossed out of many of their favorite classes and enrolled in new ones they might not care for, such as physical education.

Teachers will have to take on courses they haven't been trained for. Recruiters will scramble to hire teachers for new classes. Administrators will spend months tearing up and redoing children's schedules.

And it will cost up to $3.7 million.

Snider is being blamed because she, along with other parents, went to the State Board of Education and pointed out that Anne Arundel middle schools weren't requiring pupils to take physical education and fine arts every year, as the state requires.

So the state board ordered the county school system in September to get all middle schoolers into physical education and fine arts by the second semester this year - forcing an unprecedented schedule shake-up.

"I don't see the tragedy if my eighth-grader has to spend 40 minutes every day doing gym," said Snider, chairwoman of the parents group Coalition for Balanced Equity in Education. "I despised gym, too, but when you look back on it, you realize it's for a good reason."

But to make it happen, to change the schedules of at least 8,500 students and almost every teacher midyear, is a job that middle school principals are calling a nightmare, a virtual impossibility and a harmful, disruptive event for children.

"Kids will be asked to adjust to new schedules, new teachers, new classes," said Principal Chris Truffer of Corkran Middle in Glen Burnie. "They'll be asked to take things they don't want. Such a situation could be devastating to the middle school child."

Reading was the goal

The 19 Anne Arundel County middle schools find themselves in a difficult place because they wanted their children to read more.

School officials noticed that Anne Arundel County fifth-graders scored above the state average on reading tests, but by eighth grade, pupils were scoring below the state average.

Something was going wrong in the middle schools, and it had to be fixed.

So the county school board voted in the spring to give all middle school pupils - starting with the sixth grade this fall - two reading periods every day.

"We were responding to a crisis in the middle schools," said board member Michael McNelly. But they were doing so at the cost of elective courses popular with pupils and parents.

Electives cut

The move cut the time for electives - art, music, technical education, home economics, foreign languages and physical education - from two periods a day to one. And it ran afoul of state regulations about what courses pupils should be taking.

The state requires all middle school pupils to take physical education and fine arts every year. But Anne Arundel schools offered those courses as options alongside the other electives - and that meant many children took other classes instead.

Of the county's 17,800 middle school pupils, 5,176 are not taking physical education this year, and 3,307 are not taking fine arts.

The state board said that must change - by Feb. 4.

"The laws were not put there to complicate our lives," said Snider, who has three children in county schools. "They were put there to give all children a good education."

Snider said she and other parents who brought the issue to the State Board of Education should not be blamed for this tumult. She said they repeatedly warned county school officials last spring that the double-reading plan broke the law.

"The anger directed toward the parents is really misdirected anger," Snider said. "The anger should be directed toward a school system that let this happen. You had to be incredibly arrogant or ignorant to not see this coming."

Committee splinters

To fix the problem, the school board appointed a committee of eight people to find a solution. But the committee splintered, and it has offered the board nine options.

The school board will meet Wednesday to choose one of the options. It could also ask the state for a waiver of the requirement for the rest of this school year. But even if it requests the waiver, the board will have to go forward with planning for the scheduling change while it awaits a state decision.

"This is the most difficult decision we've had to face in a very long time," said board President Carlesa Finney of Glen Burnie.

Challenges await

As school officials struggle to make the change required by the state, they are learning that middle school schedules are not pretty or easily manipulated. They are beasts that take months to devise.

Among the challenges:

While there will no doubt be a need for more physical education and fine arts teachers, they're not easy to find in the middle of a school year.

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