School's growing pains

Concern: Many worry new Reservoir High's lack of upperclassmen will harm class offerings and athletics and rob younger students of role models.

January 20, 2002|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

Think about high school - the prom, the big game, seniors smiling from the yearbook in caps and gowns. Howard County's new Reservoir High School is not likely to offer any of those traditional joys after students fill lockers there for the first time this fall.

That's because only freshmen and sophomores are expected to attend in the first year.

Parents, school administrators and some students fought to keep the juniors and seniors at their old schools. "You can't move rising juniors," they argued. "They've already spent two years in another high school."

But now that Superintendent John R. O'Rourke has recommended opening the county's 11th high school with only freshmen and sophomores, a new litany of concerns has cropped up.

Some parents worry that the half-empty school will not have enough students to fill advanced courses that gifted children might be ready to tackle as ninth- or 10-graders.

They say spending a year or more in a school with no upperclassmen robs the younger children of role models, mentors and memorable high school moments.

And many have stressed that budding young athletes could lose a year of being challenged on the field or court because more-advanced varsity sports will not exist without juniors or seniors. Some worry about their children's chances of receiving athletic scholarships or winning state championships.

Freshman wrestler Noah Holloway has moved up so fast this year in his weight class that his Atholton High School coaches say he definitely will compete on the varsity level next year. But next year, Noah's Scaggsville neighborhood could be redistricted to Reservoir, keeping the 103-pounder on the junior varsity an extra year.

"It makes me mad," Noah said Friday before wrestling practice. "I don't think they're really thinking about this too much."

Noah said that if it comes down to it, his parents want him to take advantage of a JROTC loophole that would allow him to stay at Atholton in that program as an out-of-district student - and join the varsity team. "They want me to stay," Noah said. "I want to stay, too. I like a better challenge. It's not much fun if you get to beat people all the time."

Educators say there are good arguments on both sides of the question of whether to start the high school with just two grades.

"If you looked at the research, it would come down on either side," said Mary Cary, assistant state superintendent for professional and strategic development. "I understand both sides of the issue."

In 1993, then-Principal Cary opened Carver Center for Arts and Technology in Towson with freshmen and sophomores. She said that parents should consider what their teen-agers want when weighing the benefits of a two-grade school.

"I know how parents feel about the varsity thing and all of those issues, the course offerings and all that, and all of those things are true," Cary said. "But the teens generally already have an allegiance established to their high school by the time they're ready to move into their junior year. They've put two years into that school. That's where their friendships are. The social aspect of high school is also very important. Socialization is also a life skill."

River Hill freshman Rachel Monheit spoke out at a school board meeting last week about the social benefits of having juniors and seniors at Reservoir.

"I feel it is important to the freshmen and sophomores to have an upper class," she said. "As a freshman, I know how important it is to have someone to look up to and be able to have a variety of friends [of] different ages."

But Pete Reed, the National Association of Secondary School Principals' administrator for leadership, development and assessment, said parents might celebrate the one-year isolation from older students, if they thought about their high school experiences with more mature and sophisticated teen-agers. "They're role models, but ... kids learn bad things as well as good things from older students," Reed said.

Charles Shubin, director of pediatrics at Mercy Family Care in Baltimore, said parents often try to relive their high school experiences when it's their children's turn to go through freshman initiation, football tryouts, junior prom or any other milestone. "People want instant tradition. There's no such thing. It's an inherent oxymoron," Shubin said. "It probably isn't reasonable to try to re-create an established school in a brand-new one.

"High school is by definition a disruptive period in kids' lives, no matter what, because of the age group we're talking about," he continued. "Generally, high school kids are all in a state of turmoil. There may be kids that'll suffer because the school doesn't have an identity. The flip side is the newness will get you other benefits. Under the circumstances, it's less of an issue than people make it."

Don Disney, the school system's coordinator of athletics, says that for students who play varsity sports, it will be an issue.

"Let's say you were a freshman at Atholton High on the soccer team," Disney said. "Now as a sophomore at Reservoir, you'll have to play JV. In a sport like wrestling, an individual sport, you won't have the opportunity to become a state champion," because only varsity wrestlers can compete in championships.

But, Disney said, those concerns can be dealt with. "Those are sacrifices. It's a one-year time period. Hopefully, it can go quick," he said. Disney said there is also an upside to playing junior varsity.

"The students have the opportunity to win and be successful at that level, which is basically their own age group," he said. "The bottom line is we have to make it work the way the board sees it. That's my job, and it's only for one year. And, truthfully, kids adapt so much quicker than people give them credit for."

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