Report demands support for pupils

Middle schools still lack attention, funds, it states

Group criticizes city's approach

July 17, 2002|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

The promise to fix the city's large and troubled middle schools has gone largely unfulfilled in the past two years, according to a report released yesterday by a nonprofit advocacy group.

Despite having adopted a plan to develop a reading program for the middle grades, to give extra help to those pupils who are below grade level and to train teachers, few of the plans have been implemented, according to a report issued by Advocates for Children and Youth.

In the past five years, city schools have spent millions to improve elementary schools. Test scores have risen four years in a row, and about 20 schools can now boast scores at or above the state average on tests.

Attention has also been focused in the past year on high schools, with more than $20 million pledged by national and local foundations to guide the reform of the city's nine neighborhood high schools. The city will open several new high schools this fall, including a technology-focused high school in Federal Hill.

But middle schools have gotten a smaller share of the attention and dollars.

"My fear is that children will arrive on the doors of the new high schools without the ability to write a complete paragraph, without the ability to do long division," said Christopher Maher, who authored the report and is the education director for the advocacy group. "It will be because Baltimore has not paid enough attention to reforming its middle schools."

Baltimore schools chief Carmen V. Russo declined to comment on the report, saying she had not read it.

The city's middle school plan, adopted in 2000, called for children who were doing math and reading below grade level - roughly two-thirds of sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders - to get extra help.

But Maher said that interviews with teachers, principals, psychologists, social workers and administrators indicated that only a smattering of schools have programs in place, and that the majority of students are not getting help to overcome their deficiencies.

In addition, gifted children have received just as little attention, despite the fact that teachers report the most disruptive students in their classes are often the most gifted.

The city has spent much of its effort and money on changing the configuration of middle schools and is expected to turn at least 10 elementaries into schools housing kindergarten through eighth grade. The system has found that achievement improves at schools with that grade-level structure. But Maher points out that even after those schools are reconfigured in the next several years, most children will remain in large middle schools with as many as 1,000 pupils.

"Teachers were extremely supportive of the K-8 model, reporting that they had improved access to the principal and that parents were more involved," the report said. "The sentiment was that it is the size of the school, not the grade-level configuration, that determines its effectiveness as a learning environment."

The report recommends that middle schools get a larger percentage of new money coming to the city schools, that schools are shrunk and that teachers get better training in adolescent development.

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