City schools face daunting task: helping 20,000 pupils who weren't promoted

Middle school intervention critical to overall reform

August 29, 2002|By Liz Bowie and Erika Niedowski | Liz Bowie and Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

Having failed more than a quarter of its elementary and middle school children this past academic year, Baltimore school officials face one of their greatest challenges in reforming city schools: helping 20,000 struggling children catch up.

The most pressing need is in middle schools, where the failure rate was higher. Only 27 percent of the failing middle school pupils attending summer school made enough progress to move to the next grade. Research has found that eighth-graders who fail twice in their school careers are more likely to drop out before they get to high school.

Improving instruction

"What we are in is a race to improve the quality of instruction fast so that we don't lose a whole generation of students," said school board member C. William Struever.

School officials said Tuesday that about 20,000 of 70,000 children in grades one through eight failed to meet the standards for promotion. Results for high school students were not available.

Despite the high number of children who will repeat grades, Struever said, the board thinks it was right to discontinue social promotion and adopt the tough-promotion standard.

Unless the school system can deliver students to high school who are prepared, Struever said, the effort begun this year to improve the city's neighborhood high schools will fail.

School administrators have created a complex bureaucracy to check on whether students get extra help in their regular classes or after school and Saturdays.

Each school will be responsible for creating a plan to provide extra help to children who need it. Some schools will generate "intervention plans" for pupils, and others will focus on groups of children with similar academic deficiencies. Every eight weeks, the teachers will be required to document that they have taught or have witnessed the teaching of an intervention.

Board members acknowledge that the job is likely to strain teachers and principals. Struever said the question will be whether so much time and attention will be focused on helping struggling children that other things will suffer.

"It is so many students [that] there is a risk that the effort on interventions will divert attention from the main program," he said.

School officials have said that the interventions should emphasize preparation for the Terra Nova, a national standardized test on which children must achieve a minimum score, and the Maryland Functional math and reading tests, which are also promotion requirements.

Intervention approaches for elementary and middle school children include after-school and Saturday school programs; tutoring programs using parents, retired educators or college students; schoolwide test-preparation activities; a "double dose" of classes in a particular content area; and computer-assisted instruction emphasizing basic skills.

For high school students, one intervention will be the 9T (ninth-grade transition) program, which provides remedial help on the functional exams.

A school system evaluation of last year's 9T program found that the majority of students placed in transitional classes were promoted to ninth-grade status midway through the academic year even if they had not met the passing requirements.

At Francis Scott Key Elementary-Middle School, four "intervention" teachers, two each in reading and math, will provide extra help to children who were held back as well as to those who might have barely met the standards.

To help those needing to pass functional math, the school will integrate math into lessons in other subject areas. A physical education teacher, for instance, might have children struggling with the concept of feet and inches map out a perimeter, and a home economics teacher might help them with measurement concepts such as pounds and ounces.

"Every teacher has to provide an intervention for students," said Mary Booker, the principal.

Other intervention approaches will include after-school help and in-school tutoring, in a program that will place education majors from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in classrooms.

All children at Francis Scott Key, whether they passed or failed, will have an intervention plan outlining their strengths and weaknesses, Booker said. "If we provide interventions, give them sound instruction - just good teaching - and high expectations, students will rise to the occasion," she said.

Failure rates vary

Although the school system has not released detailed figures, some schools might have a higher number of failing students than others. For instance, only 27 children at Furley Elementary in Northeast Baltimore have failed in a school of more than 600, said Principal Barbara Meyers.

She called summer school a "critical" intervention. Without it, nearly 150 more children would have had to repeat a grade.

The standards, raised last year by a school board policy, are getting tougher, with the passing grade in all subjects being raised from 60 to 70 and seventh-graders being required to pass at least one Maryland Functional test to move on.

Christopher Maher, education director for Advocates for Children and Youth, said the district has a heavy burden.

"It is great to have high standards and say we are not going to promote kids," Maher said, "but if you don't have the interventions to bring the children back up to standards, then you are cheating them."

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