Schedule for middle school comes under fire again

Coalition argues classes in science, electives suffer

April 08, 2003|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

For the second time in as many years, a group of Anne Arundel County advocates is asking the state school board to resolve a dispute over the county's middle school schedule.

In its latest battle, the Coalition for Balanced Excellence in Education is opposing a four-period schedule planned for this fall that would cut class time in science, social studies and electives for most middle schools.

County school officials say the new schedule would better prepare pupils for high school and help boost their performance on state tests. Pupils would spend half of each school day in math and language arts classes.

"It's disturbing to me to see that we're back in the place where we started from," said Jane Andrew, a steering committee member for the coalition, which has a membership of more than 200 parents, teachers and concerned residents.

The details have changed somewhat from the last dispute. But the principle at stake - whether middle-school pupils are getting a well-rounded education - remains the same.

The last time Anne Arundel's middle-school schedule underwent such scrutiny, in 2001, the coalition won. The county was forced to scrap a newly minted schedule that squeezed out class time in electives to double the time pupils spent in language arts.

That case hinged on a state requirement that middle-school pupils take fine arts and physical education every year. The middle-school schedule did not enable some pupils to meet the requirement, so the state ordered Anne Arundel to make changes.

The coalition is upset that Superintendent Eric J. Smith is undoing those changes, less than a year after the county's 19 middle schools switched to schedules approved by the state. Last week, the group filed an appeal of the Anne Arundel County school board's decision to affirm the superintendent's scheduling plan.

Most middle schools are on a seven-period schedule - five periods of core academic subjects and two periods devoted to electives that switch every other day.

Under Smith's new plan, middle-school pupils would get 86-minute periods of math and language arts daily for the entire year; a period of science or social studies for one semester each; and a period shared by three rotating electives.

The coalition contends the rotation of electives shortchanges pupils in subjects such as music and foreign language, which require frequent reinforcement. Under the schedule, pupils sometimes could go four days before seeing the same elective teacher again.

The group also opposes the reduction of science and social studies to half-year courses.

The activists concede that the fight last time was more clear-cut. "It's less obvious where the deficiencies are right now," said Sally Vanzandt, a vice chairwoman of the coalition. "This is more of an issue of the quality and content than it is of just meeting minimum standards."

Vanzandt said school officials are neglecting electives because those subjects are not tested by the state. "They're putting their money and their efforts and their time where the testing is," she said.

The coalition wants the state board to determine whether the new schedule complies with state educational requirements. It also wants the county to revisit the scheduling issue when it develops its five-year educational master plan for the state.

Synthia Shilling, an attorney for the school system, said scheduling issues have nothing to do with the educational plan, which the state is requiring of all counties.

The plan, she said, "is not meant to hold back [local] jurisdictions from making decisions that they know need to be made."

The attorney said the schools have not been affected by the group's appeal and have been signing pupils up for classes under the middle-school schedule and another schedule to be implemented in high schools this fall. "There is absolutely nothing that these schedules lack in [state regulation] compliance," she said.

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