Dusting of a turnout on snow-makeup day

Schools: Absenteeism on Good Friday among students and teachers saps the education process in Carroll.

April 19, 2003|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

Carroll County scheduled a rare Good Friday school day yesterday to make up class time lost to snow.

The result: thousands of student absences, hundreds of teachers taking personal days, quiet cafeterias, empty buses, still hallways, idle custodians and bragging rights - albeit temporary - on teacher-to-student ratios.

"We have the best ratios in the state right now," Assistant Superintendent Stephen Guthrie quipped. "They are 1-to-0 in some classes."

Carroll and Talbot County were the only Maryland school districts to schedule classes yesterday to make up for snow days. Talbot, on the Eastern Shore, reported student attendance only slightly lower than normal. But in Carroll, absentee rates ranged as high as 66 percent.

With about 350 of Carroll's 1,950 teachers and other school staff taking personal days, principals and county administrators also struggled with staff vacancies.

Pamela Mesta - who usually works out of the district's administrative offices in Westminster and coordinates the county's program for students whose native language is not English - was dispatched to teach Spanish I at Liberty High in Eldersburg. Muddling through basic verb conjugations, the 11 students in Mesta's classroom were outnumbered by 22 empty seats.

Carroll's school board members resorted to holding a half day of classes on Good Friday only after Maryland school officials declined their request to waive another day - beyond two already granted - from a state requirement of at least 180 days of school.

Community members cautioned the county board against opening schools on Memorial Day, saying it would send the wrong message with American troops in Iraq. And they argued against extending the year, noting that some Carroll schools aren't air-conditioned.

Faced with making up five snow days, Carroll school board members said they had no choice but to convert all three spring break days - Thursday, yesterday and Monday - into school days.

"It's not my favorite option," board member C. Scott Stone said as he and his colleagues considered the plan last month. "But I'm persuaded that absences on Good Friday will probably match the absenteeism Baltimore County saw when they had school on Memorial Day a few years ago."

His prediction proved true.

Carroll elementary schools averaged about 30 percent student absenteeism yesterday, according to Superintendent Charles I. Ecker. About 45 percent of middle school children were out. And at Carroll's high schools, student absenteeism ranged from 39 percent at Century High in Eldersburg to a countywide-high of 66 percent at Hampstead's North Carroll.

"We have had a very quiet day," North Carroll Principal Gary Dunkleberger said. "Very quiet."

His 1,550-student school has grown so crowded that the auditorium can no longer seat the entire student body on a typical day. So Dunkleberger indulged in the luxury made available yesterday, inviting the entire school into the hall for an assembly with North Carroll's vocal ensemble. There were still empty seats.

Mike Klingenberg's upper-level ninth-grade government class appeared to be the largest in the school - with just 13 students, Dunkleberger said. The smallest was an English class with a single student.

"Obviously, given things of this nature, normal instruction did not go on, could not go on," the principal said.

At Liberty, where only 470 of 1,204 students showed up, administrators compressed their schedules into 14-minute periods.

One math class played numerical hangman. A substitute teacher in graphics communications read historical quotes and awarded bagels to students who guessed the speakers. Chemistry teacher Stacy Nolan brought together the 11 kids in her class (she usually has 28) with a class of 10 students (that usually has 31) for a seasonal experiment.

Armed with hydrochloric acid, test tubes and hotplates, the group tested the heat resistance of marshmallow Easter treats known as Peeps. The task amused students - "this is the first class we've done anything in," remarked junior Craig Miller - and sent a burnt stench wafting through the hallways.

Asked what he had learned by midmorning, freshman Adam Kempler said, "I've learned that when more than half the school's population is not here, you don't do anything."

Noting that the alternative to holding classes yesterday, no matter how small, would have been lengthening the school year past June 13, Westminster High Principal John Seaman said, "I think the students and teachers will both appreciate today on Monday, June 16, when they're not in school."

Talbot County officials said they also wanted to avoid summertime classes.

"When we met with parents in early February, even before the big Presidents Day storm, parents were asking us to look at taking away spring break," said Janel Lanahan, a spokeswoman with Talbot schools.

School officials decided to make up the lost time by extending the year by seven days, to June 18, and by revoking spring break - scheduled for yesterday and for Monday and Tuesday next week.

"We didn't hear a lot of grumbling about it," Lanahan said. "Everyone understood that because of the winter we had, it was just something we had to do - unless they wanted to stay in school until July."

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