Howard short on class time

Schools' calendar fails to meet state requirement

High schools will be 42 hours shy

High number of half-days plays large role, many say

December 24, 2003|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

Howard County high schools routinely fall short of state-mandated class time by more than a week, largely because of the number of half-days included in the school year.

A Sun analysis shows that Howard's high schools will be 42 hours short of the requirement this year and in 2004-2005 if a proposal for next year's calendar is adopted.

The time shortage has been an annual problem and a previously well-kept secret that went unnoticed by the Maryland State Department of Education because Howard reports an extra 15 minutes in each school day, schools spokeswoman Patti Caplan said.

The school system reports 6 3/4 hours for full days instead of the actual 6 1/2 hours schools are in session, and 3 1/4 hours for half-days instead of the actual three hours. Caplan justifies the additional quarter-hour -- which adds up to 45 hours over the school year -- by saying it accounts for fluctuations in bus arrivals and departures.

William Cappe, a school outreach specialist for the State Department of Education who collects time data from districts, said he assumed the Howard figures' count began when the first bell of the day rang and ended with the last bell.

"We rely on people to give us correct information," said Cappe, adding that he will investigate the matter.

Caplan, who is co-chairwoman of a committee that devises Howard's calendar, acknowledged the problem.

"We know we're not where we're supposed to be, and we know we've got to get there," she said. "We just haven't been real public about it because we're working to change it."

Caplan said it's always a goal of the committee to reduce the number of half-days, but members can't because of teachers' contracts and other factors.

School systems across Maryland often send students home early after half-day schedules to give teachers contractually obligated planning time or time to meet with parents. But Howard has more shortened days than most, with 10 half-days in its schedule for elementary and middle school pupils and 12 half-days for high school students. In Maryland, only Charles County's district has as many.

"Howard County traditionally has had a larger number of half-days than most systems because they do a lot with staff development," said Maryland Assistant Superintendent Ron Peiffer, who also said he doesn't see that as a problem.

State law says that all students must be in school for 180 days -- half-days count as full days -- and that elementary and middle school children have to have 1,080 hours of instruction time. Howard's lower grades will meet that requirement, spending 1,122 hours in class even with 10 days set aside as half-days.

But for Howard's high schools, it's a different story. State regulations, which Peiffer said are at a "lower level than the [state] law," require high school students to have 1,170 hours of class credit. This year's Howard calendar and the one suggested for next year allow them only 1,128 hours made up of 168 days that are 6 1/2 hours long and 12 half-days that are three hours long. That means teens miss more than a month's worth of education during their high school careers.

"I am certain that most parents have no idea that the law even exists," said Deborah Wessner, president of the Howard County PTA Council. Wessner said the shortage would likely cause parents pause if they knew, particularly now that passing assessment tests is linked to graduation.

"I just think parents would be concerned if, in fact, we need the additional time to improve scores," said Wessner, who added that she pointed out the shortage to the school board last year during calendar preparation but it was never corrected. She said she would like the system to legitimately add the 15 minutes it reports.

"Other school systems are able to comply, I don't understand why we can't," said school board member Sandra H. French, who also knew of the shortage. "As far as I'm concerned, we need to add time to the high school level."

French relinquished her board chairman position this month to Courtney Watson, who said she was not aware of the deficit. Watson said she will raise the issue at the next school board meeting, Jan. 8 -- when a hearing is scheduled about the calendar -- and she will "certainly be looking for staff to explain why we are that much short."

Parents have long complained about the number of half-days in Howard's calendar, calling them a waste of time, money and food: The state requires that a meal must be served, which means kids often eat lunch before 10 a.m. so they can finish school in time for dismissal.

"Who's hungry for lunch at 9:40?" asked Beth Wahtera who has a son in seventh grade at Mayfield Woods Middle School in Elkridge. Wahtera said her child spent two half-days watching Finding Nemo and an anti-sexual harassment video during Thanksgiving week, when she would have preferred that he receive instruction.

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