Arundel schools aim to boost academics through activities

Superintendent states participation rate goal

August 01, 2004|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF

As part of a mandate to increase academic achievement, Anne Arundel County school officials are tallying how many students enter competitions in art, music, math, science, theater, debate and other disciplines that parallel what's taught in the classroom.

The effort is intended to help prod the system toward a 2007 goal set by Superintendent Eric J. Smith: to ensure that 20 percent of students would be competing in regional, state or national "co-curricular" events - activities other than athletic or social undertakings - by the 11th grade.

"What really brings the school to life for children ... are co-curricular activities," Smith said. Such competitions help children "develop social relationships with other students that are like-minded, get inspired by the intellectual challenges of various co-curricular endeavors."

Some school systems and organizations formally recognize that nonathletic activities in areas such as music, science, math and art make valuable contributions to school culture.

Middle school pupils in Harford County, for instance, have a club period during the school day dedicated to such activities, said Harford schools spokesman Donald R. Morrison.

In Baltimore, the Abell Foundation for more than 10 years has funded National Academic League teams in 30 middle or K-8 schools, said Bonnie Legrow, the organization's program manager for education. The teams - coached by teachers who receive stipends - help children develop close relationships with adults, teach them about winning and losing, and offer opportunities to earn recognition outside of athletics, she said.

Meeting the target

This summer, Anne Arundel schools staff have been adding information to children's files about competitions that parallel coursework, such as essay contests and science fairs. Officials will use the data to determine which students participate in co-curricular activities and how best to promote participation, among other things.

Officials hope the information they gather will help determine how well the county is doing in meeting its target 20 percent participation rate, said Assistant Superintendent Greg Nourse, who leads the group addressing the goal. School officials also will look at the demographics of those who participate to see whether involvement is the same among different racial groups, income levels and age ranges.

Based on the data, the school system will refine the goal or develop programs focused on different segments of the school population so children throughout the county have uniform opportunities, Nourse said. Currently, for example, the majority of such programs are offered to high school students.

"Initially our focus will be getting programs developed at the elementary and middle schools," Nourse said.

Often, schools with a good base of parent volunteers have richer offerings of activities, Nourse said. Other limitations could include a lack of transportation if groups meet after school, or teen responsibilities such as jobs or caring for younger siblings.

"You've got to get to more kids," Nourse said. "The ones that don't have the drive, those are the kids we need to get to."

The next step will be to make a request during the 2006 budget process to fund those initiatives, he said. A request for $850,000 for co-curricular programs in elementary schools was cut from the superintendent's budget proposal for the current fiscal year, Nourse said.

Creative approach

One way to increase participation is to make involvement part of class assignments or the school day itself. Some courses, such as theater, already require students to participate in a community or school production, said Anelle R. Tumminello, coordinator of English in high schools.

"It opens opportunities for students to learn different things in different ways," she said.

As a creative approach to bringing competitions into the classroom, some 11th-grade English teachers are experimenting with essay or public speaking contest topics as part of coursework, she said - a strategy which may be expanded in future years.

"I think it's an opportunity to welcome students into another endeavor," Tumminello said. "Try on this role, see if you like it."

But funding is a concern.

Anne Arundel County school board President Edward P. Carey said he supports activities, particularly the arts, which he said enhance learning and offer opportunities outside of athletics. However, "we're going to have to look at it and balance priorities," he said.

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