Expanding the schools, students' study choices

Support: Educators say they will help teachers to keep achievement levels rising.

August 08, 2004|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County school officials hope the coming school year will give them the chance to regroup after major changes last school year - and stick to a course they say already is yielding academic improvements in the 75,000-student system.

Among those changes: revamped reading and mathematics curricula, standardized schedules and textbooks at the system's 116 schools, and a rigorous International Baccalaureate program at two high schools.

"Now that we have that last year behind us ... we can truly build on that and would expect this coming year to be a good year as well," said Superintendent Eric J. Smith, head of the system since 2002.

Despite some stress and anxiety in the wake of those changes, Anne Arundel students - particularly on the elementary level - performed well on the 2004 Maryland School Assessment tests, Smith said.

And more high school students took challenging courses last year such as algebra, including a greater percentage of minority students.

Going forward, Smith said, the challenge will be to support teachers, ensuring that they fully understand what to teach and have the tools to do so.

"Our strength is going to come from our teachers' increased familiarities with their strategies," he said.

In addition, schools will concentrate on improving achievement by students with special needs - those officially placed in special education as well as others having difficulty with the curriculum, Smith said.

The changes have not been without friction among parents, staff and the school board.

Only two of the seven appointed board members who selected Smith as superintendent remain: Michael J. McNelly and Paul Rudolph. And although issues surrounding Annapolis High School arose last year, no member hails from that area.

During last year's budget process, school board members cut Smith's initial proposal by $7 million to $664.5 million, noting a strained fiscal forecast for the county and a desire to trim what was considered an oversized administration.

Although some funds were restored, the cut will affect Smith initiatives such as creation of middle school preparation for the International Baccalaureate program.

Staff changes at Annapolis High School, the district's premier school, also sparked battles.

Smith named former Prince George's County administrator Deborah Williams as principal of Annapolis High to help address the lagging performance of minority students there. But some parents and teachers disagreed with Williams' leadership style, although African-American community leaders said Williams, who is black, should remain.

After months of supporting Williams, Smith replaced her in March, blaming safety concerns.

"I have great expectations for Annapolis High," Smith said. "It has a great history." However, for minority students, "it has a history of disparity in achievement."

Anne Arundel also needed to expand some buildings. This summer, the school system increased the capacity of some facilities in order to provide all-day kindergarten by 2007.

By last month, workers had installed 17 relocatable classrooms at 11 elementary schools throughout the county to accommodate the additional students, said Bill Wise, assistant superintendent for facilities planning, construction and management.

Top school officials are optimistic about the opportunity to consolidate changes.

"I think we're beginning to kind of bear some of the fruits of the labor of the last couple of years," said Edward P. Carey, who was elected school board president last month.

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