Schools look to a better year

Financial woes, scandals, violence marred 2003-04

`Looking forward, not backwards'

Most open tomorrow

Baltimore starts Sept. 7

August 29, 2004|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

Baltimore-area school systems are hoping to put the turbulence of the past academic year behind them this week as students and teachers return to classrooms for a fresh start.

Last year's troubles included a grade-changing scandal, a school shooting and a near-bankruptcy. Now principals and superintendents aim to return their focus to something simple: education.

"I'm really hoping that this year is much, much better, and it will allow us to truly concentrate on our core mission of teaching and learning," said city schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland, whose system was demoralized by a financial crisis.

A campus shooting in May in which four high school students were wounded stunned Baltimore County residents. Anne Arundel County's year was marred by a parent and teacher revolt against a principal.

Howard County endured two grade-tampering incidents, false rape allegations at a high school and a conflict between the board and the superintendent that led to his early departure.

"The past is just that," said Sydney L. Cousin, a longtime Howard County administrator who was brought back as superintendent, in part to quell the turmoil. "We're looking forward, not backwards."

For the 870,000 youngsters statewide who are returning to school - tomorrow in Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties, and next week in Baltimore - those problems might not be foremost in their thoughts.

For them, the opening days will be about catching up with classmates, sizing up new teachers and hitting the books again.

In Jean Montague's colorful classroom at Jones Elementary School in Severna Park last week, an energetic Sterling Williams, 5, visited for orientation and bounced from his new desk to the reading corner to a plastic file cabinet, touching and exploring.

For school officials, the new year also will take some getting used to.

Federal guidelines for school improvement are gripping systems even tighter. The results of standardized reading and math tests of thousands more students will be factored into the state's accountability program, which labels schools as successful or in need of improvement.

Rising benchmarks

Although scores on the state exams rose across Maryland in the spring - the second time they were administered - students and teachers will have to work harder this year to keep up with sharply rising benchmarks. This year, schools will have to demonstrate three times the amount of progress they had to show last spring.

"There is a strong possibility that we could have more schools" not making what the federal government calls "adequate yearly progress," state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said. "We hope we don't, but we need to be cognizant that we can't be complacent."

Against that backdrop, parents can expect many academic initiatives.

State education officials are offering $1 million in grants to schools trying to close achievement gaps between special-education students and the general population.

Officials also are introducing state-approved curricula. There will be lessons in African-American history for elementary and middle school pupils and online courses in subjects not traditionally taught in school, such as Advanced Placement macroeconomics.

More pupils will be attending full-day kindergarten because of a state push to better prepare young children for more academically rigorous schooling.

All elementary schools in Baltimore have full-day kindergarten, as do nearly all in Baltimore County. After a summer of classroom construction, half of Harford County's schools will offer it, as will a third of Anne Arundel County's and a smaller percentage in Howard and Carroll counties.

Charter schools are expected to play a bigger role in Maryland starting this year. State education officials said 30 groups have expressed interest in opening charter schools and that they expect a flurry of applications.

About $13 million in federal money is available for Maryland groups over the next three years, and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has said he wants to see many more charter schools in Maryland.

With an extra week to prepare for the first day of school, city school officials are working to complete high school class schedules and to inform elementary and middle school parents about new bus schedules.

Next week, the system plans to open two innovative high schools, begin a middle school reform initiative and finish plans to improve student behavior at 16 schools recently placed on probation by the state because of high rates of suspension for violent offenses.

The system's financial and labor troubles in the past school year did not deter Annemarie Leonardelli from becoming a teacher at Lakeland Elementary/Middle School.

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