Summer reading is still a hot topic

Books: Baltimore County schools and families continue to debate whether work should be optional during the annual three-month break.

September 05, 2004|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,SUN STAFF

To understand both sides of Baltimore County's debate on summer reading, meet the Diggins family.

Alyssa, 13, is in the eighth grade at Perry Hall Middle School, where summer reading was optional - albeit strongly recommended - this year. She started a few books but didn't finish any.

Brett, 16, is a junior in Advanced Placement classes at Perry Hall High. By the first day of school, he had to have read The Catcher in the Rye and The Grapes of Wrath, and completed 25 journal entries on Catcher. He spent 45 minutes a day all summer getting the work done.

Their mother, Rhonda Diggins, is torn over which school had the better approach.

With Alyssa, she said, "I would've liked to have seen her doing something, and she wasn't."

Brett, however, she said, "needs the mental break during the summer time to regroup and have some downtime. During the school year, he has no downtime. ... Your weekends and your holidays are not yours. They're filled with homework."

Such is the problem facing educators. Should summer be a time for youngsters to relax, enjoy their childhood and read for pleasure? Or do children need structure so as not to fall behind?

And if they need structure, should schools or parents provide it?

These questions became the topic of intense debate this year in Baltimore County, where schools were told to make summer work optional. With the blessing of the central office, some high schools, such as Perry Hall and Franklin, kept required work for students in advanced classes - assuming that students such as Brett Diggins would do the work.

The issue came up after an Owings Mills mother, Sheryl Preiss, wrote to Superintendent Joe A. Hairston during the winter on behalf of about 50 parents. She said high-achieving children were stressed over how to finish detailed assignments amid camp, family vacations and other summer activities.

Hairston's reply said, in part: "While we encourage students to read and keep up their math skills during the summer break, summer assignments are not required, and there is no consequence to a student that does not complete the work."

No authority to assign

Hairston sent Scott Gehring, the administrator who oversees Sudbrook and other northwestern county schools, a copy of the letter. Gehring, in turn, sent e-mail messages to the principals at the schools he oversees and told them to stop assigning summer work with consequences.

Hairston says the school system does not have legal authority to assign mandatory work beyond the 180 annual days of school. Beyond that, he leaves it to his 163 principals to decide what is best.

Summer reading is optional in Carroll, Harford and Howard counties. In Anne Arundel County, high school teachers may assess students on summer reading in the opening days of school, but grades on such assessments may not carry more weight than a single homework assignment. This year, Baltimore schools dropped a long-standing requirement that students read three books in the summer and 22 during the school year. Students still must read 25 books, but they may do so at any time.

Baltimore County school officials say that most elementary schools have never had mandatory summer reading. Yet the Baltimore County Public Library reports that a record 29,295 children enrolled in its summer reading club - including 17,525 pupils from Baltimore County public schools, most of them in elementary grades.

At middle and high schools, the issue is trickier. Many responded to the change in school system practice by pushing the deadlines on summer work to late September or October. Some, such as Sudbrook Magnet Middle School, gave extra credit to pupils who had the work done by opening day.

Other schools, such as Perry Hall Middle, sent home the usual reading lists but dropped the requirement. Perry Hall Middle Principal Rick Archambault said the school used the opportunity to get parents more involved in summer learning, providing them with sample discussion questions.

At Dulaney High in Timonium, a committee had already been studying approaches to summer reading. The school decided to urge all students, faculty and parents to read the same book - Ernest J. Gaines' A Lesson Before Dying. Late this month, students will discuss the book in their English and social studies classes, and the school will hold evening discussion groups for parents.

Advanced Placement and honors students at Dulaney were urged, rather than required, to read the first book on the school year's syllabus.

Dulaney senior Jon Pace, 17, is scrambling to get through Tess of the D'Urbervilles. He read 100 pages over the summer and has 300 to go.

"I don't like it, but I know it's essential," he said of summer reading.

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