Middle school changes offered

Replacing 11 principals part of city officials' plan

More time for reading, math

Board members upset at timing of proposal

July 13, 2005|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,SUN STAFF

Baltimore school officials unveiled a plan last night to overhaul the city's middle schools that includes replacing principals in 11 of 23 schools, blocking out more time for reading and math, and training teachers in early-adolescent development.

But school board members challenged top administrators, saying they should not have waited until the month before school starts to inform the board about such drastic changes.

"I don't appreciate it coming forward today as a done deal," said board member Diane Bell-McKoy, who said the state of the city's middle schools brings her "close to tears." Board members also questioned whether the district has enough resources to make so many reforms and whether the plan adequately addresses the many emotional and social needs of middle school pupils.

Middle school performance is a statewide problem, but it is particularly acute in Baltimore, where none of the city's 23 middle schools made "adequate yearly progress" on the standardized tests administered this spring, as required under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, a sweeping school reform law.

The goal of the $6 million overhaul plan is to turn around the lagging test scores. Much of the money will be spent on new curriculum materials and teacher training.

"We were very concerned as we looked at the data," said Linda Chinnia, the school district's chief academic officer, who presented the plan with her staff at a school board meeting last night.

More than half of Baltimore's pupils in sixth through eighth grades failed in every area covered by this year's Maryland School Assessments. Scores were highest in sixth-grade reading, in which 46 percent of pupils passed. Scores were lowest in seventh- and eighth-grade math, in which fewer than one in five children showed proficiency.

Under No Child Left Behind, a school that repeatedly fails to meet state standards must restructure by replacing all or most of its staff, reopening as a public charter school, contracting the operation of the school to an outside entity or adopting a different "governance structure."

The unveiling of the reform plan comes two weeks after the state school board approved plans to restructure 22 of Baltimore's lowest-performing schools, including seven middle schools and three K-8 schools.

All staff members at two middle schools and one K-8 school had to reapply for their jobs for the coming academic year.

This fall, the school system plans a series of community forums on middle school restructuring, asking parents if they prefer K-8 schools or combined middle-high schools over traditional middle schools, which serve grades six through eight.

When classes resume next month, middle schools across the city will have a uniform curriculum in reading and math, in an attempt to make transitions easier for the many pupils who switch schools at midyear, said Peggy Jackson-Jobe, who oversees the city's middle schools and spent a year developing the reform plan. Language arts and math each will be taught in a 90-minute daily block. Also, every middle school will have at least one school police officer or hall monitor.

For the remainder of the summer, school system officials said, recruiting teachers for middle schools will be their top priority. Last school year, seven middle schools had multiple vacancies all year. Overall, middle schools had 222 vacancies.

The goal, said Frank DeStefano, the deputy chief academic officer, is to change the culture of the city's middle schools.

"What does it look like for a school to be a place where students want to come? There's no easy answer," DeStefano said. "But making sure there's a teacher in every classroom, that's a great place to start."

City school officials said they developed the best plan they could with limited resources, acknowledging that in some cases they wished they could do more. They contracted with the nonprofit Fund for Educational Excellence to provide intense professional development in the new reading and math curriculum in 13 middle schools, but they could not afford to extend that support to all 23 middle schools.

Other features of the plan include:

All but the five smallest middle schools would have three assistant principals, with new titles: dean of academics, dean of student support and dean of operations.

Middle schools would expand their elective offerings in the arts. Pupils would spend an hour a day in an art or other elective class.

Schools may choose between a few schedules for science and social studies, though time in those subjects might be cut because of the increased time in language arts and math.

All middle schools would have a band, a student government and boys and girls basketball teams.

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