Year-round schooling to end at Coleman Elementary, officials say

City pupils' low scores prompt restructuring

July 28, 2005|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,SUN STAFF

With less than three weeks before classes are scheduled to begin, Baltimore school officials are ending a year-round schooling program at Robert W. Coleman Elementary, the only one of its kind in the city, over the objections of teachers and parents.

School system officials said parents of Coleman pupils will receive letters this week saying their children should report to school with the rest of the system on Aug. 29, not Aug. 15 as planned. They say the change is needed because the school's pupils have repeatedly had low scores on standardized tests, and its nontraditional calendar - in place for a decade - is hampering its ability to train teachers, among other problems.

A half-dozen parents interviewed this week expressed frustration that they don't know when their children are due back at school and that school officials disregarded their views. In a survey last fall, 86 percent of parents and 93 percent of teachers voted in favor of continuing the year-round calendar. Parents also turned out at a community forum and a school board meeting to support the program, which they say prevents children from losing ground academically during the summer and helps keep them safe in a West Baltimore neighborhood troubled by violence and the drug trade.

"The parents feel that they have been deceived, and I can fully understand why they feel that way," said state Del. Salima S. Marriott, a Baltimore Democrat, who attended the community forum.

Ruth Carter, who has a son entering fourth grade at Coleman, said she fears the experience will discourage parental involvement. "I used to be the PTA president, and I know how hard it is to get the parents to come out," she said. "When you get them out and they get slapped in the face, it's going to be next to impossible to get them to come out and do anything else."

Linda Chinnia, the school system's chief academic officer, said parents' input was considered. "We also have to look at the data," she said. "Despite what some folks may like about the scheduling, the data isn't showing that the model is working. It's telling us that we need to make some drastic changes."

Coleman is one of 22 Baltimore schools that have repeatedly failed to make adequate progress on the annual standardized tests mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind Act and are now required by the state to restructure for the coming school year. Approval of those schools' restructuring plans by the state school board was nearly derailed last month after City Council President Sheila Dixon and others raised concerns that parents had not been involved in their formation.

Coleman will hire a "turnaround specialist," charged with improving classroom instruction, for the coming academic year, Chinnia said.

Test data show that Coleman pupils made adequate progress in 2004 but failed to do so this year because of the scores of its special-education pupils. Math scores were up in all grades, but reading scores were uneven: The pass rate in third-grade reading increased from 40 percent last year to 64 percent this year, but in fifth grade, it declined from 68 percent to 49 percent.

Chinnia pointed to a host of reasons for discontinuing the program, a decision she said she made with schools chief executive Bonnie S. Copeland after a recommendation from the principal. Children transferring in from schools with traditional calendars have had trouble adjusting. Its calendar conflicts with systemwide teacher training, including orientation for new teachers. There have been problems with attendance, as well as problems hiring counselors and other specialists to serve children with disabilities.

The parents point to a host of reasons to keep the program. To help make their case, they invited Karl Alexander, a Johns Hopkins University sociology professor, to the school this spring to discuss his research on summer learning loss. Alexander and his colleagues have found that the achievement gap between affluent and poor children widens substantially in the summer, when affluent children's brains are stimulated through activities such as going to libraries, museums and camps.

Alexander said it's a "crying shame" that Baltimore has not used the past decade to study the effectiveness of the year-round calendar at Coleman.

"The parents and the teaching staff really like the arrangement," he said. "With that kind of enthusiasm, you'd rather not rush to judgment if you could avoid doing so."

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