K-8 school backers call for funding

Critics say older kids lack resources

January 01, 2007|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,Sun reporter

As the Baltimore school system expands many of its elementary schools to serve older children, parents and supporters on the City Council are charging that officials aren't providing the resources needed to educate young adolescents.

The system, in the midst of a major consolidation process, is moving to close many of its traditional middle schools, while expanding several elementary schools to serve kindergarten through eighth grade.

But a group of advocates, backed by City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, say the K-8 schools aren't getting the same staff, libraries, science labs and other basics as the regular middle schools. The City Council has scheduled a hearing for system officials to explain the disparity.

School board Chairman Brian D. Morris questioned the need for the hearing, scheduled for Feb. 7 before the council's education committee. He said the board has publicly acknowledged that elementary schools adding sixth-grade classes last summer have received unequal funding, and it plans to correct the problem in the next budget cycle.

"We now know it was an unintended outcome of what we did last year, and we're going to fix it," Morris said. "We're committed to working through those issues and, to the best of our ability, equalizing funding across the middle grades."

It is unclear whether interim schools Chief Executive Officer Charlene Cooper Boston shares Morris' position. When she was asked last week for comment, a city schools spokeswoman released a statement saying that Boston and her staff "look forward to a briefing with council members and the opportunity to provide accurate information about the funding formula ... to accelerate student achievement [in] the district's middle grades."

Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr., who chairs the council's education committee, called the hearing at Clarke's request.

"It's a good sign knowing that the school board chairman is interested in making sure we allocate dollars appropriately," Harris said. "I'm looking forward to hearing what the school system is going to do to address this problem."

Clarke and other advocates are working to compile statistics about the funding inequalities, but the councilwoman said K-8 schools are being funded as extended elementary schools, when middle school education is more expensive.

At the same time, Clarke argues that all middle schools need the authority to spend the funding they get as they see fit to meet students' needs, rather than having spending dictated by the central office. Traditional middle schools regularly have class sizes of 40 students, even though they often have art and music teachers, teacher mentors and other resources that K-8 schools might not, she said.

With space for tens of thousands more students in schools than the current enrollment, the city school board voted last year to reduce the system's square footage by 15 percent - or 2.7 million square feet - by 2008.

The system is using the consolidation process as an opportunity to close many of its traditional middle schools, all of which are failing to meet state goals on standardized tests. By keeping sixth- through eighth-graders in their elementary schools, the system makes more efficient use of the elementary buildings, while offering what is perceived to be a safer and more personalized environment.

The initiative started last summer with the closure of Highlandtown Middle and the beginning of phase-outs at Robert Poole Middle, Dr. Roland N. Patterson Sr. Academy and Harlem Park Middle. A decision about which schools will close this summer is expected in the next few months.

The system already has more than 30 K-8 schools. Overall, their test scores are higher than those of the city's traditional middle schools, but the performance at several is still extremely low. Experts caution that reconfiguring grades doesn't guarantee improvement: Schools of any configuration can succeed or fail depending on the quality of their staff and resources.

Advocates say the K-8 schools can't be expected to do a better job than traditional middle schools if they are working with less. Clarke said many elementary principals are reluctant to convert their schools to K-8s because they fear they won't have the resources to be successful.

"The schools that are being asked to go K-8 are worried," Clarke said. "They don't want their kids in stand-alone middle schools, but the elementary people are worried about going to eighth grade, knowing that they will not be adequately staffed."

Clarke said three combined elementary/middle schools - Roland Park, Mount Royal and Francis Scott Key - have more resources than other K-8 schools because their enrollment increases in the middle grades, as they bring in more children from outside their zone. The system generally requires a minimum number of students to offer certain courses and extracurricular activities.

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