Plan targets middle schools

Smaller classes, longer school days are among ideas to boost performance

March 23, 2007|By Ruma Kumar | Ruma Kumar,Sun Reporter

Anne Arundel County school officials hope new recommendations to overhaul middle schools through smaller classes, mentoring programs and more counselors will help curb an alarming statistic the district has struggled with for years: More than a third of high school freshmen have D-averages or are failing.

A 49-member task force of educators and community members that spent five months studying ways to improve middle schools has suggested lengthening the school day by an hour to 7 1/2 hours for the system's 16,000 middle school students. It also suggested beefing up science and social studies instruction and assigning more social workers, counselors and security personnel in middle schools.

Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell said many of the recommendations would likely be refined over the summer. While some efforts like more counseling and personal instruction might be possible, others like a longer school day are costly and complicate union negotiations.

Still, Maxwell said he's hopeful that these steps would perk up high school performance, particularly among ninth-graders, 2,365 of whom earned below a C in most classes last quarter.

"What we're concerned about is that the way we have things set up is clearly working for some students, but then there's this significant group of students that we're not serving," Maxwell said. "We're working on several initiatives ... but it's about building relationships with these students, making school more personal."

It's challenging to make 1,800- and 2,200-student schools feel personal, school officials say. But work is under way.

At Arundel High School, for instance, teachers hold "advisory" class periods, where students discuss difficult classes or problems with friends or family members. Other high schools like Northeast High are developing "academies" where students attend similar classes together based on common interests. Northeast is developing academies around computer science, law, health and a number of other areas. The academies of 100 or so students are more manageable to some teenagers than buildings jammed with 1,500 others.

Maxwell has also proposed adding about $4 million in social workers, behavior intervention specialists and counselors to help students feel less lost in large schools and to reduce the academic and behavioral problems that often accompany the transition from middle school to high school.

Anne Arundel schools have the fourth-highest dropout rate in the state; the district is the fifth-largest by student population.

School officials who have reviewed the numbers say they are more concerned that in many schools -- even top performers like Severna Park and Broadneck high schools -- African-American and Hispanic students make up a disproportionately large portion of those struggling academically.

African-American students account for more than half of the district's low-achievers among freshmen; Hispanics make up 40 percent. The numbers were in the district's most recent quarterly report that tracks students who are ineligible to play sports. Students need at least a 2.0 GPA, or a C average in school, to play.

In Broadneck High School, for instance, 71 percent or 17 of 24 black males have either a D-average or are failing. Including low-performing black females, half of the school's small black population is floundering academically -- compared to one-fifth of its white students.

"It's clear proof that as a school system we certainly have a significant problem with freshmen entering high school," school board member Michael G. Leahy said. ruma.kumar@baltsun.com

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