Schools push rigor, reach for stars


May 13, 2007|By Ruma Kumar | Ruma Kumar,SUN REPORTER

From the outside, the rooms look like typical classrooms with cinder-block walls. But inside teachers, principals and administrators are gathering as often as they can to pore over every type of student data: attendance, grades, number of Advanced Placement exams taken, behavior referrals.

These "war rooms" are popping up in Anne Arundel County public high schools and some middle schools in an effort to hammer out a strategy to boost academic performance and reduce dropout rates and truancy.

The microscopic attention to data is one way the district of about 74,000 students is hoping to reshape high schools and middle schools.

FOR THE RECORD - In the May 13 Anne Arundel Hometown Guide, an article on the public school system incorrectly stated the amount of its fiscal 2007 budget. It is $806.2 million.
The Sun regrets the error.

Groups of educators and community leaders assembled throughout the year after communitywide summits are developing recommendations to improve instruction and services offered to more than 37,000 students in sixth to 12th grades.

One middle school task force has already emerged with recommendations to add an hour to the school day, beef up science and social studies instruction and assign more social workers, counselors and security personnel to middle schools.

School officials say many of the recommendations would likely be refined over the summer, when a second round of recommendations to improve high schools is expected to be released.

In his first year leading the fifth-largest district in the state, Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell is engineering a new brand of schools with more advanced courses and programs that tap into student interests, a move guided by what he has called his "passion for progress."

"This year has been about a push for rigor," schools spokesman Bob Mosier said.

"We've placed a great deal of emphasis on not only increasing the number of Advanced Placement courses but the number of people who take the tests. When you look at the students who not only go to college, but succeed in college, you see that they're students who have [been exposed to] programs of rigor, with a focus on global economy," Mosier said, referring to the district's recent move to add Chinese language courses in some schools.

But bolstering the programs has not been easy. The district is wrangling with a tight budget that has grown to $941 million, largely because of a 2006 deal giving teachers a 6 percent raise each year of a three-year contract. School officials say the raise was crucial to their efforts of hiring and retaining highly qualified teachers. Maxwell has said he needs the extra money to boost security, social services and staffing at schools to reduce student-teacher ratios and build in more professional development.

Anne Arundel County school officials are trying to increase choice at the 12 high schools. Principals are developing academic tracks - much like college majors - to tap into students' interests and better prepare them for the work force. The goal is to create magnet schools known for "signature" programs.

Some high schools have as many as a dozen tracks, where groups of students with a similar interest move through common classes centered on a topic such as homeland security, engineering or health sciences.

"Research is clear that students perform better when they have a personal connection to the building [and] to the staff at the building," said George Arlotto, director of high schools for the district.

Moving through a track with the same group of students makes high schools feel smaller than the sprawling campuses they are, school officials say.

Some schools might have a single signature program, like Chesapeake High's focus on environmental science.

To improve rigor in high schools, the district has also worked to increase the number of AP classes. The district has also set aside $250,000 to help students afford the AP exams. Maxwell said the changes will encourage students to take the tests.

"Research shows that even students who get a 1 on the test [the lowest possible score], have a greater chance for success in college than someone who doesn't attempt it at all," Maxwell said at a recent school board meeting.

This year, the district will have its first graduates from International Baccalaureate programs it instituted four years ago at Annapolis and Old Mill high schools. It has expanded the program to Meade High School and has started a pre-IB program at MacArthur Middle School to get students on the IB track earlier.

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