Across Md., a call for classrooms with walls

Schools press for money to end '70s-era experiment

November 02, 2008|By Nicole Fuller | Nicole Fuller,

As the students in Mr. Incorvati's fifth-grade math class solved a word problem, the hum of more than 20 voices carried past the low-slung partitions. Not far away, Ms. Mulfry unfurled a United States map and told her class about shoreline sediment. Mr. Peddicord described a rudder to his students.

And Ms. Graham was going over math problems on an overhead projector. With sound coming from all directions in this corner of Crofton Woods Elementary, she relied on a microphone to be heard.

Crofton Woods Elementary is one of 34 Anne Arundel County schools without walls separating its classes. Now, county school leaders are planning to spend millions of dollars to construct real classrooms - joining school systems across the state in a multimillion-dollar mission to put to rest the '70s-era experiment of "open-space" schools.

From the Eastern Shore to Western Maryland, students are still struggling to learn in classrooms without walls. And school systems are lining up for money to build walls.

Anne Arundel County schools Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell designated $5 million in his recently proposed capital budget for construction at five elementary schools and is hoping to install so-called "open space enclosures" at five or six schools a year.

Anne Arundel County school board member Eugene Peterson pushed successfully to bring the level of potential funding for the next fiscal year to $8 million. His daughter, now grown and teaching music at a county elementary school, attended Brock Ridge Elementary, an open-space school in the southern part of the county.

"We put up with it," Peterson said. "She got good grades. She paid attention."

But, he added: "The bottom line is: They're not, in my opinion, a good environment for learning. We tried that experiment. It didn't work."

The open-space school model, a British import, was embraced in the United States amid shifting social, cultural and political dynamics - the civil rights movement, the rise of feminism and anti-war protests - of the 1960s and '70s, according to Larry Cuban, professor emeritus of education at Stanford University. Americans were increasingly questioning notions of societal norms, including traditional thoughts on classroom and school organization and teaching methods, earning the model acclaim, he said.

More conservative principles that gained footing in the 1980s and '90s emphasized a "back-to-basics" mind-set among educators, Cuban said. That thinking, along with an emphasis on standardized testing and accountability, gained further prominence with the passage of President Bush's education reform measure in 2001, No Child Left Behind.

The benefits for students and teachers associated with open-space schools - spurring creativity and collaboration - were no longer priorities amid rigid testing schedules with dire consequences for failure, he said.

Though there is no direct relationship between academically failing schools and open-space classrooms - in fact, more than 90 percent of the students at Crofton Woods have consistently performed as either proficient or advanced on the annual Maryland School Assessment - educators have largely panned the model as a failed relic.

By the mid-1990s, Howard County had launched a series of multimillion-dollar renovations at open-space school buildings. In one instance, officials deemed it easier to start over - so they tore down and then rebuilt Wilde Lake High School.

Still, students are trying to learn in classrooms without walls across the state, from Garrett to Dorchester to Prince George's County, and systems are consistently requesting money to build individual classrooms, said David Lever, executive director of the Inter Agency Committee on School Construction. In a previous job in Prince George's schools Lever said teachers in one open-space school "were reporting splitting headaches," after having to raise their voices so their students could hear them.

In Carroll County, the 42-school system has four open-space schools with projects under way at two of the schools to build walls. The school system has requested money in its 2010 capital budget to "close them in," according to the school department.

Already, Anne Arundel officials have enclosed two of its schools. And the county school board, in an effort to expedite the number of enclosure projects, voted for the additional $3 million, even though County Executive John R. Leopold has signaled that tight economic times are forcing leaner budgets.

County Councilman Edward R. Reilly lives across the street from Crofton Woods, and two of his grandchildren attend the school. He agrees the open-space model is broken, but added that fiscal constraints make it difficult to go at the need full-throttle.

"It's a huge need chasing very few dollars," he said. "I would love to have it done in one year. It's a very big hole that we're trying to fill."

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