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Class changes aim to increase students' scores

March 22, 1999|By BRUCE HAMILTON

A mandated change in Washington County middle school schedules next year will reduce the availability of classes such as art, music, gym and technical education in several schools.

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The new format will mean moving at least seven teachers and as many as 10 from one school to another, according to Director of Secondary Education Boyd Michael III.

The change is necessary in order to improve student achievement and assessment scores, according to Michael. "I'm trying to do what's best for kids in the long run, preparing them for the future," he said.

In a Dec. 9, 1998, memo to all middle school principals, Michael listed minimum time requirements for four subject areas, including 90 minutes for language arts/reading, 65 minutes for math and 45 minutes each for science and social studies.

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The memo stated that instructional programs such as music and technical education may not be eliminated but may be reduced in time and staffing.

Middle school schedules are not uniform. Half of them already meet the requirements. There will be no significant changes at Hancock, E. Russell Hicks, Clear Spring and Western Heights, according to Michael.

Other schools will juggle non-academic courses in different ways. For example, Northern Middle School currently offers gym and music each weekday.

The school's proposed schedule would offer the two classes on alternating days.

Although no programs will be eliminated, the new schedule may in some cases force students to choose between subjects, according to Jenny Belliotti, president of the county parent-teacher association.

Belliotti said she is encouraging all parents to request copies of the proposed schedules from their schools. She criticized the Washington County Board of Education for not mandating the entire day's schedule.

Michael said the minimum requirements allow for flexibility at each school, where the principals know their students best.

Belliotti said the format allows for too many variations.

The new format has caused widespread concern among parents and teachers who feared jobs and programs would be sacrificed in order to free up time for core classes.

"There's a lot of hearsay and second guessing," said Michelle Rafter, a Springfield Middle School music teacher who is one of several educators who will be displaced.

"This has created a lot of tension among staff because it's pitted teacher against teacher, department against department," she said.

As a teacher, Rafter said the change seems to jeopardize music and the arts. As a parent, she said the new format is a "Band-Aid" approach to a bigger problem.

No teacher will be out of a job as a result of the schedule changes, Superintendent of Schools Herman G. Bartlett Jr. has promised.

Each teacher is supposed to remain in his field of certification. But Michael said it is possible a teacher could wind up temporarily teaching a subject that does not require certification.

In a worst-case scenario, that teacher would be displaced for a maximum of two years, he said. By that time, a position would open up within the school system as a result of retirements.

As programs are reduced, some teachers will have to absorb the excess work. For example, there are now two life and family science teachers at Northern Middle School. Next year, Barbara Hunt will be the only one.

In addition to teaching foods, nutrition and consumer economics, she will teach cooking, sewing, textiles, housing and child development. Instead of teaching each grade level for seven weeks, she will have two sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade classes each day.

Contacted at school, Hunt said the change will mean dropping half her curriculum and teaching it in half the time. "I can't teach twice as fast," she said. "I can't squeeze it in."

Like other teachers, Hunt believes reading and other core subjects are important, but her classes teach students to apply what they learn. Using a recipe requires reading and math skills.

"It's a shame this area is being cut," she said.

With high school assessments around the corner for this year's sixth-graders, the School Board is backing the basics.

"We're putting a greater emphasis on academics," said Michael. "Am I putting reading above music? Yes. All our electives are important for a well-rounded student, but the 'Three Rs' have a greater importance."

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