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City schools launching Saturday School initiative

The Baltimore school system will launch its first districtwide Saturday School initiative in December, a program promised by city schools CEO Andrés Alonso to help remedy declining scores on state tests.

The $3 million Saturday School program will run for 10 weeks, primarily targeting students who scored basic in math on the 2011 Maryland School Assessments. Students in grades four through eight are eligible for the program, which will offer between 20 and 30 hours of additional math instruction for up to 7,000 students before the 2012 assessments in March.

A principal whose school will host one of the programs said she is convinced that the additional instructional time will benefit her students.

"There's just not enough time in the regular instructional day," said Yorkwood Elementary Principal Deborah Sharpe. "I've always been a supporter of extended learning time because it adds more support, more time to build skills. And we're excited for Saturday because it will be a different approach, more inviting and fun."

Alonso had said that he would explore the concept of extending the school week after noting the first academic slide of his tenure this year.

The city had the largest drop in math in 2011, with 61 percent of city students in grades three through eight scoring proficient or advanced, a decrease of about 5 percentage points from 2010. The system also noted a 3 percentage point decline in reading.

While the concept of Saturday School was spurred by the test score decline, city school officials said that it's just one tool to help the system bounce back.

The program, during which students will spend two hours honing one math concept each session, is designed to supplement other efforts, such as strengthening the city's curriculum, and builds on what students are learning the rest of the school week.

School officials said they hadn't set any major goals for the program, besides providing the additional instruction and support to students who need it most.

"One Saturday learning program is not going to turn the whole system," said Sonja Santelises, chief academic officer for the school system. "So we don't want to make [the stakes] too high because if we're only dependent on Saturday school to reach the level we have to reach, we're going to be in trouble. This is important because we believe we have to partner with family and community in our students' achievement."

Sixty-six elementary and middle schools have opted to host their own programs, and 600 teachers will receive professional development training to staff them. The district will work with community organizations to host four other central sites, which will offer students in grades six through eight instruction and enrichment programs.

The four central sites will begin on Dec. 3 with registration due Monday. Individual schools will set up their own schedules.

In addition to test scores, officials said, the initiative will help tackle the problem of elementary students not being adequately prepared for middle-school math.

About 1,100 fewer elementary school students — with fifth-graders experiencing the sharpest decline — passed the math assessment in 2011 compared with 2010, according to a presentation from the city's teaching and learning office, and about 60 more middle school students passed than the previous year.

The Saturday School model will mirror the city's summer school program, which focused on math and science skills and included instructional and hands-on or project-based learning. The summer school program has been lauded across the country and was recently awarded a highly competitive $3 million innovation grant from the federal government to continue.

Michael Thomas, executive director of the George B. Thomas Sr. Learning Academy Inc., a nonprofit tutoring and mentoring program that has been operating Saturday school sites for Montgomery County students for 25 years, said that Baltimore's combination of certified teachers and efforts to build upon students' current lessons will give the system a good start.

"They're going to have to provide the support to make it work," Thomas said. "But, in terms of effectiveness, I think it's one additional tool that research says works. You have to start somewhere."

The Learning Academy serves about 3,000 students, half of whom are minority and poor, for 20 to 22 weeks at a time. Thomas said, the academy has posted test gains, though not consistently in the middle grades. He added that almost as important are the testimonials from students who had a boost of self-esteem as a result of the extra time.

"The academic piece is important, but we also have to build self-confidence," he said. "Getting kids to believe in themselves, and believe that if they work hard, they can do it: That may be most important."

erica.green@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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