The Howard County school system is considering major changes to its middle school class schedule that include discontinuing reading as a stand-alone subject for most students, school officials said.

In addition, the school day might be reduced from eight instruction periods to seven 50-minute periods, with physical education classes held every other day.

The proposed changes are part of the system's efforts to implement the common core curriculum, adopted by the Maryland State Board of Education last year for math and English language arts. The common core is a nationwide set of shared goals and expectations for students at each grade level.

In Howard County, reading would be a part of all middle-school subjects, and students who are performing below grade level would receive additional support that could include a stand-alone reading course, school officials said.

Under the proposal, the middle-school day would include English language arts, social studies, math, science, seminars (including band, orchestra, chorus and interventions), and two related-arts rotations. Physical education would be part of the related-arts rotations, school officials said.

Middle-school students now have eight periods during their six-hour, 45-minute instructional day. The length of the school day would not change.

The changes will be presented to the county's school board Dec. 8, but school principals and other educators have already been told of the proposed changes.

County chief academic officer Linda Wise said that the school system is meeting with reading teachers and content-area teachers "to see how we're going to resolve any issues or concerns they may have."

"We are not eliminating the teaching of reading by any means," she said. "We are restructuring reading to meet the needs of our students, but we are not eliminating reading.

"I believe that in the 1990s, the decision was made for Howard County middle schools to have a separate reading class," Wise added. "That has served us very well in the past. But now, with the common core and the emphasis on college and career readiness, we want to move further to make sure that our students have the critical thinking skills and that they are able to read and comprehend and write like a historian or a scientist or a musician within those specific content fields."

Wise said no jobs would be eliminated in the move. "This isn't a plot to reduce our workforce," she said.

In response to the proposed changes, the county teachers' union drafted a resolution Nov. 8 stating that it does not support moving to seven 50-minute periods a day and that it opposes the elimination of reading classes. It also said the proposal calls for "gross inequities" in planning time and course load among teachers, and for teachers to use "administrative planning time for increased instructional responsibilities."

"Administrative planning has meant an on-duty station or individualized education program meetings or discussions about data or students. What is proposed for those related-arts teachers is that they would no longer do any of those things, and they would instead teach that period," said Paul Lemle, Howard County Education Association president. "That would have them teaching six out of seven periods, increasing their teaching load dramatically."

Lemle added that eliminating reading classes or merging those teachers' work into content areas is tantamount to "saying that primary care doctors should handle heart surgeries."

"If we have an achievement gap, and we do, reading is where it starts," Lemle added. "Students who are behind in reading after a couple years of school rarely catch up. … We still need reading as a subject area and educational focus at the middle school level."

Clarissa Evans, the school systems' executive director of secondary curricular programs, said that some reading teachers would continue to teach the subject to students who require additional support. For others, she said, "we are going to be designing some advanced-level opportunities in terms of … brief courses that students can elect to take," or some reading teachers might be reassigned to other courses.

Evans said that the common core calls for a focus on improving reading skills in technical and high-level content areas, and "and we want to align with that focus."

"If you look at our [Maryland School Assessment] results, nearly 93 percent of our students are performing at the proficient or advanced levels," Evans replied, "so we believe that we have done a good job of making sure our students have a certain level of literacy instruction, and we want to take them to the next level."

Chaunfayta Hightower, president of the PTA Council of Howard County, said Wednesday she could not comment on the proposed changes until she receives a "thorough review of the proposal" from the school system.

In January, a public hearing will be held on the changes; the school board is expected to take action on the proposal that month.

joseph.burris@baltsun.com

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