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Howard school staff return to classes, prepare for new education model

Monday marked the return of public schools staff in Howard County before next week's opening of school for students, and teachers were greeted with pulsating Motown music and call-and-response chanting.

The Elementary School Model Kick-off, a pep rally-style event at Jim Rouse Theatre in Columbia was a precursor to the district's much-discussed new approach to students' early years. School officials announced the new elementary school model in the spring; it's intended to close achievement gaps and foster physical, social and emotional development.

The gathering was specifically for the staff members at schools where the model will be installed as school begins Aug. 25 — Running Brook, Bryant Woods, Phelps Luck, Stevens Forest and Talbott Springs elementary schools, all in Columbia.

Schools officials said each is a Title I school. They were selected based on such factors as staff capacity and students who would benefit from the model. Some of the new elementary model initiatives were launched at Ducketts Lane Elementary in Elkridge when the school opened last year, officials said.

Among other changes to the Howard County school system: For the second time in as many years, a new school will open in the eastern portion of the county. Thomas Viaduct Middle in the Oxford Square development of Hanover will open to students in grades six through eight; it features five science laboratories and outdoor learning areas, school officials said.

Superintendent Renee Foose is scheduled to visit several schools on the first day, including Thomas Viaduct and Hammond High, officials said.

The elementary school model includes full-day prekindergarten and world language instruction for children beginning in pre-K. Students will receive 20 to 30 minutes of Spanish-language instruction each day, leading to intermediate-level language proficiency by the end of the fifth grade, officials said.

Keri Quinn, a fourth-grade teacher at Phelps Luck Elementary School, said, "We have such a high [English as a Second Language] population it would be great for the students who are native Spanish speakers to be able to see other students learning a language the same way that they are learning English."

Schools officials say the elementary school model will reduce the number of content areas assigned to each classroom teacher from four to two. And it will offer a health services partnership with the Howard County Health Department to provide in-school treatment if needed. The service is intended to ensure that students miss less class time.

Foose said staff from the schools implementing the model will receive training from Gallup Education, a Washington-based research and education resource provider.

Gallup Education vice chairwoman Connie Rath said Gallup has been developing instruments that identify student strengths for 40 years, "but Howard [County] said we want to try to do this on a really accelerated basis. Every school has goals on how to increase student achievement and how to increase school and community engagement.

"At the end of this year, there is an expectation that staff and students will be more engaged and that there is an achievement increase," Rath said. "Then you can project that on a long-term basis, too, that that growth continues."

The model comes as staff continue to implement Common Core State Standards initiatives, but some say the Howard model will complement the state initiatives.

Joan Tellish, Stevens Forest Elementary math support teacher, said, "The Common Core for math is all based on progressions of standard, so really you want the children to understand numbers and all the ways to count to 10. Every [Common Core] standard builds upon the years before.

"So now being able to really take the time to teach the children … as they progress through the years is going to be easier," said Tellish. "When they get to fractions they will understand them because they know their numbers so well."

Phelps Luck Principal Sean Martin said the school has had regular meetings with the school's parent organization about the elementary school model.

"There were questions at first," Martin said, "but ultimately there's a trust in the community and teachers and in me that we're going to do what's best for our students."

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