Principal's plan would extend Old Court school year 20 days

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Robert Tomback is giving his students at Old Court Middle School a chance to be way ahead of the crowd, far out front, to be the first in Baltimore County -- and among a select group of youngsters in the country -- to go to school more.

He is offering them 20 more days in the classroom than other children in Baltimore County public schools or in most of America have to attend.

Cool, huh?

"I think it stinks," said sixth-grader Lynelle Goode, voicing a more typical reaction.

But Mr. Tomback, Old Court's principal, is undaunted. He goes from classroom to classroom, presenting his "idea," which will have to be approved by Old Court's parents before it happens. The basic proposal is to extend the school year from the county's 183 days to 203 days, beginning next year. Where the days would be added has not been determined. School could start earlier, go later, or Old Court students could attend school on days during the year when others are out.

"This is not a bad dream. . . . This is a really simple idea. More school, more work, more learning," Mr. Tomback told a sixth-grade English class at the Pikesville-area school this week. "This idea is just more than coming to school for 20 additional days. We're going to redesign the curriculum, so you can go faster and do more work."

Despite the fact that lengthening the school year is an almost revolutionary reform in American schools, "it is very, very fundamental," said Mr. Tomback. "You give kids more time in a meaningful program with effective teachers, you increase their chances of learning."

For instance, Mr. Tomback said, he envisions every student completing Algebra I and many taking three years of a foreign language. "I want to increase the number of kids who leave here ready for high school gifted-and-talented and honors courses," he added.

Parents of Old Court's sixth- and seventh-graders were sent four-page letters this week, explaining the proposal and inviting them to discuss it at meetings next week. Letters also went to parents of fifth-graders at Winands, Scotts Branch, Church Lane and Winfield elementaries who would attend Old Court next year.

"The plan is not worked out in every detail . . . because that is what we are going to do with the community," said Mr. Tomback. Among the unresolved questions are: If Old Court adopts the longer school year, will students in the Old Court attendance zone who want a conventional school year be able to attend other middle schools? And will students from other attendance zones be able to attend Old Court if they want the longer year?

After the parent meetings, the school will form an advisory committee to draw up a proposal that parents will vote on in December. Mr. Tomback said he needs 90 percent of the parents who vote to approve the idea before it will be implemented. The school has about 900 students.

Class periods would change

"This is not being imposed," he said. "This is not a mandate from the superintendent, from the board. . . . This is a school-based plan. If the community is not supportive of it, we won't do it."

The proposal spells out some structural changes that would be part of the new year. The length of the school day would stay the same, but the time would be arranged differently, he explained.

The day is currently broken into seven periods of 50 minutes each, some of which include nonacademic activities. Under Mr. Tomback's plan, the day would consist of three 90-minute academic periods, plus two 45-minute periods -- one for physical education and one for an advisory session in which youngsters would meet daily with counselors in small groups to work on non-academic areas such as study skills and self-esteem.

Under the longer year proposal, Old Court's teachers would be paid 10 percent more for teaching the additional days, Mr. Tomback said. They would teach three 90-minute periods rather than five 50-minute sessions.

They would also have to reapply for their jobs. And they would have to compete with other teachers attracted by the longer year and new class arrangement.

Teacher reaction "is running the gamut," said seventh-grade mathematics teacher Stephen H. Sirkin. "I think that a number of people are receptive. I see some real benefits," he said. But some "have real quickly figured out they are not part of the plans for the school next year. This is designed for another faculty."

In addition to instructional gains, Mr. Sirkin said the new plans for Old Court could stabilize the faculty, which has traditionally had a higher-than-normal turnover. Higher salaries and "the right program" will keep staff members at the school, which he said benefits students, who are often "hurt" when teachers move on quickly.

Although the school would have increased salaries and transportation costs, it could cover those expenses because fewer teachers would be needed for the new class arrangement, Mr. Tomback maintained. He would need about 10 fewer teachers than the school has now. Utilities and administrative salaries would be about the same and there are no plans to air condition the school, he said.

Prompted by Sudbrook furor

The longer year at Old Court is the brainchild of Mr. Tomback and the northwest area superintendent Michael Riley. It is perhaps the outgrowth of a furor that arose when the new Sudbrook Magnet Middle School got applications from twice as many prospective students as it could accommodate in sixth grade. About 150 of those were from youngsters headed for Old Court, which has about 270 sixth-graders this year.

School officials vowed to make more programs like Sudbrook's available, and magnet plans are under way for Deer Park and Johnnycake middle schools next year. At Old Court, the longer year seemed to make more sense, said Mr. Riley.

The school's reputation has been uneven over the years. In addition to its teacher turnover problems, Old Court is an older school located close to the city line, with 30 percent of its students receiving subsidized lunches -- high for the county. The school also has a county grant this year to work on improving test scores.

"The image that some may come up with . . . that's far from the truth," said Mr. Tomback. "I believe this is a good school. We've made some progress in moving the instructional program forward. Our students have lots more maturity than folks give them credit for."

Mr. Tomback would probably count among the more mature Titus Queen and Paris Murphy. They think the longer school year is a good idea.

"I think it's neat," said Paris. "If we stayed in school longer, we can learn more and it will help," she said.

"I care about my education," added Titus, who conceded he could use some more time on math and English. "That's the only way you make it in the world now is with education," added the sixth-grader

Old Court's PTSA president, Roberta Lyles, is also in favor of the proposal. "Right now, my vote would be 'yes,' " she said. But other parents aren't so sure. Some have expressed concerns about the lack of air conditioning in the building, the disruption of vacation plans and the logistical problems of having children in schools with different schedules, she said. "The handful of parents that I've talked to -- and I do mean a handful -- do not have the level of confidence that I have [in the idea]," she said.

Mr. Tomback is anxious to hear what he assumes will be "thousands of concerns" from the students' families, and he's not betting on the outcome of the vote. But he does see a benefit, either way. "Once the child and parents sit at the dinner table and this comes up, we've already won. They're talking about school. We've moved the topic of education into the main course of the dinner table. I think that's good," he said.

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