Students get say on snow days No stereotypes: Many sixth-graders at Catonsville don't like prolonged breaks in their studies.


TIRED OF this Winter Wonderland? So are many students.

Education Beat went to Catonsville Middle School last week on the eve of the latest phantasmagoria to see what sixth-graders are thinking about the winter and what it's doing to their lives.

What is the meaning of "time" in education? Who's more inconvenienced when Mother Nature intervenes -- students or the adults who serve them in places called "schools"? And could students learn at home (with the help of parents and teachers) when the elements prevent them from getting to formal instruction?

It turned out that the 60 (or so) students of sixth-grade teachers Rita Leiby and Betsy Myers have been giving the questions some fairly sophisticated thought, and they've been writing BTC about them in their English classes, too.

For the record -- and because students are seldom consulted by the adults who make the rules in schools -- here are some of the things we heard Thursday at Catonsville Middle:

Most students would rather make up "snow days" at the end of the school year, than take them from spring vacation. The least favorite alternative -- extending the school day -- is the one favored by state school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and approved by the State Board of Education.

The students' school day was extended two years ago during the "ice winter," and many of the students said Thursday that the experiment was literally a waste of time in the fourth grade.

Education Beat's proposal that "study packets" be prepared in advance of winter and sent home for use during snow days was endorsed by a slight majority of the Catonsville sixth-graders, but only on condition that the work done from the packets be counted against any snow-day deficit.

In discussions Thursday and in comments written for The Sun, the Catonsville students smashed to smithereens the stereotype that they care only about escaping school and having a good time. Several said they missed their studies during the January hiatus, and about a third -- boys and girls alike -- said they earned money shoveling snow during the layoff.

"Kids get bored because there is nothing to do but sit on a couch," said Alexandra Gauss. "I'm sure teachers would rather have kids doing something productive than becoming couch potatoes."

Kelli Mercier agreed. "Everyone knows the attention of kids in the summer goes downhill fast," she wrote. "The [snow] packet could be set up so that for each day missed, a little could be added to the schoolwork. This would also be helpful for both the teachers and the students because when we returned to school we would not be so far behind.

"Having a week off of school is a real bonus but the snow break is not just for trying to find a plan of how to bury your little sisters in the snow. Just because we have to do a little work from the packets does not mean it will take away the fun of the snow."

Several Catonsville students said computers would facilitate work at home during snow breaks. Ninety percent said they had computers at home, and most said they subscribed to on-line services, giving them access to encyclopedias, newspapers and databases of all kinds.

These ratios are reversed in Baltimore middle schools, a fact not lost on the Catonsville students. "Not everyone is fortunate enough to own a television, computer, modem and telephone," wrote Elizabeth Hendler.

Other opponents of the packet idea were vehement. Tameeka Harris put it on a first-name basis: "So, Mike, you must not have kids because if you do, you'd know [snow days] are your turn to spend time with them."

It was left for Scott Soracoe to sum up the opposition: "For all the school officials and people who care about these [snow] packets, here is a message straight from a kid. Just let kids be kids and let them have fun."

Extended already

Two South Baltimore elementary schools, General Wolfe and Thomas Johnson, shouldn't have to worry about making up snow days. The schools have extended daily classes by 20 minutes at Wolfe and 45 minutes at Johnson.

Clayton Lewis, principal of General Wolfe, said the experiment, in its first year, has accumulated nine extra instructional days. Thomas Johnson, where the extended day is financed by the state Education Department, is in the second year of the effort, with almost four hours added each week.

It's too early to tell if the experiment has improved achievement at Wolfe, but Thomas Johnson's scores on last spring's state performance tests rose dramatically, in some cases by 300 percent. "I've been alarmed about the discrepancies in achievement between the U.S. and other countries where kids go to school many more days and much longer days," said Robert Marino, the principal.

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