Council hears plan to trim class size Officials say idea for elementary pupils shows promise


Howard County Council members expressed early support yesterday for a plan that would reduce class sizes for first- and second-graders at 17 elementary schools next year.

They made no formal commitments to the proposal -- highlighted yesterday at a meeting between school and county officials -- but the four council members present said it sounded like a promising idea. During the 90-minute meeting, which also touched on test scores, redistricting and next year's capital budget, Superintendent Michael E. Hickey reiterated the school system's plan to cut class sizes for these pupils to a student-teacher ratio of 19-to-1.

Hickey said the reduction would take place at the county's nine focus schools -- schools that receive extra resources because of lower academic performance -- and eight others that also have relatively high numbers of low-income pupils.

Though he did not have exact figures, Hickey estimated that the initiative would cost more than $1 million.

"That's certainly a goal of all of us," said Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican. "I like the idea of trying to target the schools."

Hickey said it is too expensive to reduce class sizes in all schools. One fewer child per class would cost $3.2 million, he said, and would make very little difference. The average elementary school class in Howard County has 24.6 pupils.

"If the teacher gets down to 19 then you start to see some results," Hickey said. "There are a lot of studies that substantiate that."

Also, the impact of smaller classes might be greater at the primary level, said Karen B. Campbell, chairwoman of the school board.

"The [school] board believes that if we can get students in primary grades, they catch up with their peers and maintain their position through the ninth grade," Campbell said. "These are the key grades."

After the meeting, County Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, a Democrat who represents east Columbia, said he supports the plan.

Republican Allan H. Kittleman, who represents western Howard, said he liked the idea of lowering class sizes but hadn't time to learn much about it.

"It's a great thing," said new County Council member Guy Guzzone, an east Columbia-North Laurel Democrat. Council member Mary C. Lorsung was out of town.

Hickey said the system has enough space to accommodate the smaller class sizes.

During a report on the Maryland State Performance Assessment Program, Guzzone expressed concern about the low performance of some schools, and he asked if focus schools are treated equally.

Associate Superintendent Sandra J. Erickson said that they are, and Hickey noted that most of them are marked by high student transience rates, families with low incomes and children who began kindergarten without the benefit of preschool.

"It should not be surprising that those schools are where they are despite the infusion of resources," Hickey said.

While some focus schools, such as Dasher Green Elementary, are showing improvement, Hickey said bringing up the scores of others may take more time.

"With Laurel Woods [Elementary], we're sort of at a loss ourselves as to what other things we can do that are going to have a short-term effect," Hickey said. "You've got to stop the decline first. Then, you start a very gradual process of moving back up."

Erickson said that pupils who are struggling may need to spend more time in school than those who are doing well. Children now spend the same number of hours and days in school, regardless of their performance, she noted.

"I think we're just going to have to get a little more radical in education," she said. "If we really want every child at the same high levels, we're going to have to give some kids more time."

At yesterday morning's meeting, Erickson also unveiled a sketch of proposed changes to the county's special education program. The plan, which will be presented in greater detail to school board members Jan. 14, includes:

More early intervention efforts to avoid inappropriately putting low-achieving students in the special education program.

Making sure diploma-seeking special education students receive an education plan in line with the regular curriculum.

Improving staff and parent relationships, which are sometimes adversarial.

More resources, including staff development and computerized technology for special education students.

School officials updated County Council members on the progress of next year's $37 million capital budget request, now before the state for consideration.

The state has approved about $9.8 million in capital projects for Howard County schools, but the school system will appeal to the state Board of Public Works for more money next month. Most of the proposed budget will be funded by county bonds.

Pub Date: 12/22/98

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