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Middle schools given 3 options

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The principals of Anne Arundel County's 19 middle schools were given three options yesterday for getting their pupils into physical education and fine arts classes by the second semester, as required by the state.

But county educators would rather not do it at all.

Moments after giving the principals the freedom to choose what's best for their schools, the county school board voted unanimously to ask the state Board of Education for a waiver from its requirement.

Almost two months ago, the state board told Anne Arundel County schools that they were violating state curriculum regulations that require all middle school pupils to take physical education and fine arts every year. For years, the county has offered those courses as electives, and not every child took them.

The state said that had to change by the second semester this school year. Doing that, county board members said yesterday, is almost impossible and not good for pupils.

"We would put this system into chaos for the next six months," said board member Joseph Foster. "There's no solution that is not going to have a negative impact on students."

Oliver F. Jenkins, principal of Central Middle in Edgewater, said principals need wide latitude in choosing the best plan for their schools because the number of pupils affected by the changes varies widely among schools. At Central Middle, 361 children of 1,085 need fine arts or physical education classes. By contrast, 575 pupils of 1,744 at Chesapeake Bay Middle in Pasadena need physical education and hundreds more need fine arts.

About 8,500 of the county's 17,800 middle school children are not taking physical education or fine arts. The challenge of getting those pupils into those courses, with the facilities and teachers required, has bedeviled the school system since September.

"It's not like there's any blueprint out there for us," Superintendent Carol S. Parham told the board. "This is not about who's right and who's wrong. Our young people are going to suffer, in my mind, midyear, and I'm not sure there's a good reason for that to happen."

Once the state superintendent of schools receives the county's waiver request, she has up to 45 days to forward it to the state board with a recommendation. A decision could be made as soon as the state board's Dec. 4-5 meeting or as late as January.

The second semester begins Feb. 4.

While the county waits to hear from the state, middle school principals will remake schedules and figure out how their schools will comply if the waiver is denied. The school board gave the principals these three options:

Expand the weekly advisory period - reserved for tutoring, mentoring and special programs - into a daily, 30-minute "exploratory" period. Pupils needing physical education or fine arts could take those courses during that time. Other pupils would take other electives.

Reschedule pupils who need gym and fine arts into those classes case by case. Those taking gym and fine arts might be removed from those classes to make room for the pupils who need them.

Increase the elective rotation schedule. Most middle schools have one period a day that alternates on an A-day/B-day schedule. Children take one elective on A days and another elective on B days. The new option would add a C-day to the mix, and pupils could add the courses they need on that day.

The issue reached a critical point this year when the county implemented a double reading period in sixth grade. That left one period for electives in the six-period day most schools use. A group of parents upset with the reduction in elective time appealed to the state board.

Some of those parents said yesterday that the school board didn't consider options they proposed that would have disrupted children less. They also said they would oppose the waiver request.

"There are sixth-grade parents who feel strongly their children have been cheated," said Sally Van Zandt, who has a son in sixth grade at Severna Park Middle School. "The waiver would cheat our children out of valuable courses for a whole year instead of just the first semester."

After dealing with the middle school problem for second semester yesterday, the school board turned to options for a permanent fix for next year. Members quickly learned it would be no easier.

A committee of 36 administrators, teachers, parents and pupils is recommending that the county lengthen the day for all schools by 30 minutes. That would make the elementary school day six hours and 45 minutes long and the middle and high school days seven hours long. The county's middle schools are tied with Prince George's County for the state's shortest school day.

"We know we have the shortest day, and we really believe kids need to be in school for more instructional time," said Judy Jenkins, Anne Arundel's reading supervisor.

Making the school day longer would cost about $16.8 million, officials said, because the teachers' contract calls for 35.5-hour workweeks, and the extra half-hour every day would mean a 38-hour workweek for teachers.

It also would mean figuring out what to do with the extra time in elementary and high schools. But school officials said they can always find good uses for more instructional time.

The committee was unanimous in asking for a longer school day, but split on what to do with that time. The majority of the committee recommended that each middle school choose between moving to a four-period day or staying with the current six-period day, which allows for two periods of reading and one of electives.

The four-period day would provide about 90 minutes for reading, 90 minutes for math, 42 minutes for science and 42 minutes for social studies. Two 42-minute periods would be available for electives and state-required courses such as physical education and fine arts. Those classes could alternate by day or by semester.

A minority committee report, signed by three parents and two teachers, questioned taking so much time from science and social studies for math. The report noted that the state recommends 60 minutes a day for math.

"I wonder what makes math so much more important than these other subjects," said Alison Thompson, a parent who signed the minority report.

The minority report also took issue with a six-period day, saying it would "severely limit" time for electives, including physical education and fine arts, to one period a day.

The school board is expected to decide on next year's middle school schedule next month. Before then, the board will hold a public hearing. No date has been set.

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