Balto. Co. schools launch initiatives


The Baltimore County school system is launching three initiatives this year to improve the performance of low-performing students, particularly minorities whose academic achievement has long trailed that of other students in the district.

One program will push underachieving high schoolers into rigorous, college-preparatory work. Another gives students online preparation for college entrance exams. The third program provides teachers with diversity training over the Internet.

"They're enhancements," Superintendent Joe A. Hairston said at a recent meeting of parents, where the programs were unveiled.

Hairston said the school system's effort to improve children's reading remains the cornerstone of its various projects to lift the achievement of all students, but the three new initiatives would supplement the work.

Karen Yarn, chairwoman of the Minority Achievement Advisory Group of parents whose children go to Baltimore County schools, praised the attention.

"I look forward to it working because we need it to," she said.

In Baltimore County -- as in many school districts around the nation -- the performance of minority students lags behind that of their peers.

Attendance rates for the county's minority students are generally high and dropout rates are fairly low, according to statistics presented to school board members during the last academic year. But minority students are expelled and suspended more, and are disproportionally represented in special-education classes. They also post lower scores than whites on standardized tests.

On the 2002 SAT tests, the scores of African-American students rose 16 points to 864. But overall SAT scores increased 16 points, too, to 1037.

Barbara Dezmon, assistant to the superintendent for equity and assurance, said the new programs are on the cutting edge of work nationwide to help low-performing students, and research has shown that they work.

Baltimore County schools are among the first in the state to try the programs. The Advancement Via Individual Determination, or AVID, program is for high school students whose tests indicate they should be doing better than their grade point averages, ranging from 2.0 to 2.85.

They will be pushed to work toward college, taking a class every day in writing, note taking, the Socratic method of inquiry and preparing for post-secondary school studies. Twice a week, they will work with a tutor on the subjects in which they are performing poorly.

This year, the program will serve ninth-graders at Milford Mill Academy and Kenwood, Owings Mills, Parkville, Randallstown and Woodlawn high schools. The schools were chosen because of their high low-income and minority rates. It will expand to other grades in the future, and Dezmon hopes it will also be implemented in other schools.

"It's for kids who really have the ability, but have fallen through the cracks," Dezmon said.

If students' performances don't improve and schools do not follow the program, they will be kicked out.

"What I like is the accountability built into it," said Ella White Campbell, a community activist.

The second program is TEST-U, which will allow students throughout the system to prepare for the PSAT, SAT and ACT tests online. The students can learn how to take the tests and practice with sample questions via the Internet.

In the last program, CaseNex, teachers will be able to receive diversity, multicultural and special-education training on the Web. The teachers can get in-service or graduate credits for taking the computer classes.

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