Schools open to marked change


When Anne Arundel County public school students return to classes today, they will be greeted by new textbooks, an increase in advanced high-school course offerings and uniform secondary school schedules.

The initiatives - many of which required thousands of hours of teacher training sessions over the summer - were prompted by Superintendent Eric J. Smith. He pledged last year to raise achievement countywide and close performance gaps among racial and economic groups during his tenure.

Parents and teachers already have reported bumps along the way to implementing the high schools' new four-period day, including earlier bus pickup times and music classes that did not have enough instruments for the number of students enrolled.

Smith said yesterday he was not aware of any problems, and that he will deal with issues as they arise.

"I'm sure [my] staff is looking into it," he said. "It's more a process of working through the scheduling than anything else."

Smith, who drew criticism from some teachers last school year for making changes quickly and with little public debate, said he expects his staff to feel more comfortable with the initiatives this year. To help, administrators have worked with teachers to write "pacing guides" that will let instructors know what material they should have covered by certain times in the course of the year.

"It's been a very busy, but very rewarding, summer," he said. "I think we're ready for a good start."

The mood was upbeat yesterday among teachers at many of the county's 117 schools, as they awaited the arrival of 75,900 registered students. Staff at more than two-thirds of the schools learned last week that their students had met state standards measured by the new Maryland School Assessment.

"We're thrilled to death," said Susan Errichiello, principal of Georgetown East Elementary in Annapolis, a school that scored satisfactorily on the tests after having been tagged as needing improvement. "We still have a lot of work to do, but it's a great boost to your ego to know that your work has paid off."

Working alongside teachers as they put finishing touches on their classrooms yesterday, Errichiello weeded a flower bed that had been planted by pupils' families in front of the school.

"We wanted to make sure everything looked perfect for our kids," she said.

Staff members at Park Elementary in Brooklyn Park were equally pleased with their results on the state tests and excited to begin the new year. Principal Diane Lenzi said her teachers arrived at school a half-hour early on their first day back at work last week.

"All of my teachers were seated at 9 o'clock, ready to go," Lenzi said. "I never heard such laughter and joking as that first day back."

In the elementary schools, which all will be using a phonics-based curriculum called Open Court beginning this year, officials hope to see pupils make strides in reading. That was the case at many of the 14 low-performing schools that used the pilot program last year.

At the secondary school level, the most drastic change will be the switch from six- and seven-period days. All middle schools will be on schedules of four 86-minute periods, which will devote half of every school day to language arts and math.

All middle and high schools also will offer AVID, a support class that targets capable students who would be the first in their families to attend college.

Parents and teachers are watching the effects of the new schedules, which they say are likely to result in larger classes.

Bill Selway, the music department chairman at Old Mill High, said too many students have been allowed to enroll in his guitar class. He has 35 students, but only 28 guitars.

"What do I say to those seven children without guitars tomorrow?" he said.

Selway said other music teachers have reported they won't have enough music stands or keyboards for students. Other schools have reported similar shortages, concerns that Selway said he forwarded to administrators.

The superintendent said kinks in the new schedules will be worked out.

"Either we're going to acquire the equipment or make scheduling adjustments," Smith said.

A few parents complained that their children will have to get up earlier than last year to ride buses to high school. Terra Snider said her daughter, a sophomore at Severna Park High, will have to get up extra early today to catch her bus.

"I don't want her to get up earlier than she has to just so she can stand outside school for a half-hour early in the morning," Snider said.

School officials said the decision to advance some pickup times by up to 10 minutes was made to ensure that all students needing to board a bus to the county's vocational centers arrive at school in time to do so.

The vocational students used to ride "express" buses from their homes straight to the centers, but those shuttles have been canceled because of the complexity of the new schedule, which operates on classes that alternate every other day.

The pickup times will be adjusted in the next few days, as officials figure out how early the buses to the vocational centers need to leave and which students need to board them.

Among changes this year:

There are 570 teachers new to the system.

About $12 million worth of new textbooks have been distributed to schools.

An additional 23 elementary schools have air-conditioning.

All-day kindergarten will begin at 12 schools.

All-day pre-kindergarten will begin at 11 schools.

There are 136 students enrolled in a program to prepare to earn the prestigious International Baccalaureate diploma.

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