Program demand exceeds estimate

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Anne Arundel school officials believed that Middle Years - the middle-school component of the rigorous International Baccalaureate program - was a good choice for pupils when they proposed it this school year. They just didn't know how many parents and pupils would agree with them.

Now, with 50 percent more applications than estimated, Anne Arundel school officials are wondering how to offer seats to all those who are eligible.

School system administrators had planned to have 100 pupils each at Annapolis Middle and Old Mill Middle North take part in the internationally recognized program. With potentially more than 300 pupils eligible, they are considering whether to increase the $325,000 requested to start the course as part of the superintendent's proposed $773.1 million budget.

"It really is very encouraging. ... I think to me it further defines the point that parents in Anne Arundel County and students in Anne Arundel County want increased academic rigor and demand," said Superintendent Eric J. Smith. "The more it's offered, the more parents are going to insist that it be available for their child."

But some middle school parents argue that the school system should ensure all pupils - not just those in the program - have access to subjects such as foreign language and fine arts, which are components of Middle Years.

"Parents shouldn't have to fight every year" to guarantee their children can fit French or music into their schedules, said Alison Thompson, a member of a local group called Coalition for Balanced Excellence in Education.

She spoke at a recent budget hearing in favor of a supplemental request in the superintendent's proposed budget for three middle school foreign language teachers who will each serve at several schools.

Christine E. Amiss, the system's IB coordinator, cautions that the Middle Years program depends on the school board's supporting Smith's budget request.

Amiss said that 142 pupils are eligible to enroll at Annapolis Middle and that 162 are eligible for Old Mill Middle North. There were no academic requirements for Middle Years - parents and pupils had only to apply by the Jan. 12 deadline and commit to attending the regional program.

Acceptance letters will be sent out to all eligible pupils during the first week of February stating that no decisions will be made until funding questions are sorted out, Amiss said. Then, parents will be sent commitment letters to confirm their agreement to enroll their children at those schools if seats are available.

School officials hope to have all Middle Years pupils eligible to enter the Extended Learning Program, a two-year course to prepare students for the high school level IB Diploma program, Amiss said.

To be accepted, those entering ninth grade must have completed Algebra I and had a year of a foreign language, she said. They must also have earned a 3.0 GPA in seventh grade and scored at certain levels on standardized Comprehensive Tests of Basic Skills tests.

Severn resident Holly Butler said she wanted her 11-year-old son - Andrew, a fifth-grader at Jessup Elementary - to get a more stimulating education through Middle Years. Her daughter, Rebecca, is a ninth-grader in the program at Old Mill High School.

"It is more challenging," Holly Butler said. "They make it relevant to the real world. ... They tie everything to the real world and real life, which makes sense."

Andrew Butler is hoping for more challenging material. In his current classes, "when we're assigned work, I'll finish the work really quickly," reading a book until the lesson is done, he said. "Since I have so much time at school, I normally finish the books really quickly."

Kathleen McPartland, 10, also a fifth-grader at Jessup, said she was interested in the Middle Years program because of its interdisciplinary approach. She was asked, for example, to write reports in language arts about mathematicians they study in math class.

Her father, Kevin McPartland, was excited by Middle Years' emphasis on international awareness and said he and parents of his daughter's friends will work together if their children are accepted into the program.

"We would share rides and carpool as much as we can," he said. "It'll be an inconvenience, but we're willing to deal with that."

However, the McPartlands want to know one more thing before deciding whether their daughter will go to Old Mill: "If none of her friends get into the IB program, then she won't be going," Kevin McPartland said.

Andrew Butler also doesn't want to be separated from his friends. "If I don't [get accepted], then probably some of my friends will," Andrew said. "And then my friends will be there, and I'll be at a different school."

But some parents don't want any pupils to miss out on a well-rounded education.

Thompson, whose two daughters attend Meade Middle School and the IB program at Old Mill High School, said well-balanced curricula such as those offered by Middle Years should be the standard.

"Let's use the Middle Years program as a guide and fund well-rounded education for all of our students, not just the fortunate few who will become part of this select group," she told school board members at a recent public hearing on the school budget.

Thompson said she worries that middle-schoolers outside of Middle Years will not have access to foreign language because of limited teaching staff and awkward scheduling, thus restricting their ability to apply for IB in high school.

Smith said he was "optimistic" that the school system was going to be able to accommodate those who want to be a part of the program - but the decision hinges on a satisfactory budget, to balance demands of the community and teacher workload.

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