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School board weighs raising graduation standards


Under pressure to graduate higher-achieving students, the Harford County school board will vote tomorrow on a wide-ranging initiative that would make it tougher to get a high school diploma.

Graduation requirements would jump to 26 credits from 21 under Superintendent Jacqueline C. Haas' proposal. Students would be required to take an extra year of math and at least four career-related courses.

Educators say it is time to raise standards to better prepare students for college or a career.

In fast-growing Harford County, "The expectations of those employers and residents is to have a higher standard of education," said school board member Thomas L. Fidler Jr. "This is a challenge to everyone involved in the education system."

Harford's seven-member board is scheduled to vote on the reform initiative tomorrow night at the Center for Educational Opportunity in Aberdeen. If adopted, parts of the initiative could be implemented by the fall of 2006.

The most controversial piece of the package would put eight of nine high schools on a four-period-a-day block schedule. Some courses would meet daily for a semester while others would meet every other day for the entire year. Harford Technical High School would not be affected by the schedule change.

Some teachers, students and parents bristle at the thought of 90-minute periods. They also say the proposed schedule would effectively take away class time from core subjects, such as English, in favor of elective courses such as mechanics.

"We're in a situation where [many] kids who go to college need remediation," said Cindy Mumby, a Bel Air parent. "The core problem is not a dearth of electives. The core problem is a lack of mastery of the basics."

The superintendent's staff contends that block schedules have been effectively used at Joppatowne and North Harford high schools. They say critics who focus on class length lose track of the real issue: quality of education.

"At the bottom of that issue is the research that clearly implies it's about teachers and the delivery of instruction," David A. Volrath, Harford's chief of secondary education, said in an interview in the spring. "Supportive teachers will be successful in either schedule format."

Fidler said he supports the longer class periods.

"I had an hour-and-a-half to two-hour classes when I was in college. Perhaps our effort is somewhat a preparatory means for college," Fidler said.

While Fidler supports Haas' reform initiative, board member Lee Merrell said he has reservations. He said he is not convinced that more electives are the key to better preparing students for college and the workplace.

"The philosophy is to try to make high school education more relevant to the kids," Merrell said. But "one of the negatives that I'm concerned about is I don't want to take away time from core subjects."

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