Tough school year draws to a close

Most years, the last day of school comes with a sigh of relief, but this year what students and teachers describe is more akin to the body-draining feeling of finishing a marathon.

"If I could frame it in one word I would just say 'exhausted,' " said Anna Gannon, a technology teacher at Gorman Crossing Elementary School in Howard County.

"Whew. This has been the longest year ever," said Blair Todd, an eighth-grade history teacher at Charles Carroll Middle School in Prince George's County.

This school year was marked by a raft of reforms, including a controversial new curriculum called the Common Core, which meant big changes in classrooms, such as a lot more writing and a different approach to math, that sparked complaints from parents and educators. School districts also adopted a new evaluation system that requires teachers to prove with data that their students made progress.

Not to mention that the much-anticipated last day of the school year has been delayed in many districts because of a harsh winter that led to an unusually high number of snow days. Districts had to add days to the end of the year to make up for weather-related closures.

Monday is the last day in Baltimore City and Baltimore County. Anne Arundel County closes Wednesday and Howard County on Friday. Carroll and Harford counties closed last week.

Logan Anderson, 7, a student at Belvedere Elementary School in Anne Arundel County, knew exactly how long the school year had been.

"One hundred eighty-four days is pretty long for me because it was 182 last year," he said.

Belvedere's principal, Susan Errichiello, will be ending her 43-year career in education on June 30, so she has a lot of perspective on the tough year. She points to a poster in the teachers' lounge that says there are two ways to respond to stress: You can scream or laugh. Faculty, she said, did a lot of "soul searching" to make sure their students didn't pick up on their stress.

"We chose to laugh," Errichiello said.

On the policy side, Errichiello said some of the changes "that came down were stupid or not well thought out." She believes, however, her staff responded with professionalism.

"It solidified the need for collaboration," she said.

A number of the students in her elementary school seemed unaware of the major changes implemented in their classrooms. Several students said they had never heard of the Common Core. Few thought this year was any different than the year before.

"I am just relieved the school year is over. It was a little hard this year. There was a lot of hard stuff in math," said Chris Valerio, 8.

The year's turmoil stemmed from reforms sweeping through Maryland and other states, which have received federal funds or a waiver from the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law in exchange for committing to make the changes.

Districts throughout Maryland began teaching to the Common Core standards this year. They are more rigorous than previous state standards and require more analysis, writing and research from students. Some teachers expressed concern their students would have difficulty meeting such high standards.

Also, the new teacher evaluation system meant a lot of extra paperwork for teachers and principals and stirred up considerable angst over whether the new evaluation methods were fair.

Principals and teachers in districts around Maryland agreed that the crush of new directives from the state, while difficult, had forced many teachers and administrators to work more closely with each other to solve problems.

In St. Mary's and Baltimore counties, teachers got the new curriculum a matter of days or weeks before they were supposed to start teaching it, leaving little time for preparation. The situation forced teachers to work with each other to trouble-shoot problems. That collaborative approach will serve them well in the future and helps students, principals and teachers said.

Baltimore County Superintendent Dallas Dance said the year "has been filled with many successes," adding, "As with any school year, growth areas and opportunities are realized."

He said that because of the Common Core and new evaluations, "we came together stronger as a team by deeper collaboration and communication with our internal and external stakeholders."

Some teachers still felt the changes were too much to handle. City teachers plan to end the year Monday with an afternoon rally at school headquarters to protest last-minute changes to their teacher evaluation system.

Jennifer N. Martin, an English teacher at Wootton High School in Rockville, said that while she believes in the new evaluation system, "it is another mandate that there is no time allotted for."

Then came the snow. Because of the disruptions, Martin said, she felt she did a tour of the highlights of William Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" rather than the line-by-line analysis she usually does.

"It was a hurry, hurry atmosphere. I know the kids felt extra stress. I know they need a vacation more than usual this year," she said. "It has been a really disrupted year, and it will be nice to have a clean slate in August."

Teachers and principals said they often draw energy from their students. And some are already looking forward to the next next year.

"This was a tough year. It was a year of a lot of change, but it set the stage for exciting things," said Christine Warner, principal of Stoneleigh Elementary School in Baltimore County. "The evaluation system may change, the curriculum may change, but what never changes is that this is a place of learning."

Some will miss the school year, even with its stresses. As she walked down a hall last week at Belvedere Elementary, Errichiello said she'll miss the affection from students when she retires. Just then a class of prekindergarten students tracked her down to give her gifts. It was the last day of school for pre-K.

They sang, "You Are My Sunshine," a song Errichiello's mother taught her and that she had taught them. They sang together as Errichiello's eyes turned red and she brushed away tears.

"You see," she said.

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