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Signs of trouble in county schools? [Editorial]

Last week's decision by Baltimore County's PTA Council to ask Superintendent Dallas Dance to delay plans to convert all county high schools to an eight-period schedule is noteworthy for a number of reasons. The changeover has produced such outcry from the schools that currently operate under a seven-period schedule — and county teachers are sufficiently slammed these days with other, unrelated matters of curriculum development and testing — to more than justify a one-year postponement.

The PTA council is not exactly a rabble-rousing organization, and the benefits of the changeover seem so modest that one would think there would be room for compromise. Yet the county's school board appears curiously uninterested in that route. A recent letter from Baltimore County School Board President Larry Schmidt to opponents left the door to negotiations firmly closed, suggesting that board involvement would amount to second-guessing the superintendent.

"What qualified individual would want to become superintendent if he/she believed that every controversial decision that he/she made would be subject to subject to Monday morning quarterbacking by the Board?" Mr. Schmidt wrote.

That statement is a little troubling, and to be fair, Mr. Schmidt also writes that he personally believes the eight-period schedule is better for the county. But such a disinterest in supervising a superintendent (Mr. Schmidt also notes in the same letter that he has no "advanced degree in education") would seem to run counter to what the people of Baltimore County expect from a school board.

We're not certain, one way or the other, that the number of periods in a day is the decisive choice of any school administration. But opponents from Hereford High School and elsewhere have raised some pretty valid points. That many of the county's top performing high schools use a seven-period schedule is probably no coincidence, and the demands placed on teachers by the changeover (in terms of course and student load) are significant.

The benefits? According to a consultant's report, they include making it easier for students to transfer between schools, smaller class sizes and potential cost-savings (as teachers can take on a greater course load, schools will require slightly fewer of them). Most high schools will use what's known as a four-period A/B schedule with four 90-minute classes on one day and the other four classes the next, alternating throughout the year.

That's probably not ideal for subjects like math, foreign language and others that benefit from daily repetition and reinforcement. Nor would it seem wise for attention-challenged students who are unable to sit still for 90 minutes at a time. That teachers at seven-period schools have already developed time-tested approaches to successfully preparing students for Advanced Placement tests seems not to have entered the equation either.

But perhaps most troubling of all is this notion that parents and their school board should have no say in such decisions. Apparently, it's one thing to be heard, it's another to have any expectation of being seriously listened to by a superintendent. That's exactly the sort of attitude that has frustrated Baltimore County parents before. It had much to do with the departure of Mr. Dance's predecessor, Joseph A. Hairston, and fueled the current push for a hybrid appointed/elected school board in the General Assembly.

We share Mr. Schmidt's misgivings about a school board micro-managing the system, but we also share the concerns of Baltimore County state senators and others that there ought to be some managing going on, nonetheless. Mr. Dance ought to pay heed to the PTA council's decision and recognize that it represents more than parental concerns about the number of high school classes conducted during the school day but is also a sign that his honeymoon with the residents of Baltimore County may have come to an end.

Baltimore County residents surely don't want a school board constantly overruling a superintendent, but they don't want a superintendent running roughshod over a board either. That protesters have sometimes acted rudely in public sessions should not impugn the merits of their arguments. A one-year delay seems a reasonable compromise and would demonstrate that the board and superintendent care about the views of the PTA and the residents of the county.

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