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A plan to restructure the middle school schedule in Howard County went before the Board of Education last week, with some board members questioning the validity of the change that would include the removal of traditional reading classes.

"Teaching (students) to read is the single most important thing we do, because if they can read, they can do anything else for the rest of their lives," said board member Cindy Vaillancourt.

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The new plan would involve the absorption of reading instruction into English classes — the new class would be called English Language Arts — and into other subject areas beginning with the 2012-13 school year, meaning an end to traditional reading classes in middle schools.

It's a bold step, said Linda Wise, chief academic officer, but the board has taken bold steps before.

"In the late 1990s, the board took a bold step by requiring that all middle school students take reading," Wise said at the board meeting Dec. 8. "They did this action even though our middle school reading results were the best in the state. This decision positioned the school system extremely well for the era of the (Maryland State Assessment) testing …we ask that the board once again take bold steps that will position us for the next decade of reform in education."

The proposal comes after Maryland adopted a new common core state curriculum, and is designed to prepare schools for a change in standardized testing, said Zeleana Morris, the school system's coordinator of secondary English and language arts.

By the 2014-15 school year, Morris said, the MSA as schools currently know them will no longer exist, but be replaced by Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) test.

While some board members acknowledged that the system shouldn't be afraid of change, others, like Vaillancourt, expressed alarm at the possible removal of traditional reading classes — even with disciplinary literacy being integrated into other subjects.

"I'm not sure why it has to be either/or," Vaillancourt said. "There's a lot of room in the content areas to increase their reading, and at the same time, keeping stand-alone reading courses."

In 2011, 93 percent of county middle school students scored at proficient levels on the reading MSA, and 63 percent of those were at the advanced level. The board is set to make a final decision on the matter in January.

Board vice chairman Frank Aquino noted that the proposed change presented an opportunity for the school system to be, as it has in the past, a vanguard in education. But he wondered if it was being done as a result of regulatory changes.

"Are we doing it because of those requirements, or because it's the right thing to do?" he asked staff.

To the second point, Clarissa Evans, executive director of school improvement and curricular programs, answered unequivocally yes.

"There are many things I have felt as we have gone through this process," she said. "I have never wavered that this is the right thing to do for our children."

'Give your teachers time'

With the change in curriculum comes a change in scheduling, said William Ryan, executive director of school improvement and school administration.

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With the new schedule, Ryan said, a middle school teacher would have five instructional periods each day, one period for "program implementation," 30 minutes of duty-free lunch one period of individual planning time — a schedule that concerns teachers.

"I want you to imagine a day in which you schedule five business meetings, five minutes apart, that last about an hour each," said Paul Lemle, Howard County Education Association president. "How long will it take you to prepare your presentation, to complete research, to make copies … and your task is to come back tomorrow having designed the next day's business meetings. Teachers allot 30 to 50 minutes of planning time to accomplish this task … the real issue is the inadequacy of time overall. No business would sabotage itself in this way."

Lemle elaborated on his analogy, saying that no doctor or lawyer would try to help upward of 150 clients a day — yet that is what teachers must do every day, with increasingly limited time.

"Give your teachers time," he said. "They'll deliver better lessons. They'll teach more creatively … don't consider anything that would diminish teachers' time. Do the reverse; allow them time to examine students' work, to examine their own practices. Push duties, training out of that time."

Under the new proposed schedule, the middle school day would be broken up into seven 50-minute instructional periods. Currently, county middle schools operate on a variation of an eight-period day. Subjects would include English Language Arts, social studies, science and mathematics and related arts — a rotating schedule of technology education, family and consumer science, health, fine arts and physical education, under the new schedule.

The additional class periods would vary individually, based on each student's academic needs. Interventions would be available during those class times for students struggling with reading.

The complexity of the proposal prompted board members to schedule a work session on Jan. 12, the same date as a public hearing on the scheduling changes. The board is scheduled to take a final vote Jan. 26.

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