Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2007

New year, new initiatives for schools

Exciting time for MCPS, even though uncertainty is just around the corner

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Susan Whitney-Wilkerson⁄The Gazette
Teachers in classrooms across the county will soon find themselves engaging once again with students as Northwood High School English teacher Charles Alexander did during a writing clinic earlier this year with then sophomores Nick Valerio, 15, (center) and Alex Bazzie, 15.
It’s a busy time for the Montgomery school system.

More technology in middle school classes, a continued emphasis on reading and math at the elementary level and a push to get all students to pass state-mandated high school assessments is the focus of the school system this year.

A new school, Arcola Elementary School in Silver Spring, is opening in the already massive system — the largest in the state with a projected 145,622 students in 200 schools. Scores on standardized tests show that the achievement gap is slowly starting to narrow. After years of discussion, middle school reform is finally taking shape. The school system was grilled about how it spends money, but still got much of its requested $1.99 billion fiscal 2008 operating budget.

But Jane de Winter, president of the Montgomery County Council of PTAs, is already looking forward to next fiscal year.

‘‘We’re looking forward to being involved in the budget process at a much earlier stage this year,” de Winter said.

With all the positives, the system still has major hurdles to jump.

The fight over the embattled sex-education curriculum still wages on in Circuit Court. The controversial curriculum, ap-proved by the school board in January, will be taught in all middle schools and high schools this fall. The school system is flooded weekly with e-mails and letters from residents unhappy with the board’s decision to approve the lesson plans.

The main critics — Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum, Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays and Family Leader Network — have filed two appeals with the Maryland State Board of Education to get it thrown out. Both have failed.

There’s still a rift between school administrators and special education advocates over the closing of the county’s eight secondary learning centers. Schools Superintendent Jerry D. Weast says the centers simply do not work and are racially out-of-sync with the rest of the school system’s population.

Advocates argue that the school system did not properly unveil the plan to close the centers and they moved forward with the initiative without communicating the plan to the parents of special-needs children.

A group of parents filed an appeal last spring with the state department of education to have the decision overturned. If the Montgomery board’s decision is upheld, then the advocates said they would file a federal lawsuit against the system.

Higher math standards

Though much of Montgomery’s focus recently has been on middle schools, administrators still want more elementary school students to take a tougher math course before leaving for middle school to take algebra.

‘‘The goal is to have more of the students proficient in Math A before eighth grade,” said Ebony Y. Langford, MCPS director of elementary instruction and achievement.

Sixth-graders usually take Math A; administrators want elementary school students to take that class in earlier grades.

The school system’s standards-based grading and reporting policy will be implemented in third grade this year. The policy was implemented in first and second grades last year.

On a standard-based grade, the teacher summarizes what was achieved on different tasks and assessments during the particular marking period using different letters other than the A⁄B scale.

Teachers give grades based on two sets of information: learning skills and academic achievement, according to the policy. An L, for example, means the needs limited prompting to start a task.

When Weast first came to Montgomery in August 1999, he focused on all-day classes and reading in kindergarten. Class sizes were reduced and second-graders began to score in the top third of all students nationally in reading and math.

The latest round of Maryland School Assessments echo the school system’s initiative.

The percentage of students scoring proficient or higher on the tests increased this year, with the biggest gains coming in third-grade and sixth-grade reading; both saw increases of 4.3 percentage points since last year. The percentage of third-graders scoring proficient or above in math dipped very slightly, from 84.1 percent last year to 84 percent this year.

Middle is at the top

The school system’s highly touted three-year, $10 million effort to reform the county’s 38 middle schools has been the hottest topic of conversation for administrators.

The school board adopted the reform policy in February. The first phase of the effort is being implemented this fall at Benjamin Banneker in Burtonsville, Roberto W. Clemente in Germantown, Montgomery Village, Sligo in Silver Spring and Earle B. Wood in Rockville.

‘‘It’s big,” said Cynthia Eldridge, the school system’s supervisor for middle school initiatives. ‘‘Middle school reform is a huge project. It’s not just changing things. We’re looking at ways to reach every child.”

The reform stresses the need for more rigorous curriculum, interactive technology-based instruction and more guidance counselors. It also includes hiring more mathematics teachers, literacy specialists and establishing a Parents’ Academy.

The middle school dilemma is not central to Montgomery. Some administrators say middle schools tend to focus too much on adolescent behavior and not enough on academics. Other advocates have also called middle schools a feeder ground for high school principals and administrators.

Two years ago, 21 of the county’s 38 middle schools did not meet adequate yearly progress goals, as required by the federal No Child Left Behind law. By 2014, all middle school students must score proficient or higher on the Maryland State Assessment tests in reading and math.

In 2004, the school system contracted MGT of America Inc., an independent research firm, to review its middle school curriculum. The review cited an inconsistency in the curriculum was taught from school to school as a possible reason for some schools failing to meet performance goals.

But times are changing in Montgomery. The system offered a Lights, Camera, Literacy! class this summer where roughly 135 middle school students were given camcorders and laptops and asked to film and edit their own movies. The class will be offered afterschool this fall.

‘‘Doing the same things we always have is not going to prepare our students for the 21st century,” Eldridge said. ‘‘It’s a really exciting time for middle school instruction. Middle school is the place to be.”

Pressure to pass HSAs

This year’s juniors have a looming pressure above their heads: the state-mandated high school assessments, which they must pass in order to graduate.

Board members and administrators are concerned that some limited-English speakers, special-needs children and minorities may not be able to pass the tests.

State Schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick proposed to the state school board this month giving special education students and limited-English speakers more time to pass the exams.

Under her proposal, those students would have until 2011 to pass modified versions of four assessments tests in biology, algebra, English and government.

For administrators, the goal for next year is to make sure everyone passes the exams.

Everyone is feeling the pressure, said Carol H. Blum, the school system’s director of high school instruction.

‘‘It’s still kind of new to the kids, but they know they have to take it and pass it,” Blum said.

To help students, the school system will continue to push its online course to prepare students for the assessments. In the prep, students answer sample questions and are told why they got an answer right or wrong. Students who fail an assessment can go through an intervention course before retaking the exam.

The school system has also placed strict emphasis on its free SAT prep online course, which is aligned with The College Board, the group that offers the test.

And beginning this year, the school system will continue mailing reports every first- and third quarter to parents of high school students to update them on their child’s progress toward graduation.

With a new school year upcoming, the school system faces lots of excitement and uncertainty this year.

Said Jane de Winter: ‘‘I just want to get through the year.”