- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 28, 2005

By Christina Bellantoni, Gary Emerling, Tarron Lively, S.A. Miller and Jon Ward

The sudden change from carefree summer days to pop quizzes and homework is a shared experience among students this time of year. But for area students, the return to school will be as varied as the communities in which they live.

The Montgomery County public school system opens its doors tomorrow to 139,447 students, about 110 more than last year.

Two new schools are opening to accommodate the increase: Lakelands Park Middle School in Gaithersburg and A. Mario Loiederman Middle School in the former Belt Middle School building in Wheaton.

Loiederman Middle will be one of three schools participating in the county’s new middle-school magnet program. Loiederman will be a creative- and performing-arts school. Parkland Middle School in Rockville will have an aerospace-technology magnet program, and Argyle Middle School in Silver Spring will specialize in information technology.

However, some student advocates say two additional schools are not enough to accommodate one of the region’s largest school districts and that school officials should focus more on shrinking crowded classes and reducing the number of portable classrooms.

Janis Sartucci, a member of the Montgomery County Council of PTAs, said the county would have to build three high schools, six middle schools and 15 elementary schools to move all students out of the portable classrooms.

The county will open five more schools at the beginning of the 2006-07 school year, including Clarksburg High School.

The school system is one of the few in the region that does not have problems with finding school bus drivers. “We do fine because we have year-round recruiting,” said Kate Harrison, a school system spokeswoman.

Though the school system is consistently known for good student test scores and graduation and attendance rates, it attracted national attention last year for its proposed new sex-education curriculum, which eventually was taken to court by opponents and was blocked by a judge who ruled it presented “only one view” on homosexuality.

The judge said in May the perspective was that homosexuality was a “natural and morally correct lifestyle to the exclusion of other perspectives.”

Superintendent Jerry D. Weast will try to redesign the curriculum this year to be less controversial.

He has scrapped the curriculum for middle and high schoolers and the advisory committee that crafted much of it. No timeline has been announced for when the new curriculum will be taught.

Roughly 20 percent of the school system’s teachers last year lacked the credentials to be considered “highly qualified” under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Among the requirements in the three-year-old law is that teachers in core academic areas must be highly qualified in their subjects by the end of the 2005-06 school year.

To meet the “highly qualified” standard, teachers must fulfill a list of minimum requirements, which includes having a bachelor’s degree, full state certification and the ability to demonstrate content knowledge in the subjects they teach.

D.C. schools ‘looking up’

In the District, Superintendent Clifford B. Janey is entering his second year and wants to make sure classes start tomorrow more smoothly than last year.

He has replaced one-third of the principals and has made clear that those still running the system’s 167 schools will be responsible for making sure supplies, schedules and other necessities are ready for the roughly 62,806 students when they arrive.

The teachers were replaced through dismissals, reassignments, resignations and retirements. Mr. Janey also has filled 570 of 700 teacher openings.

Mr. Janey officially began work Sept. 15, 2004, but was working on opening day last year when 900 students at Eastern High School arrived to find no schedules. The principal and two other staffers were fired after Mr. Janey called the problem inexcusable.

“We want teaching and learning to begin the very first day of school,” he said. “With a host of new principals and teachers, I think things are looking up.”

School officials could not provide the percentage of teachers who are highly qualified.

The Metropolitan Police Department has taken over responsibility for school security. In addition to school-resource officers and contract security personnel, officers from the city’s seven police districts also will be available to assist at schools. Mr. Janey acknowledged the region’s burgeoning gang problem is present in city schools, but thinks the new security will help.

About $8 million in renovations and upgrades have been completed since June.

D.C. school officials reported a 23.46 percent truancy rate for the past school year. However, The Washington Times has reported the school system’s statistics do not correspond with its attendance records, and school officials have acknowledged poor record-keeping practices.

P.G. enrollment soars

Prince George’s County will have the biggest increase in student population this year.

The school system had 139,000 students when school started Aug. 22, about 3,000 more than last year. The enrollment makes the school system the 17th-largest in the country and Maryland’s second-largest, behind Montgomery County.

The school system has 9,900 teachers this year, said Kelly Alexander, spokeswoman for Prince George’s County public schools. Last year, 38 percent were not highly qualified.

The growing student population will be accommodated, in part, by three new elementary schools Suitland Elementary, Whitehall Elementary in Bowie and William W. Hall Elementary in Capitol Heights.

The new schools also will help ease overcrowding by moving some students from crowded schools to the new ones closer to home, school officials said.

Another addition to the school system will be Bladensburg High School, which will reopen after about two years of renovation.

The school will feature a 689-seat auditorium and a TV-production studio and will offer a program in biomedical studies, including courses in space science conducted in partnership with NASA that will attract students from across the county.

The school system joined others in the search to find enough bus drivers by opening day, but acknowledges that finding a new chief executive will be more complicated.

Schools spokesman John White said the search started this month and that interim Chief Executive Officer Howard A. Burnett will run the system until the search concludes.

Mr. Burnett took over after former CEO Andre J. Hornsby resigned in May during an FBI investigation into financial improprieties and in advance of an audit that showed he mishandled school funds, including awarding a $1 million contract to a company that employed his live-in girlfriend.

Mr. White said the search for a permanent CEO could take as long as a year, but that Mr. Burnett is capable and offers parents “peace of mind.”

School officials said they have a sufficient number of bus drivers and substitutes and reported only one late bus on opening day. Officials have installed Global Positioning Systems and two-way radios in all 1,357 buses.

Arlington habla Espanol

Arlington County public schools will offer the system’s 18,477 students a variety of new programs when schools open Sept. 6.

Among them is an after-school pilot program at Glebe Elementary School to help students learn Spanish and prepare them for Spanish II in sixth grade.

The classes meet twice a week and will be phased in over the next three years. The program begins this year with first- and second-graders.

The students who enroll in Spanish II so early will be better prepared for high school and college because they will have a one-year head start on others.

“I’m very optimistic that we’re going to have a great year,” said Superintendent Robert G. Smith. “We have everything in line for that to happen.”

In Arlington, 94.5 percent of classes are taught by highly qualified teachers.

Alexandria on laptops

Alexandria city public schools begin classes Sept. 6 with 10,590 students and 1,229 teachers. The number of highly qualified teachers last year was 94.34 percent.

This is the third year that 10th- through 12th-graders at T.C. Williams, the system’s only high school, will receive school-issued laptops. This is the second year of the program for ninth-graders.

The kindergarten-through-fifth-grade students at Mount Vernon Community School and John Adams Elementary School participate in a dual-language program, learning subjects in English and in Spanish.

An official said the school system has enough bus drivers.

From Lorton to learning

With 164,918 students enrolled this year, Fairfax County is the state’s largest school district.

The county’s population is growing so quickly that the school system has opened its fourth secondary school, South County Secondary School. The school was built on free land on the grounds of the former Lorton prison through a public-private partnership.

Paul Regnier, a county schools spokesman, said the school system is ready for the Sept. 6 opening day with 13,550 teachers, including 97 percent who are highly qualified.

However, he said the system most likely will not have enough bus drivers but that situation is nothing new. The county ended the 2004-05 school year with a shortage of more than 100 drivers. Retirements, turnover and higher standards for drivers have left about 150 positions vacant for the upcoming year.

“We haven’t had enough in many years, all children will get to school on the first day,” he said.

The school system also is trying to revise its sex-education curriculum, but hopes to avoid the heated debates that developed in Montgomery County.

The county School Board has approved two pamphlets for 10th-graders as part of the system’s Family Life Education curriculum.

The three-page “Abstinence 101” pamphlet offers reasons for teens to abstain from sex and discusses challenges they will face as a result. The other pamphlet, “Birth Control Facts,” includes information about “morning-after” pills and other emergency contraception.

Some parents have opposed the curriculum and successfully lobbied for changes in the definition of abstinence presented in the pamphlet. Mr. Regnier said school officials are searching for a replacement for the abstinence pamphlet, but parents said other issues also need to be addressed.

“We uncovered a lot of problems , and we’re not happy about it,” said Mary Beth Style, who is on the 23-member advisory panel that approves health-curriculum materials. “They may see a fight in Fairfax County like they did in Montgomery County.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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