School Day Goes Into Overtime
Tuesday, December 12, 2006
It's after school, and in a windowless classroom at Henry A. Wise High School in Upper Marlboro, Michelle Guinn is trying to lead 11 students through an algebra lesson.
The sophomores are tired and disgruntled. They're grinding through Question 40, which is meant to test their knowledge of the difference between a mean and a median. To calculate the mean, add the salary numbers together and divide by the number of people, Guinn explains patiently. As she writes the long equation down on a white board, some students punch it into their calculators. Others zone out. And Sydne Kersey starts to get frustrated.
"There's no easier way to do this?" Sydne, 15, asks.
"This is it, baby," Guinn says. "This is algebra."
Starting with the Class of 2009, all Maryland students will be required to pass exams in algebra and data analysis, English, government and biology in order to graduate. All of the students in Guinn's classroom failed the test in algebra last school year. Her class, part of a new program in Prince George's County called the Twilight Academy, is meant to give students the extra push they need to pass the tests, known as the High School Assessments, which they will retake in January.
The county's performance on the tests has improved, and students can take the tests multiple times. But more than half of the 24,000 freshmen and sophomores in Prince George's are still at risk of failing to graduate. In the last school year, the county's passing rate in algebra was 46.1 percent; in biology, 42.5 percent; in government, 55.5 percent; and in English, 45.9 percent. The results were well below state averages. The Prince George's and Baltimore school systems together accounted for 45 percent of the students who did not pass the algebra test.
Prince George's schools chief John E. Deasy has been disappointed by participation in the Twilight Academy, which he introduced after taking over the school system in May. Of 2,404 slots available, 1,225 have been filled. Of about 20 students in Guinn's class, about half attend any given day.
During a forum at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt, Deasy pleaded with parents to bring their children to the course.
"I am distressed at an enormous level that we put together a program which is the best in Maryland and only one out of six children are going that need to take it," he said. "I need you to get your child to that program. I can build it, I can produce it, I can staff it, but I can't go to your home and make your child go there."
Deasy's plea received a warm reception from the 50 parents at the forum, but he said the students and parents most in need of help are the ones that are most difficult to reach.
In an interview, Deasy said the school system has tried repeatedly to engage parents and students. Those who failed tests have been reminded at school that they need to pass to graduate. Schools sent letters home to parents telling them of the Twilight Academy. The program also is advertised on public access television and in newspapers and school bulletins.
"It's new, so that's an issue," Deasy said. "Unfortunately, in people's minds, it's still in the distance somewhere. They're not seniors yet. Kids live in the present in school."