WASHINGTON- Kids in Maryland public schools can kiss the old-fashioned Valentine’s Day party goodbye.
As school officials push to meet more stringent accountability requirements, celebrations nowadays are likely to be low-key affairs — perhaps a cupcake and a card at the end of an otherwise routine academic day, say educators from around the state.
“I can remember taking a whole afternoon for a Valentine’s party,” said John Festerman, director of elementary education for Washington County Public Schools. “We still have parties, but they’re not as long-lived.”
But that doesn’t mean teachers today are killjoys, he said.
“I really think that schools value instructional time and maximize that. Not that they don’t do a lot of fun things with kids,” he said. “They do, but they really value instructional time.”
Most educators contacted Tuesday were excited about the change in focus, saying there’s nothing wrong with mixing a little learning in with the partying.
“When I went to school we had reading and then we had English, where we were diagramming sentences,” said Nancy Coit, principal of Beall Elementary School in Rockville. “Things are now taught with a connectedness to it all.”
One of her teachers used a Valentine’s activity this month to measure students’ retention of math concepts they learned in November, Coit said. The students thought it was “cool,” but it was “actually a post assessment. Did they retain this? That integration is a constant.”
Many officials said they have always been wary of the line between church and state, and have shied away from formal lessons on the religious history of the holiday. They emphasize instead contemporary secular values of community and character.
The saint part of St. Valentine’s Day “is of course something we de- emphasize,” said Harford County schools spokesman Don Morrison. The holiday is, however, “a really good opportunity to teach character education, the values of caring about one another and respecting each other,” he said.
Some educators said curriculum pressures would prevent them from whiling away whole afternoons munching cookies and sipping punch, even if they wanted to.
“If anything, our schools are encouraged to keep their celebrations to a minimum, because we don’t want them taking too much time from instruction,” said Patti Caplan, spokeswoman for Howard County Public Schools.
Festerman links the trend to the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, which the state launched about 10 years ago in an effort to make schools accountable by testing their students and then posting the overall success rate. Because results are made available to the public, schools cannot shrink from scrutiny, he said.
“If you’re in a school that’s not performing, it’s out there for everybody to see,” he said. “You can’t hide anything.”
Despite the pressure, officials said teachers have found creative ways to incorporate holiday fun into their lessons. And many welcome the shift toward a more integrated approach to learning.
Still, the bottom line is learning, many officials said. Coit remembered having to rein in a first-year teacher last Halloween from straying too far from that focus.
“She wanted to wear her costume starting at 8:30 in the morning,” Coit said. “And I said nope, nope. . .because the focus is on instruction.”