Call them neutral arbitrators, peacemakers or facilitators. Or call them simply the Board of Education's answer to school situations goneawry.
The school system's Instructional Leadership Team, created in 1980, brings parents and principals together, providing outlets for venting frustrations and voicing strategies for improving the schools.
Although critics have complained that the team simply diverts attention from the problems at hand, the approach has been used as a model throughout the state. The six-member team of specially trained teachers even has been borrowed by surrounding counties.
"When there are schools with obvious problems, it helps to focus on solutions," team leader Jackie Huey says. "We move away fromjust listening to concerns to generating solutions. The thing I like about our process is that every person in the room has an opportunity to respond. If we used another method, they may not have that opportunity. We don't whitewash the problem, we move toward a resolution."
When the team mediates a problem, parents are divided into groups. Asked first to write down their concerns, they then are asked to come up with solutions tothe problems.
Within the last year, it has had to address at least five cases involving parent-principal disputes.
Most recently, the team was used to calm the stormy waters at Odenton Elementary and Northeast Senior High schools. In both cases, parents signed petitions to have each school's principal removed and pleaded their cases to the Board of Education.
At Odenton, rumors of a June 6 playground incident in which parents say three boys took part in the "mock rape"of a female student -- school officials said it was a game of tag that got out of control -- goaded parents into action. They complained that Principal Barbara San Gabino did not take appropriate disciplinary action.
At Northeast, controversy was sparked by the dismissal of a popular athletic director. The focus soon shifted, however, to whether Principal Joseph Carducci Jr.'s strict Roman Catholic beliefs interfered with his job at the school, particularly in light of his policy of notifying parents of students even considering an abortion.
While those two schools have posed the greatest challenges, team members routinely are involved in helping teachers and principals meetgoals for improvement over a three-year period. All principals were required last year to prepare a strategic improvement plan. Principals at Odenton and Northeast also were required to include ways of addressing the concerns raised by parents.
On Aug. 22, about 45 parents gathered at Odenton Elementary for a meeting led by two members of the team and Cheryl Wilhoyte, the school system's assistant superintendent for instruction. Many still were steaming about the way they say San Gabino failed to keep them abreast of events.
The team quickly set about diverting parents' hostility into finding solutions. By the end of the 2 1/2-hour meeting, during which San Gabino said little, even some of the most outspoken parents seemed somewhat appeased.
As pupils moved back into the newly renovated school earlier this month, parents vowed to be an active part of making sure the lines ofcommunication remain open.
"There are some obvious changes," saidDiana Gardner, former head of the school's Citizens Advisory Committee and a critic of San Gabino's performance. "The principal is putting in a lot of hours. She is there to meet the buses and does return phone calls. There is a lot of good communication. More children came in than anticipated and new teachers were brought in quickly.
"To be honest, it's still at the stage where everybody is watching. Obviously, everybody is trying. Some of the glaring problems seemed to have been dealt with. Even though we said we wanted the principal removed, the real thing we wanted was a good school."
Northeast Principal Carducci's problems were not dealt with as easily. Team members continue to work with the school's faculty, and the policy on abortion is being investigated by School Superintendent Larry L. Lorton and school board attorney P. Tyson Bennett.
Carducci said his school improvement plan includes:
* Distributing of agendas prior to, and minutes subsequent to, faculty meetings.
* Increasing opportunity forinformal meetings, including increased visibility by and accessibility to the principal.
* Using existing lines of communication, suchas school organizations, better.
* Including more people in the decision-making process.
While the tension at Northeast has eased somewhat, not everyone is convinced that Carducci or the school board have gone far enough to ease tensions in the tight-knit community.
"A few things have changed, and that's good," said Roland Marsh, former head of the school's athletic boosters. "I still feel a certain uneasiness. I still have reason to be doubtful, only because we have not had the opportunity to meet again with the school board or principal to go over what has transpired, the resolutions and what's going to happen.
"Until that happens, we will decide whether there reallyis an open-door policy and whether we really do have an ear."