What's ailing the Anne Arundel County school system is the equivalent of "a persistent low-grade fever," and Superintendent Carol S. Parham wants to bring the system back to good health.
"Our biggest problem is that we've been in a crisis mode for over a year. That makes it difficult for all of us," she said. "It's analogous to someone with a low-grade fever. It's not going to kill you, but eventually your vital organs are going to break down and your body just won't be operating efficiently."
After a tumultuous year in which a teacher confessed on national television that he had sex with a 16-year-old female student, and parents claimed black students were being unfairly punished, Dr. Parham, 44, has her work cut out for her.
Several issues beg her attention: countywide redistricting to help relieve overcrowding in classrooms; changes that must be made in flawed student and employee discipline programs; and the need to improve relations with parents and employees.
"The most important thing she has to do is finish getting her team together," said Thomas Twombly, vice president of the eight-member school board. "Then, she has to delegate and let her managers do their jobs, and make changes. There are too many people still with the word 'acting' in front of their titles."
Until this month that list included Dr. Parham.
Formerly human relations director, she was named acting superintendent about a year ago while then-Superintendent C. Berry Carter II was under investigation for allegedly mishandling child-abuse cases during the years he had been deputy superintendent.
The probe showed a disturbing pattern in which child-abuse complaints, especially those against teachers, were handled by the school system instead of being turned over to police or social workers. Mr. Carter resigned in late October.
In February, after seven months as acting superintendent, Dr. Parham was given the $100,000-a-year job on a permanent basis.
She's already started making her mark on the system, the 47th-largest in the nation with nearly 70,000 students, more than 7,400 employees and a budget of $408 million.
In June, she ordered a major reorganization at the school level. New principals were assigned to eight high schools, six middle schools and 14 elementary schools. Thirty-one assistant principals were moved. And she promised to shift some teachers.
She also divided the school system's operations and gave the work to two associate superintendents. In every other county school superintendent's tenure, the tasks had been performed by one deputy superintendent.
Associate Superintendent Ronald L. Beckett is responsible for administrative, financial, school construction and employee relations issues, while Associate Superintendent Kenneth P. Lawson deals with such issues as the curriculum. Two of their four assistants were just appointed.
About a half-dozen other jobs remain open, including assistant superintendent for instruction.
"How do I know this is going to work? I don't know, but unless we do something differently, we'll never know whether it works," Dr. Parham said of her new chief executive officer-type management plan. "There's no penalty for doing your best and being creative. If it doesn't work, we'll change it again."
What's in store for students?
"We're going to look at instruction, and the dropout rate," she said. "We've met 12 of 13 standards for the Maryland School Performance Program -- except the drop-out rate."
Dr. Parham also said she wants to improve conditions at the elementary school level and may implement changes suggested a report known as "Bridging the Gap." It pointed out inequities such as elementary teachers having less planning time than middle or high school teachers and that not every elementary school has its own guidance counselor.
"Our clientele has changed," Dr. Parham said. "Twenty years ago it wasn't necessary to have a full-time guidance counselor in elementary schools. Now, the socioeconomic issues that affect families make it essential."
A uniform code of student discipline is being developed, and a plan to find alternatives to suspensions and expulsions that leave children home alone while parents work is in the works. Administrators and teachers will receive cultural sensitivity training as part of an agreement with the federal civil rights office.
"The crisis mentality has undermined the public's confidence and trust," Dr. Parham said. "I promise to listen, but that doesn't mean I'll always be in agreement with them."
The student-teacher sex scandals brought the system's problems into the open. Three of the five teachers involved were cleared of criminal wrongdoing, one was convicted and one was not prosecuted.