Stress basics, students' parents say

November 13, 1994|By Lan Nguyen | Lan Nguyen,Sun Staff Writer

When Howard County school officials asked parents what they wanted for the school system's future, they got an earful:

Get back to basics, and train students for the work world. But don't just teach them how to get a job. Give them critical thinking skills and the best liberal arts education so they are prepared for whatever comes their way.

And at the same time, teach them to be patriotic, civic-minded individuals who appreciate the diversity of our ever-changing society.

Some 70 parents and many of the county's school employees expressed these and dozens of other visions at community forums this month and last, part of the school system's "Beyond the Year 2000" project.

The project is Howard County's attempt to reduce in the schools extraneous programs that more and more parents say are taking away from the teaching of academics. It began last summer, when school officials drew up general, philosophical goals that might serve as the launching pad for the school system in the next century. Parents and all school employees were to put in their own suggestions through forums that concluded Wednesday.

Schools Superintendent Michael E. Hickey said he hopes to draw up a draft version of the school system's objectives for the 21st century by the end of this year. Parents and community members will be invited back to inspect that version before it reaches school board members early next year.

But first comes the task of reaching a community consensus.

"It'll be difficult, but I think it'll be doable," Dr. Hickey says. "Trying to reflect the diversity in this county is to find points of consensus around which we can build documents that can elicit a pretty large buy-in for people."

School system officials hope that the project will result in four or five major goals on which to focus, instead of the several dozen goals that came out of another strategic planning process, titled "Toward the Year 2000," that took place about a decade ago.

"I thought the healthy part of the exchange was obtaining a great deal of community input," said Bob Lazarewicz, the school system's operations director. "The diversity and the remarks from the parents and from the community reflected that."

Many of the parents who participated are die-hard PTA members who are the most active in changing school policies and promoting school programs. Others are community members who at one time had children in the schools, or county residents who served as teachers and educators.

The four community forums were marked by lively debates about the role of the public schools and the path they should take. And participants had to play the role of wordsmiths, examining every word that might go into the system's final draft of its 21st century goals.

Take the word "ensure." Many groups wrestled with whether the school system can "ensure" that all students meet or exceed defined achievement standards, or whether it should just provide the opportunity for students to meet or exceed these standards.

Columbia resident Perry Greenfield joined the fray because he didn't like the direction in which the school system is heading. He said he wants the school system to go back to basics, a theme expounded by newly elected school board member Stephen Bounds.

"Homework is not as extensive as it used to be," said Mr. Greenfield, a Hubble space telescope scientist. "Teachers give less feedback to students."

Daryl Charles of Ellicott City is another parent who's dissatisfied with the apparent shift away from the basics.

He's particularly critical of Operation D.A.R.E., a drug-awareness program that has police officers going to schools to discuss self-esteem, peer pressure and other topics.

He said the program, listed as part of health education, has been proven to be ineffective and takes time away from teaching core subjects.

"The academic core has been supplanted by extracurricular concerns," he said. "The public schools have taken on the functions of a social agency throughout the years. It behooves them to reassess and return to that original calling, which is primarily academic."

Sherman Howell, a Columbia father whose daughter graduated from county schools, spoke out to make sure that Howard County has a high-quality education system -- an asset he knows draws businesses and money to the county.

"I'm for quality education for America," he said. "The only way we're going to be competitive is if we give kids quality education background."

While the county's school system is widely hailed as one of the best in the state, it has room for improvement -- and not just in academics, Mr. Howell said.

"The school system must truly understand that parents and the community must play a role," he said. "They have to reach out for us. More and more people in Howard County are becoming of age where they don't have kids in the schools."

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