Howard High named among top Md. schools

March 09, 1995|By Sherry Joe | Sherry Joe,Sun Staff Writer

Howard High School, among the county's lower-achieving high schools on college entrance exams, has been named one of the state's top eight schools in the first phase of a national competition.

The honor came last month, when a 26-member state panel nominated Howard High for the National Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence award, reserved for schools with superior academic reputations. The U.S. Department of Education will distribute the national awards in December.

On the 1993-1994 Scholastic Assessment Test, Howard High earned a combined average score of 939 -- the second-lowest among the county's eight high schools. Only Atholton fared worse, with a combined average score of 933.

Despite Howard High's lackluster test scores, the Blue Ribbon panel cited a number of innovative programs, including aggressive management at the school level, a four-period schedule and a focus on ninth-graders and troubled youngsters who need individualized instruction.

"The judges were looking for an eclectic type of school," said Darla Strouse, director of the Maryland Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence Program. "Howard High is really serving a diverse student population from gifted students to students who need additional help."

Howard High officials agree, saying they have worked hard to tailor their program to the needs of their student body.

"We're a full-service outfit," said Principal Eugene Streagle. "They get a good education. [Diversity] has been a real asset of the school."

Of Howard High's approximately 1,500 students, 71 percent are white, 21 percent black and the remaining 8 percent Asians and Hispanics. Students also come from a wide socioeconomic range, including families who receive public assistance and those earning six-figure incomes, school officials said.

And more than 15 percent of Howard High students attend the Howard County School of Technology. There, they make up about 26 percent of all students -- the highest percentage of any school.

Educating students with such varied academic needs is a challenge that few county high schools face, school officials say.

Howard High accepts students with some of the toughest learning challenges "and takes them further," said Bruce Riegel, chairman of the school's site-based management team. "It's easy to take the cream of the crop and turn them into winners."

Among the programs that earned the school its Blue Ribbon award is the Alternative Learning Program. Youngsters with truancy, emotional or behavioral problems receive individual attention and study in classes of five to seven students.

The program was begun in 1984 and in the last five years has helped reduce the school's dropout rate by 1.2 percent.

The program "has given us another net in catching kids who may have been lost," Mr. Streagle said.

Kevin Broadus, who has taught in the program for seven years, has seen a difference in students' attitudes about school.

"The majority of them are successful," he said, noting that some graduates have returned to update him on marriages and careers. "You get a big kick out of that."

The school also has reached out to ninth-graders, who as a group have the lowest grade-point averages, the highest rate of suspension and lowest rate of promotions among students at the school.

"Traditionally, they're the ones at most risk," said guidance counselor Eileen Ruppel. "They've gone from a place where they're hotshots to a place where they're the low man on the totem pole and twice as many students."

To help freshmen adjust to high school, ninth-grade teachers meet once a week and discuss students with academic, health and socialization problems. Some teachers serve as mentors, checking on students daily and even calling them at home.

"It helps give a more personal connection at school," Ms. Ruppel said.

Ninth-graders and their parents also can attend seminars to discuss academic and social topics. "What we're trying to do is create an extended family," Mr. Riegel said. "We've given parents a place to go."

So far, the program seems to work. By the end of this school year, officials expect only 7 percent or 8 percent of ninth-graders to be held back for a year, compared with 12.2 percent last year.

"It's certainly encouraging," Ms. Ruppel said. "We might have saved two or three kids who might not have been caught."

Howard High also earned praise from the state Department of Education for its four-period schedule, which allows students to earn eight credits each school year instead of six.

Under the schedule, attendance has improved because students cover more material in the 90-minute classes and are more reluctant to miss school.

"When you're not in class, you miss two days of class," said Melissa Elengold, a student member of the school's site-based management team.

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