Van Bokkelen Elementary's plight Anne Arundel County: Plagued by social ills, this school won't be saved by educators alone.

February 01, 1996

SOME PARENTS may wonder about the quality of Anne Arundel public schools after the State Department of Education suggested it can run Van Bokkelen Elementary in Severn better than the county school board. The state has threatened to take over three dozen public schools because their students perform consistently poorly. But Anne Arundel is the only county in the relatively wealthy Baltimore-Washington suburbs to have a school on the list. Of the others, 35 are in Baltimore City and one in rural Somerset County. Does the inclusion of Van Bokkelen mean Anne Arundel schools are failing? No.

Recent test scores -- the basis the state used for judging which schools need help -- show that as a whole Anne Arundel schools are performing about as well as comparable counties. In each county, however, certain schools are lagging. Van Bokkelen is the most extreme example. Located near Fort George G. Meade and three of the county's poorest housing complexes, its student population closely resembles those found in inner cities. It serves a community both impoverished and transient. Few parents get sufficiently involved with their children's education. The students' poor performance is largely the symptom of social ills -- poverty, drug use, crime, poor parenting -- that educators alone are neither responsible for nor capable of correcting.

Children do not leave their problems at their school's front door. Their performance will not improve until their communities do, a revolution that requires a plethora of social changes, including medical care, transportation, drug and alcohol treatment, stronger families, reduced crime, jobs. The question is, how do we as parents, taxpayers and elected officials help troubled communities right themselves?

Perhaps suburban school systems, which cater largely to middle-class households, are ill-prepared to educate in the face of serious social problems. This is not surprising; most major American cities still struggle to surmount the social obstacles that keep kids from learning. The proposed takeover of Van Bokkelen Elementary should not be seen as a referendum on the local school system. It is a referendum on our ability to get to the root of the problems that are causing it to fail. If the state has an answer, so be it.

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