WHAT EXACTLY does it mean when the state threatens to "take over" a local school, as the Maryland Department of Education did last month when it suggested intervening in Severn's troubled Van Bokkelen Elementary?
It sounds ominous. It sounds as if the local school system may be failing across the board. The term "takeover" -- state officials now prefer the term "reconstitution" -- conjures images of bureaucrats marching into school headquarters and firing everybody.
"It sounds as if we're picking on schools," says Ron Peiffer, an assistant state school superintendent who broke the news to Anne Arundel officials.
County Superintendent Carol S. Parham appeared "devastated," he said, when told Van Bokkelen was among 37 schools statewide listed as failing and targeted for possible state action. State lawmakers also bemoaned Van Bokkelen's inclusion, calling it a "blemish on Anne Arundel County," Mr. Peiffer recalls.
But is it a blemish?
Taking it personally
Yes, but not in the way school and elected officials mean. So far, at least, these people appear more concerned with the way the state's ruling reflects on their careers than with the welfare and education of the children of Van Bokkelen. They know the school has serious problems, but would have preferred them not to have been broadcast so publicly. They want the best for these children, but they don't know how to help them and are embarrassed now that the rest of the state knows that.
Of course, that's silly. School systems across the country are struggling to cope with the socioeconomic ills that plague the students at Van Bokkelen. The real blemish is that the most advanced nation in the world cannot find ways to overcome these obstacles so children can learn.
The children at Van Bokkelen, located near Fort George G. Meade and three of the county's poorest communities, have been falling farther and farther behind. During the most recent round of state tests measuring reading, mathematics, social studies and science, only 15 percent received a satisfactory grade, compared with a state average of 40 percent.
They are failing because they are hungry when they come to class in the morning. Because, poorly parented or unparented, they are undisciplined. Because many of them -- 29 percent of the third- and fifth-graders who took the state tests -- are special needs students. Because they live in an environment that often lacks respect for education. Because they worry about things zTC many of their peers elsewhere don't have to worry about: Who is my father? Where is my mother? Do they love me? Where will I be living tomorrow?
The school system recently assembled a profile of Van Bokkelen's students. It shows that the majority come from families headed by women with incomes between $5,000 and $20,000 (compared to an average county household income of more than $50,000).
It found soaring student mobility rates; 60 percent of sixth-graders have attended three or more different schools since first grade.
It categorized many Van Bokkelen children as "high risk" because they have repeatedly failed in school; are children of drug or alcohol abusers and/or victims of sexual or physical abuse; suffer mental health problems; are poor, or have parents who are or have been in jail.
These are unusual circumstances in a suburban school. For that reason, parents should not view state intervention at Van Bokkelen as an indictment of the entire system. In fact, as a whole, county schools scored about as well on the most recent state performance tests as those in comparable suburban jurisdictions.
Likewise, school and elected officials should not view the state's action as an insult. Other suburban schools showed a pattern of decline, Mr. Peiffer said, but Van Bokkelen was the only one that had declined far enough to meet the criteria for intervention.
And what does intervention entail? It does not mean that state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick will storm Riva Road, fire folks and run the place herself. That kind of takeover has never occurred in Maryland and, Mr. Peiffer predicts, it never will. The state doesn't pretend to have the answers. In a worst-case scenario, Mr. Peiffer said the state would call in a contractor to run the school -- hardly a proven solution.
Basically, state school officials want the local system to pay more attention to Van Bokkelen and brainstorm new and different ways to help these children learn. They want a detailed plan. They intend on monitoring the school's improvement and lobbying state lawmakers for more resources.
Is that so bad? If intervention by state educators means they will help secure funds and come up with ideas that may improve Van Bokkelen, shouldn't local officials welcome that? The dilemma local school officials face, of course, is that the best plan they can devise will only solve a small portion of the problem. Changing a school like Van Bokkelen requires changing the community that feeds it, and educators alone cannot do that.
Elise Armacost is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.