Troubled suburban school fights back Drive on to eliminate urbanlike problems

April 07, 1996|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

The Howard County schools, long a statewide symbol of suburban high achievement, increasingly face student problems more typically associated with urban areas -- and perhaps nowhere more so than at a small elementary school in east Columbia.

At Talbott Springs Elementary School in Oakland Mills village, a third of the student body changes each school year. Almost a third come from low-income families. Almost one in five pupils has limited proficiency in English.

And though the school's test scores for third-graders are above state averages, its marks in most testing categories are among the county's lowest.

This has prompted middle-class flight from the school by some nearby families -- which, in turn, has stiffened the school's challenges.

"Those things are typical of what you'd see in an inner-city elementary school," said Orrester Shaw Jr., a former Baltimore City schools trouble-shooter who came to Talbott Springs last fall as principal.

"But it's right here in Howard County, and we need to deal with it and succeed."

Talbott Springs is the most vivid illustration of urban-type problems that are increasingly likely to hit other Howard schools -- and not just those in Columbia, warns Howard schools Superintendent Michael E. Hickey.

"A number of our schools are going to experience similar problems in upcoming years," Dr. Hickey said.

'The real world'

The student bodies of several other schools in Columbia, Elkridge and southeastern Howard already show some of the same problems of poverty and student turnover as Talbott Springs, though not to the same degree.

"I call it the real world," said Charlotte Govan, a first-grade teacher at Talbott Springs. "This is the school that is feeling it first, but it's just a matter of time before other schools see the same thing."

These demographic trends are causing school officials to rethink the way they distribute teachers and other resources across the system -- with low-performing schools being given more than others.

"Equity used to mean giving every school equal resources, but with limited resources we have to redefine what that means," Dr. Hickey said. "Some schools with greater needs will be given more assistance.

'Best for the county'

"It's somewhat different from the mentality of Howard County, but it's the best thing for the county as a whole," he said.

In February, for example, the Howard school board identified 10 schools as the county's lowest performers and assigned them extra staff and central office resource teachers who offer instructional training.

Talbott Springs was one of the first schools that board members placed on the list. At the time, it was described by one board member as the county school "I had the most concern for."

The school's performance on the 1995 Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) -- the state examinations used to grade schools -- is one source of the board's concern.

5th-graders ranked last

Talbott Springs students scored below the county average in 10 of 12 third- and fifth-grade MSPAP categories. While its third-graders showed improvement over 1994, its fifth-graders ranked last among Howard schools in every category and scored lower than the previous year in four of six categories.

But Mr. Shaw, Talbott Springs' teachers and the school's loyal cadre of parents are quick to point out that test scores shouldn't be looked at in isolation and aren't a fair means of comparison. After all, in virtually every educational setting, school test score averages correlate directly with the socioeconomic status of the students.

So Talbott Springs' supporters say it's not warranted to simply recite its test scores without further explanation.

"People have to realize that every school has kids who come in with problems. We just happen to have a few more," said Janie Willis, the school's third-grade team leader. "But the diversity in this school is something you won't find anywhere else in the county, and I wouldn't want to give it up -- even if the turnover and poorer students hurt our test scores."

Late-comers

For example, of the 82 Talbott Springs fifth-graders tested last year, fewer than one-third had attended the school since the first grade -- and more than one in five didn't enroll in the school until the fourth grade or later.

Most of the transferring students come to Talbott Springs from ++ Baltimore or Prince George's County, leaving inner-city areas for the suburbs.

Talbott Springs is a popular neighborhood for newcomers to Howard because of several apartment complexes that offer short-term leases -- a place to settle temporarily before finding a more permanent home in the county.

"Many of the kids we're testing haven't been taught in the school, but they count toward our scores just as much as the kids who have been here since the first grade," Mr. Shaw said.

"Our scores are reflecting the education that these children received elsewhere, and we're doing our best to catch them up," the principal added.

English deficiency

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