Homework doesn't call for a congressional probe

November 14, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The trouble arrived two weeks before Election Day, when Stephen Edgar, principal at Parkville Middle School, got a surprise telephone call that U.S. Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich's office was concerned about a math homework assignment given by a sixth-grade teacher.

Impossible, right? Since when do congressional offices pick apart routine classroom assignments and pressure individual teachers? Particularly an office headed by Robert Ehrlich, who proclaims, "I'm going to get big government off your back"?

Off your back, and into your classroom?

The trouble started the morning of Oct. 22, when one of Edgar's special education teachers, Cynthia North -- described by Edgar as "excellent, hard-working, dedicated, a wonderful teacher" -- met with the mother of one of her students to discuss the boy's progress.

In the room with North was a psychologist, a counselor, North's teaching team leader, plus the mother.

"I told her, her son was passing," North said yesterday, "and I mentioned this math project that was to be handed in Nov. 1. She blew up. She said, 'I didn't know anything about this. How can I help my son if I don't know anything about it?'

"I explained that a printed sheet of information had been sent home several times. And, since the deadline was still 10 days away, there was no reason to be upset. When she left, everybody felt she seemed perfectly fine with that."

Within a couple of hours, they knew otherwise. The woman phoned one of Ehrlich's local congressional offices to complain about the assignment -- that she hadn't been informed and that her child would thus suffer.

What we have, at this point, is an overly concerned mother, and a communication breakdown -- between her and her child, and her and her child's school.

What we do not have, however, is a U.S. congressional office acting with any sense of adult perspective. Math homework does not call for a congressional investigation.

The call from the boy's mother was taken by Vicki Chambers, Ehrlich's education specialist. The mother, Chambers said this week, "was very upset. She demanded we have a meeting with school officials that afternoon. It wasn't me who demanded the meeting, it was [the mother]. We weren't pressuring anybody."

In an interview Tuesday, the mother agreed that much of the pressure for the meeting came from her.

But she had already met with school officials, just hours earlier. So now, when Principal Edgar got word that Ehrlich's office wanted a meeting, he was confused. He still is.

"They're saying the mother demanded the meeting?" he said this week. "Well, Chambers said she was headed over here and the mother wanted a meeting, so let's just say it was an awkward situation. We want to resolve problems. But I've never heard of a congressional office getting involved in something like this."

He would know. Last year, Edgar was ombudsman for Baltimore County schools Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione. He took all parental complaints. These averaged maybe a dozen a week, maybe 500 calls over the course of the school year. Ever such a situation as this?

"Of course not," Edgar said.

And here's where it gets worse.

Edgar went to Cynthia North to tell her an aide to Ehrlich wanted a meeting that afternoon. North said she was "confused and very angry. I told Mr. Edgar, '[The boy] handed in the assignment 20 minutes ago.' Two weeks early, without anyone else's assistance."

Wonderful, Edgar said. And he went back to the phone and explained to Chambers that everything was settled. Not quite: She still wanted a 3: 30 meeting -- even though it would mean Cynthia North would have to miss an in-service class she was taking that day to keep up with Maryland certification requirements.

Edgar went back to the phone and tried to explain this. Too bad, he was told. They still wanted the meeting.

"Everybody here thought, 'Oh, no, is this some kind of a campaign gimmick?' " says North, who is a Republican. "By the time the meeting was over, it was clear the problem was lack of communication between parent and child. These things happen. But Chambers left, and she didn't apologize. And I'm left wondering, when did congressional offices begin to get involved in day-to-day curricula of local schools? And what happened to my rights as a teacher?"

Here's Chambers' explanation: "I had an upset parent on my hands. This is constituent service."

Here's the explanation from her boss, Ehrlich senior aide Karl Aumann (who said the congressman was unavailable for comment): "No, it isn't standard operating procedure to check on homework assignments. Ms. Chambers only wanted to keep the parent calm."

Here's what Edgar says, when asked if the meeting was a gesture of sensitivity or bullying: "If I were a teacher, and a congressional representative came in, I'd feel pretty intimidated."

And here's the kicker: The controversial math assignment asked each student for an everyday application of math principles. The boy used Legos to build a space shuttle model and gave an oral report on the math involved.

He got an A on the assignment.

Congress gets an F.

Pub Date: 11/14/96

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