HOWARD COUNTY is starting to understand how Montgomery County officials felt a few years ago when their school system was considered tops in Maryland, but slipping. In both cases, the ups and downs of academic achievement were directly tied to the community's affluence.
Howard surged to the top of standardized test scores this decade as its income became the highest per capita in the state. At the same time, Montgomery's scores dipped as children from low-income immigrant families brought economic diversity but not enough resources and support to help them achieve at the highest levels. Now, it is Howard that faces the challenge of maintaining a strong public school system with a more diverse population. The percentage of students coming from low-income families has increased 75 percent in the 1990s. The percentage of students receiving free and reduced-price lunches is only half the state average, but climbing.
Students from communities outside Howard -- and outside the country -- now live in pockets of the county. Some students who lack proficiency in English have moved with their families to Columbia's Oakland Mills and Wilde Lake villages, and to Elkridge and North Laurel. Cultural differences often mark the new population, requiring school officials to employ different learning techniques.
This brings a challenge for teachers and administrators. After all their efforts to prepare students for the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program and other exams, they face a test of their own: They have kept the county at the top with a population that was more affluent and less economically diverse than other large jurisdictions around Baltimore and Washington. Will they be able to maintain an A-quality school system with more low-income students?
Assistant Superintendent James McGowan points out: " 'Welcome to Howard County' is not a point of insulation. It's a point of entry."
Some elementary schools have started reading programs to help students who lacked adequate reading instruction in pre-school years. If teachers and administrators can raise disadvantaged newcomers to academic excellence, Howard schools will remain top quality, whatever the test scores say.
Pub Date: 5/20/97