County school board seeks to redistribute veteran teachers Panel wants to place more experienced staff with neediest students

June 05, 1997|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County school board members yesterday called for measures ranging from forced reassignment of teachers to dramatically reorganized staffs and tougher student discipline codes as ways of spreading experienced teachers among the county's schools.

Reacting to a Sun article that showed the least experienced teachers clustered in schools with the neediest children, school board President Paul Cunningham said he will ask for a public work session by fall to find ways to give students equal access to qualified teachers.

That factor has been shown by major studies to influence achievement more than any other school resource.

Board Vice President Dunbar Brooks said that although a $3.4 million teacher mentoring program appears to be helping new teachers adjust, the disparity in staffing calls for a radical reorganization of struggling schools.

That could include providing more teachers to reduce class size, hiring "office managers" to handle principals' office duties so they can act as mentors and soliciting ideas from teachers on school reform, then giving them the authority to implement their ideas.

'Think outside the box'

"We have to enter some real substantive talks with the bargaining units on how we get that accomplished," Brooks said. "It's got to be creative, and everyone might not like it, but we need to think outside the box."

Brooks and other board members said they will ask school officials to keep yearly school-by-school statistics on teacher turnover and experience levels so they can measure the effect of the year-old mentoring program and future remedies.

In a pattern that parallels that of inner-city school districts, county teachers have fled schools with so-called "challenging" populations for middle-class areas where it is easier to teach or where they are closer to home.

As a result, in 57 of 158 county schools last year, more than half the teaching staff had fewer than five years of experience teaching in the county. Elementary schools with the greenest teachers also tended to have the lowest test scores, the highest poverty rates and, in many cases, the heaviest minority concentrations, a Sun computer analysis shows.

Taking a tack that has been denounced by the teachers union, board member Robert Dashiell said yesterday that the superintendent should reassign teachers where they are most needed as soon as possible and fix the disparity by fall 1998 at the latest.

Union leader is opposed

Outgoing teachers union President Ray Suarez has argued that such a move would spur more teachers to leave the school system -- when the turnover rate is already 8 percent, or 550 teachers last year -- and would weaken morale by making teachers "prisoners" in their buildings.

"I reject the analogy that likens any one of our 160 buildings to a prison," Dashiell said. "Everybody we're talking about here is someone who applied for a job. They weren't committed here by the court."

Though the convenience and preferences of teachers could be considered in assignments, he said, "The primary factors have to be what we need to fulfill our mission on behalf of the students."

Most board members interviewed yesterday preferred voluntary measures to attract veterans to struggling schools -- enticements such as smaller classes, stipends or master teacher jobs that come with reduced class load and time to coach.

Leadership and discipline are keys to the discussion, said board member Michael Kennedy, who teaches and trains student-teachers at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

He noted that federal law restricts suspensions of special education students, such as those with emotional disorders, and said unruly behavior is driving teachers away.

Discipline problems

Fourth-grade teacher Julia Holt, 27, who just completed her second year at Winfield Elementary in Randallstown, is one such example. She said she is transferring to Timber Grove Elementary in Owings Mills next year because of discipline problems at Winfield. If the county had restricted her freedom to transfer, she said, she would have applied to another county.

"I have constant fighting," she said. "I have the kids threatening each other, things like, 'I'm going to slit his throat.' I'm so worried that something is going to happen that I can't get to the point where I'm actually teaching.

"The children have such severe needs. A class size of 28 at Winfield is much bigger than a class of 28 at Summit Park. The discipline problems are tenfold."

Pub Date: 6/05/97

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