Parents fault Hickey reply to their study Member of committee on middle schools calls response 'token'

No 'will' for change seen

Superintendent says he aimed to generate 'comprehensive effort'

November 17, 1997|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

Parents who participated in a study of Howard County's middle schools call school Superintendent Michael E. Hickey's response to their evaluation vague and incomplete, saying they fear it could ultimately leave middle schools unchanged.

"One of my biggest responses to this is one of resignation," said Deborah Schultz, a parent on the Middle School Review Committee. "There's absolutely not a will to look at those things that are truly a source of problems in the system. Some of the things proposed just don't represent a change, and I don't think they'll be very successful."

Hickey's 14-page plan -- presented to the school board last week called for new homework guidelines and new report cards to be in place in all middle schools as early as next fall. It left some committee members frustrated, some angry.

Although it comes more than a year after the committee issued its 180-page evaluation, it included few details about how he wants teachers and principals to effect change in middle schools -- and it brushed aside such issues as African-American achievement and curriculum that committee members considered essential to middle school reform, committee members say.

"Many of the responses tend to be very token, more symbolic than anything else," said Fran Wishnick, another committee member. "This is simply not fully responding to the issues."

Said Hickey Friday, "If they were keeping a score card on their major recommendations, I'm sure they were probably disappointed.

"What I was trying to do was take pieces of some recommendations and try to combine others and put together a comprehensive effort that would make sense," he said, "one that would not so fragment the resources of the district that it wouldn't accomplish anything."

In response to concerns that county middle schools emphasized self-esteem over rigorous academics, and to statistics showing that students were increasingly ill-prepared for high school, a committee of 16 parents was convened in mid-1995 to evaluate the then-15 schools. Two university consultants were commissioned to do a parallel study.

The evaluations lasted 1 1/2 years and resulted in exhaustive reports that sparked broad debate among school officials and parents and led to five public hearings and three school board work sessions.

At a school board meeting Thursday night, Hickey presented his implementation plan, including a five-year time line and a preliminary spending plan of more than $5 million. The budget must still be fine-tuned and approved by the school board, he said.

The report highlighted 10 priorities and nine other issues -- including school philosophy and facilities -- among those he said will be addressed through other school initiatives.

Some members of the committee took issue Friday with Hickey's approach to his priorities -- and with the issues they say were excluded from the list.

"Those things that were not addressed -- no one wants to touch them with a 10-foot pole, is what it amounts to," Schultz said, declining to specify the issues.

Alice Haskins, instructional coordinator for county middle schools, said: "We knew we couldn't do everything at one time. We tried very hard to pick up on the concerns that the board set as priorities. The other issues are not left out -- some are [touched on] in the report."

Not among Hickey's priorities was the debate between central-office- or school-level control, whether county education administrators or the schools should determine such details as class size and scheduling.

"I'm not going to spell out every little thing principals have to do," Hickey said. "That's just not the way I operate."

But in its evaluation issued last month, the middle school committee said too much local school freedom had led to middle schools' varying so widely that consistency in instruction seemed nearly impossible.

"We were asked to evaluate the Howard County middle school system, but when we looked for a system, we didn't find it," Wish-nick said.

"We saw 15 schools that had different instructional methods; different class sizes; different ways of treating inclusion, the gifted and talented; different ways of assigning personnel; and so on," she said. "The attempt in Dr. Hickey's report is to allow further school variation -- that's exactly what we didn't want to happen."

Hickey's plan also barely touched on how to educate children who have fallen behind grade level, or remediation, committee members said.

His report called for "additional time outside" of regular class time for students who need remediation. At Thursday's board meeting, Haskins said principals would "find the time" in the school day for extra instruction -- and she pointed to the lunch hour as one option.

Said Wishnick, "I kept thinking about that all night [after the meeting] and I just got more and more upset. 'We'll find the time'? What does that mean? That's exactly what the committee said shouldn't happen. It works poorly and it results in inconsistency."

Despite their concerns, some committee members said that, at the least, Hickey's plan is a move toward reform.

"At least it's a step in the right direction," said Thomas P. Spriesterbach, a committee member. "I'm still holding my breath, but at least they're attempting to correct some of the things we pointed out as being deficient."

Said James Kouroupis, another committee member: "I'm cautiously optimistic, but, as they say, can the leopard lose his spots? They've never proven that they can make these kinds of changes and they left a lot of holes."

Pub Date: 11/17/97

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