School board candidate French aims to put children first in decisions Incumbent says experience as teacher, PTA official helps her address issues

October 12, 1998|By Erika D. Peterman | Erika D. Peterman,SUN STAFF

Sandra French had two things on her side during the September primary for school board -- name recognition and a six-year track record that seemed to satisfy voters.

That powerful combination garnered French 33 percent of the vote in a seven-candidate field, now winnowed to four candidates for two seats in the general election Nov. 3. The 54-year-old former Glen Burnie High School English teacher was known in local and national education circles before she won a Howard County school board seat in 1992.

After teaching in the mid-1960s and early 1970s, French served as president of the PTA Council of Howard County and spent several years working with the Maryland and national PTAs. French also worked as a substitute teacher in Howard County for three years.

Her youngest son will graduate from high school next year.

French said her education experience helped her keep her main campaign promise in her first term.

"I promised to keep all children first in the decisions," she said. "I always looked at how this would affect the student in the classroom and the teacher."

During board meetings, French frequently asks detailed questions about how policy decisions would play out in the classroom. When school staff members presented a proposal for an ambitious alternative school to serve the county's most troubled students, French questioned the wisdom of housing emotionally fragile students alongside disruptive ones.

School staff members decided to remove the program for vulnerable students from the proposal, offering to address those children's needs separately.

"At times, the downside of that can be people thinking I'm micromanaging," French said of her questioning. "I just have to ask the questions."

The job has been difficult. French said she almost didn't run for re-election because of the emotional upheaval over recent redistricting. French said her youngest son has been redistricted twice.

French -- and her supporters -- believe she has something vital to offer.

"Sandy knows her mission and does a fine job," said Dana Hanna, a former school board member.

On the crowding expected to face Howard County schools in the next decade:

School officials expect 20 of 37 elementary schools, nine of 16 middle schools and eight of 10 high schools to be over capacity by 2004.

French favors the approach the county has taken in recent years, which is trying to build space for slightly less than the enrollment peak. She calls the philosophy "an attempt to be fiscally responsible and work with the county government."

"Unfortunately, that will mean significant redistricting," French said. "It's necessary because the county cannot afford to keep building for that peak, which will eventually go away."

French said the school system should also ensure that older schools deliver the same quality of learning offered in new schools.

On the overall test achievement gap between black and white students:

Recent test scores revealed a significant gap between black and white children, though system-wide scores were above the national average.

French has said this is one of her chief concerns. While some of the school system's academic support programs seem to have a positive effect in helping close the gap, French said she realizes the change seems slow in coming.

She said having more minority representation on school staff might help.

On diversity concerns raised by the NAACP:

In August, the Howard County National Association for the Advancement of Colored People accused the school system of not hiring enough African-Americans and passing over qualified applicants.

French concurs that there aren't enough black teachers in the county but said that reflects a national problem.

The candidate said she thinks many African-Americans are shunning education jobs because they don't pay enough. The talents and skills that make someone a good teacher could earn them a better salary in another field, she said.

"We have to bring back the respect and the dignity of the positions," French said. "They look back and see how some of their revered teachers were challenged and shown disrespect. They say, 'Do I want to put myself through that?' "

On the alternative school proposal:

The goal of a school for troubled youths should be to return those students to a regular school setting if possible, French said.

"The mission should be to prepare those students to return to the mainstream classroom setting," she said. "There should be exit programs."

The candidate said she prefers the latest proposal from staff, which reduced the planned school's budget by creating shared staff positions.

On whether weighted class rank should be implemented for the 1999 graduating class:

The school board recently voted to offer a weighted ranking option -- which would give high school students extra quality points for excelling in advanced-level classes -- for the 2000 seniors instead of this year's.

French voted against the decision to wait until the 1999-2000 school year to offer the ranking option to high school seniors.

"I understand the difficulties, but I was hoping there might be a compromise so the rank would be available in time for college scholarships," French said. "I am convinced that this overall decision [to offer weighted class rank] was a wise one."

Pub Date: 10/12/98

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