Teachers fight poverty, too

Howard County: Vision of plenty that affluent Columbia evokes is not the whole picture.

February 17, 1999

THE MARYLAND School Performance Assessment Program not only provides snapshots of schools that are successfully teaching, but insight into why others fail. A correlation often exists between test scores and family income.

That's evident even in Howard, one of Maryland's most affluent counties, as a two-part series in The Sun recently showed.

Howard's Laurel Woods Elementary, for example, more closely resembles an inner-city school than one in a suburban setting.

Its North Laurel surroundings include dense population, drug abuse and petty crime. Nearly a third of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, nearly double the overall rate for Howard.

Like many schools that share those factors, Laurel Woods performed poorly on MSPAP tests. Only 35 percent of its students scored satisfactorily, down from 40 percent last year. Emulating approaches being used to raise scores in urban systems such as Baltimore may make more sense than programs used in nearer, more affluent schools.

Howard officials are, correctly, doing just that. They want to reduce class sizes to give teachers more time with students, some of whom speak English as a second language. Teachers need help in the classroom to communicate.

Critics blame redistricting for the concentration of poor students at Laurel Woods and several other elementary schools in Howard. But the availability of affordable housing near these schools, rare in the county, may have more to do with students' family incomes.

Additional resources must be directed to schools where social problems make learning more difficult.

One proposal has particular promise: Partner Laurel Woods with more affluent Centennial Lane halfway across the county, where 79 percent of students did well on MSPAP. The cross-fertilization might enhance results.

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