Murphy issues school report

Councilwoman finds building conditions, class size are concern

June 01, 1999|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County voters made it very clear during last fall's elections that they wanted more attention paid and major improvement made to their schools.

So Shirley Murphy, one of the new County Council members that voters swept into office, has spent the past month researching what the 13 schools in her district of Pasadena need most. She's wandered school halls, talked to teachers and met with parents at every building. She says she found some good, some bad and some surprising things.

"All you hear is the bad news," said Murphy, "that there is a morale problem, that school is a depressing place. But what I found was that, in fact, there is an enormous amount of pride at all the schools, especially in the elementary schools with children walking through the halls saying `hi' to the principals and each other, excited about learning."

Each of the 13 schools lacked some of the most basic equipment for teaching. Some didn't have enough teachers -- and many were breaking apart at the seams.

In a 17-page report detailing her findings, Murphy found that beyond huge problems with many of the buildings -- asbestos, plaster falling from the walls, roofs caving in -- class size was the most pressing concern she encountered. She said teachers, parents and administrators stopped her and pleaded for a larger staff and for better county recruitment to keep talented teachers from fleeing to better pay and conditions in other counties.

`Worse than I expected'

"The building conditions were far worse than I expected," she said. "Many of the schools were freshly painted, almost covering up the problems with the plumbing and wiring. But if you looked close enough, it really stood out."

Marley Middle School received the worst building rating, with Murphy and her staff assistant and volunteers calling for renovation or a replacement. The report describes overloaded power boxes hanging open and outdated wiring taped to the walls.

Chesapeake High School didn't fare much better. Murphy saw outside walls pulling from the building and stairwells cracking apart.

Class size, computers

She found the most severe class-size problems at Jacobsville Elementary School, where 40 children were assigned to special education classes.

Many of the schools had acquired an acceptable number of computers through PTA donations or education grants, but eight of the 13 schools lacked a computer technician to teach the students how to use them.

High Point Elementary School had no computers.

Murphy said that despite exceptional work by janitors, all the schools were in need of additional custodians.

Murphy said these kinds of problems do not appear on countywide school feasibility studies that detail the schools' needs.

"The studies are very deceiving once you go out and actually look at the schools," she said. "Many have taken care of the problems so well by making do with what they've got -- the custodians doing extra work, for example -- the feasibility studies would never pick up on that."

`Fighting a battle'

At George Fox Middle School, and at several other schools, parents and teachers told of a severe problem with school discipline, describing a group of 30 to 40 pupils who are uncontrollable.

"They are really fighting a battle with these kids that is disrupting the school and frustrating the teachers," she said.

At a PTA meeting at George Fox Middle, parents and teachers expressed frustration with the lack of rules, lack of a dress code and lack of some mode of punishment besides suspension, Murphy said.

At Chesapeake and Northeast high schools, the report pointed to an "obvious" drug and alcohol problem.

Overall, Murphy said, the more involved parents were, the better behaved and better schooled the students were. Hardly shocking, she says, but one of the most overlooked answers.

Murphy sent her study to County Executive Janet S. Owens and the 13 schools' principals. She said she hopes her colleagues on the council will consider it as they discuss the budget for next year.

If the decisions are made, Murphy said, "and some of these schools aren't fixed, I will want to know why."

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