Struggling schools will get a hand

Hickey unveils strategy designed to spark achievement

`A sense of urgency'

Proposed program could start as soon as 2000-2001 school year

June 11, 1999|By Erika D. Peterman | Erika D. Peterman,SUN STAFF

Hoping to spark improvement in Howard County's academically struggling schools, Superintendent Michael E. Hickey unveiled to the school board last night ideas for an ambitious pilot program that could begin as soon as the 2000-2001 academic year.

Pointing to the county's focus schools, which receive extra resources to boost academic performance, Hickey said that the system needs a "breakthrough" strategy to help schools with large numbers of low-performing students. Since identifying those schools in 1994, the school district has seen only incremental change in test scores despite a substantial investment.

Testing supervisor Leslie Wilson said that while high-performing schools have made significant gains over the years on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, the composite score for focus schools has remained fairly stagnant.

"What we're not seeing is a systemic change over time," Wilson said. "We're not getting a trend that's moving up."

Hickey suggested trying new tactics -- some akin to those used at new schools -- at one or a small number of focus schools. He said he'd like to see the plan begin in August 2000.

Among Hickey's suggestions:

Appoint a principal early enough so that he or she has sufficient time to plan and staff the focus school.

Make the assistant principal a year-round position.

Appoint a second assistant principal for middle schools in the pilot program.

Extend the school day and academic year for selected students and provide transportation for them.

Conduct a one-week workshop before school opens for staff.

Place a three-year moratorium on staff transfers into the school.

"There may be some of these that can be done, at little or no cost, in all the schools," Hickey said.

Hickey's plan was met with enthusiasm by board members and officials, who agreed that a pilot program should begin as soon as possible.

"I think we all feel a sense of urgency," said board member Sandra H. French. "I really take ownership emotionally and fiscally."

"We've pretty much all agreed that [the MSPAP] does capture academic achievement," said board chairwoman Karen B. Campbell. "We have got to not settle. I just see an opportunity here to really get over the hump and help the community."

Academic support coordinator Jacqueline Brown praised Hickey's plan, saying the school system needs "a clean slate" to approach the achievement issue. Rather than see certain children as disadvantaged, Brown said, educators should focus on the assets those students bring to school.

"If I have to handle the budget in my house, I have some mathematical skills. If I have to look after that young child, I have some leadership skills," she said. "We have been trained in a deficit model."

Also at last night's meeting:

The board approved specifications for a new alternative learning center, reducing the space by more than 3,000 square feet.

Originally sized at 63,920 square feet, the building was deemed too large and potentially costly by some board members.

The school will be designed to serve the county's most disruptive and emotionally disturbed students, and will be a first for the county when in opens in 2001. Associate Superintendent Sydney Cousin said that each square foot of space costs about $106.

Changes included a smaller gym, home economics classroom and media center and the elimination of some classrooms and offices.

"As you know, this has been a long, exhaustive process to come to these final recommendations," Cousin said. "One of the things we wanted to try to do was retain as much integrity in the core building as possible."

Cousin also said that the state has made an early commitment to help fund the center.

Several members of the Montgomery Road Corridor Citizens for Education lobbied the board for another elementary school in the northeastern part of the county to relieve crowding. Armed with data and about 1,400 signatures, members of the group expressed concern about enrollment projections in their childrens' schools, especially in light of an initiative to reduce class sizes in some schools.

The board approved an across-the-board, 15-cent increase in school lunches for the next academic year. Breakfast and milk prices will not change.

Pub Date: 6/11/99

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