Sounding off about the schools

Howard County: Forum should fuel an open dialogue between officials and concerned parents.

October 19, 1999

CONCERNED citizens met last night to discuss how to improve the public schools with members of the Howard County Council, the Columbia Association and the county's delegation to the General Assembly -- bodies with limited authority over the schools but a great stake in their performance.

A bit of tension was neither surprising nor harmful. The important prerequisite for this public dialogue, which should continue, is open-mindedness and willingness to consider all points of view.

Evidence can be found that parents were not always heard by the school administration. Similarly, parents resisted efforts by the administration to address the challenges of a changing community.

The wary combatants find common ground in suspicion of "political interference." But everything is ultimately political -- and that's not bad if politics is also thought of as problem-solving. Serious problems demand immediate attention. A few Columbia schools have increasing concentrations of poorer, minority students and lower standardized test scores. As a result, parents have transferred their children to other schools. Not all of those who moved their kids were white.

The education department has made efforts to combat the perception -- and the reality, in some cases -- that some county schools are undernourished in terms of facilities and faculty.

Superintendent Michael E. Hickey forthrightly concedes that faulty personnel practices led to costly disruptions. Principals and good teachers were transferred, adding instability to already difficult situations.

Solutions are in the works in many cases, with parents digging in to buoy their neighborhood schools. Last night's forum was but a step in what must be a productive, open dialogue. But talk will be cheap, and ineffective, if people perceive their school is being shortchanged.

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