Plenty talk about schools, but more must listen, too

Comment

October 24, 1999|By C. Fraser Smith

ARE SOME Howard County schools getting more computers than others?

Do the best teachers and administrators end up in certain schools to the disadvantage of others?

Is the system becoming bifurcated between the haves and the have-nots?

If a problem exists, how much is perception and how much reality?

Do Howard County school administrators listen to Howard County parents?

That last question may be the most important one emerging from the first in a series of public hearings on the county schools. The answer may not be long in coming -- and some feel they know it already.

In one celebrated case, parents rented buses to transport their children to a new middle school several miles away. After months and years of seeking relief, they gave up. Other parents will consider similar action if they feel their views are being trivialized and dismissed.

3T's of education

Speakers at a public hearing last Monday urged county officials to examine every policy that has an impact on the schools. They believe that some neighborhoods are favored over others in critical areas: technology, textbooks, teachers and administrators.

The truth of these assertions will vary, to be sure. So the most important question remains: Are school administrators and other public officials listening and making their policies clear?

The issues are complex. One well-informed and reasoned parent said school district lines in her neighborhood have changed so often that otherwise deeply involved parents give up. The school they labor to improve one year, she said, may not be their neighborhood school in the next year.

Growth demands change in the district boundaries and, sometimes, parents find themselves driving by their child's old school to reach the new one, she said.

Parents will obviously have questions about these disruptive changes -- and the school department must find ways to make their decisions clear.

Redistricting is never going to be easy -- and sometimes it is of critical importance. Wilde Lake High School recently benefited from new lines that brought in students who live in Dorsey Hall.

With well-regarded leadership and committed new parents, Wilde Lake has made a remarkable comeback. It stands now as a great confidence builder for the rest of the system.

Parents say personnel policies contributed to instability in some schools -- loss of strong leadership and, sometimes, an accompanying loss of talented teachers.

School Superintendent Michael E. Hickey concedes that this happened in some schools. That practice has stopped, he says.

Straight talk of that sort is admirable and sorely needed in political as well as education circles.

County Council Democrats C. Vernon Gray, Guy J. Guzzone and Mary C. Lorsung -- who represent Columbia -- organized the sessions that began last week to hear concerns of parents whose children attend schools in their council districts. What started out as a limited inquiry seemed like a full-blown, countywide affair after parents decided to bus their kids from Wilde Lake Middle to Lime Kiln Middle.

At this point, communication difficulties which seemed partisan to some threatened to further complicate the matter.

Political sensitivities

The council's two Republican members say they were not invited to last Monday's hearing. The Democrats said they should have asked to be involved. Politicians on both sides need to be a bit more -- or less -- sensitive.

Meanwhile, parents are waiting for someone to listen to their concerns.

"At Guilford Elementary, it feels like the parents and teachers and community churches are doing more to further the education of our future leaders than the school board," said Kari Ebeling, the school's PTA president.

"We fund raise to death just to keep things even" with schools in wealthier areas, Ebeling said.

Dr. Hickey said Monday's testimony, including comments of council members, wasn't anything he hadn't heard before.

Many people seem uninformed about efforts to address school inequities, he said.

But some are very well-informed. School authorities, they feel, don't take them seriously.

C. Fraser Smith is The Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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