Elementary school battles exodus of pupils

Talbott Springs improves, but parents desert at steady pace

January 02, 2000|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

Before the bell rings at 8: 30 a.m. at Talbott Springs Elementary School, children scramble about, filling every crevice of the building -- gymnasium, main office, even two portable classrooms.

But the packed appearance of the Columbia school belies a troubling exodus. In September 1998, the school system's most recent report shows, 235 pupils who live in the Talbott Springs district were attending other schools, including 106 who went to nearby Stevens Forest Elementary School. The transfer numbers have been growing every year since 1992, and are among the highest in the Howard County school system.

What's happening at Talbott Springs poses a challenge to the Leadership Committee on School Equity, a school reform panel studying differences in quality and resources among county schools. The causes of the exodus aren't easy to address.

Talbott Springs has a bad reputation among some parents because of its below-average test scores and, some say, its demographics: More than half of the pupils are black, 10 percent are Hispanic, and 52 percent are low-income, qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches. About 8 percent of the children speak limited English, the second-highest such concentration among county schools.

Top school system officials and Talbott Springs PTA leaders acknowledge these facts, even as they insist the school is sound, and even improving. What officials don't acknowledge is the impact of their policies: Parents are taking advantage of a liberal open-enrollment policy that allows them to send their children to any under-enrolled school as long as they provide transportation.

Former Talbott Springs Principal Tom Brown says the school system should rethink the way it handles open enrollment, especially considering the racial overtones that exist in many open-enrollment cases.

"There were large numbers of kids that left Talbott Springs every year that I was there," said Brown, now an educational consultant. "And there were very few minority parents that took their kids out. Probably 99 percent [who left] were white. And most of the kids who [transferred from] Talbott Springs went to Stevens Forest."

Stevens Forest is 61 percent white, and 14.3 percent of its children receive free or reduced-priced lunches. Only 2.3 percent speak limited English.

"I feel now that open-enrollment policies probably do a disservice to the school district, Brown said. "As a system, I don't think they should make it easier to leave a school to go to other places instead of making that school better."

Schools Superintendent Michael E. Hickey defended the policy.

"It has been a problem," Hickey conceded. "On the other hand, it was advantageous in some ways. At Stevens Forest, for example, if you took the open-enrollment kids out of there, it would be half the size. So it had a salutary effect on Stevens Forest, but at the detriment of Talbott Springs.

"But the bottom line is," he said, "the academics at Talbott Springs have to improve. And we're on the right track."

The school has been designated a focus school, entitling it to more resources than other schools, including two additional teaching positions, a full-time guidance counselor, extended-day kindergarten and a costly Reading Recovery program for first-graders.

When Brown left the school district two years ago, Hickey brought in Rachel Slacum, a former Baltimore principal.

"I personally visited Slacum's school in Baltimore City before she got hired in the district," Hickey said. "I think she's doing the right thing, but school reform is a five- to seven-year process. It's going to take some time to turn that school around."

A visit to Talbott Springs shows an upswing.

Slacum's school is clean and orderly. Composite Maryland State Performance Assessment Program scores are up to 48.1 from last year's 41.6. Primary grade and reading teachers work closely with a reading specialist to coordinate reading instruction. Instead of quarterly assessments of pupils, Talbott Springs' reading teachers assess them every 4 1/2 weeks.

At the start of the school year, 28.5 percent of first-graders were reading below grade level, said reading specialist Mary Marker. By early December, 2.5 percent were.

"When children are given intense, appropriate instruction, we can fill in the gaps," Marker said.

Slacum says the school does not feel the effect of 235 pupils' opting not to come to Talbott Springs, because most of them never attended the school.

Of the 30 transfer requests Slacum signed in May, 29 were for incoming kindergartners scheduled to attend in August. One was a fourth-grader who moved to Jeffers Hill.

"I think that parents should have the say as to where their children are going," Slacum said. "If they feel they're going to be happier at another school, then that's where they should go."

But if parents would come into Talbott Springs before choosing to go to another school, they would change their minds, she said.

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