Skill level of teachers questioned

Reform panel finds most-inexperienced are in focus schools

High turnover rate blamed

Group studying equity fears quality suffers where tenure is lacking

January 14, 2000|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Howard County focus schools have too many inexperienced teachers, raising questions about the quality of instruction, members of a school reform panel said yesterday.

Focus schools receive extra resources -- more teachers and programs -- because of low test scores. But because of a high rate of turnover, many teachers are green, said Joanne Mead.

Mead heads a subgroup of the Leadership Committee on School Equity, a 23-member panel investigating real and perceived differences in quality among Howard schools, particularly older ones in Columbia. Ten of the 14 focus schools are in Columbia.

Her group is looking into staffing, especially in the focus schools.

"That's where the original concerns about equity were generated," Mead said at a meeting of the equity committee. "Our No. 1 concern would be to put qualified, experienced teachers in the focus schools."

Howard's starting pay for teachers with bachelor's degrees -- which ranks 10th in the state -- also affects instruction at focus schools, according to the group.

"You just have to wonder if the people who are being put in the openings are really the best new teachers available," Mead said.

Mead shared data with the leadership committee showing that in eight elementary schools in Howard, at least 30 percent of the staff isn't tenured -- which means the teachers aren't certified or have taught in the county less than three years. Many of these schools -- although not all -- have the focus label, she said. Her group didn't have turnover figures broken down just for the focus schools.

Of particular concern to Mead is the staffing situation at Laurel Woods Elementary, a focus school in North Laurel where 48 percent of the staff was hired this academic year. She said it is unclear how many of these teachers had experience in other school systems.

"We're going to take a real close look at maybe two or three of the schools and find out exactly what's going on," said Mead, a Clarksville Middle School teacher. "New teachers aren't necessarily a bad thing -- they're very energetic. But the big issue is if the kids are having academic problems, these schools should have a lot of support for these teachers."

Schools Superintendent Michael E. Hickey acknowledged last night that turnover at focus schools is higher than at many other schools. But he said rates at some nonfocus schools might even be higher and added that turnover in general has increased over the years.

The staffing group -- like the other three subgroups that make up the leadership committee -- won't make recommendations until the next full meeting, Feb. 3. The full committee is expected to report its recommendations by March 1.

Members of the staffing group have discussed ways to help the focus schools, including:

Putting high-quality, experienced teachers in them, and giving these instructors -- rather than new hires -- the classes with high levels of special-needs pupils.

Interviewing outstanding instructors to find out how they could be encouraged to teach in focus schools for a year, acting as mentors for other teachers.

Interviewing teachers who left focus schools to find out why they did so.

Reducing class sizes.

Ensuring that new teachers have classrooms, rather than making them move from room to room with a cart of materials.

Howard Community College President Mary Ellen Duncan, who co-chairs the full committee, said she was pleased with the progress members have made. The committee first met in November.

"I think what's evident is people are trying to do a very comprehensive job," she said.

Members also heard from three principals -- Roger Plunkett of Wilde Lake High School, Vincent F. Catania of Murray Hill Middle School and Deborah Drown of Gorman Crossing Elementary School -- who spoke about resource needs.

Drown said that focus schools like Running Brook Elementary, where she used to be principal, would benefit from an extra administrator.

"There's so much that happens in a focus school in a day," she said. "It would really be helpful to have that additional person."

The principals said that pupils' socioeconomic status can affect their school performance -- in part because children from lower-income families may not get the museum trips, books and access to technology that wealthier families can provide.

That means schools have to do more, they said.

"You have to give children that leg up," Drown said.

Focus schools

There are 14 focus schools:

Dasher Green Elementary

Guilford Elementary

Jeffers Hill Elementary

Phelps Luck Elementary

Running Brook Elementary

Swansfield Elementary

Talbott Springs Elementary

Elkridge Elementary

Laurel Woods Elementary

Owen Brown Middle

Wilde Lake Middle

Mayfield Woods Middle

Patuxent Valley Middle

Wilde Lake High

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