Howard schools feeling their age

Criticism of board, programs increasing in tumultuous year

Tests, crowding at issue

January 28, 2000|By Larry Carson and Jamie Smith Hopkins | Larry Carson and Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

In Howard County, where being one of Maryland's top school systems is an article of faith, a series of problems and disputes this academic year have rocked the landscape.

The problems range from lower scores on statewide tests -- making Howard second to rural Kent County -- to persistent crowding.

Some older schools are being shunned by upwardly mobile, mostly white families. More children from poor families and more transients have enrolled. Parents complain that the neediest schools often get the least experienced staff. Teachers complain about low salaries, noting that starting pay ranks 10th in the state.

The school board has become the focus of ire, too. Residents complain that their voices are ignored and their concerns are trivialized by board members.

Amid this turmoil, committees have been formed to push the board for action and to propose changing the panel's makeup. An unprecedented 18 candidates are running this year for two seats on the usually low-profile board.

As the five board members prepare to choose a superintendent -- only the third in more than a half-century in this prosperous county -- even critics say Howard's 43,000-student system remains one of Maryland's best, with well-equipped buildings, bright students and a top-notch staff.

So what's happening?

Some community leaders say the pending retirement of longtime Superintendent Michael E. Hickey, a new county executive and a mostly new County Council, have encouraged people worried about changes in county schools to speak up.

"We had a new council and a new majority. Some people felt more comfortable asking for things. Now, maybe we have a chance to change things," said County Councilman Allan H. Kittleman, a western county Republican.

C. Vernon Gray, an east Columbia Democrat with 17 years on the council, agrees. "People see it as an opportunity to get certain things on the table," he said.

Several new officeholders said they heard similar complaints during their campaigns in 1998.

"I think it's a time of examination, because Dr. Hickey is leaving," state Schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said. "People are re-evaluating where the schools are."

Others in Howard County, where the planned town of Columbia has grown to nearly 90,000 residents, see symptoms of deeper changes that county schools share with other public school systems.

Standardized test scores in older elementary schools tend to be lower than those in newer schools in wealthier areas. Over the past decade, the proportion of black children has doubled in some of those older elementaries, mostly in Columbia but also including North Laurel and Guilford. Efforts to close the performance gap by providing more staff members and programs have not borne fruit.

A turning point came in the fall, with the revelation that the school board had allowed a mostly white group of a few dozen Columbia parents to hire buses to move their children from Wilde Lake Middle School, the county's most diverse, to new Lime Kiln Middle in Fulton.

The County Council formed a citizens committee for an unusual public examination of school problems. A new, larger committee was appointed in October by the county executive and Hickey to conduct a more thorough review. That report is due in March.

"I think what Howard County is going through is similar to what all other school systems have gone through. As wealthy as Howard is, they're dealing with inadequate resources for providing all children with the high-quality education they need," said John Lee, director of urban teacher education at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Howard County Executive James N. Robey put it another way in his annual State of the County speech last week before business leaders.

"This past year, our news headlines talked about the perception of inequities in our education system and a slight drop in test scores," among other problems such as violent crime, aging neighborhoods, infrastructure and population, he said.

"Folks, we have reached middle age," Robey said. "We are beginning to feel the symptoms of the same aging conditions that other, older jurisdictions have wrestled with for years."

Although the symptoms may be familiar, if ignored they "can set into motion a dangerous change in the perception of the overall quality of life our county has to offer," Robey said.

Lee said it's crucial to help lower-performing schools, because they can affect an entire district, causing wealthier families to move.

"I think the new superintendent will have a tough task ahead."

One thing is clear: In Howard, where the annual budget fight is over how much to add to the school budget instead of how much to cut, residents are determined to come up with solutions.

Councilman Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat and one of the council's leaders in examining problem schools, said he will press for answers.

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