O'Rourke faces new, familiar challenges

Superintendent has tackled some of same issues in N.Y. district

February 07, 2000|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

When Howard County's new superintendent of schools takes over July 1, he'll have a host of challenges facing him -- from crowded schools to gaps in student achievement.

Some of these challenges will be familiar ones that John R. O'Rourke has seen in his current system in upstate New York. Others haven't come up in the Pittsford Central School District during his nearly eight-year tenure.

Among the big issues in Howard County schools:

Redistricting. This annual, contentious process of sending some students to different schools is part of administrators' strategy for easing crowding in some schools.

Open enrollment. This policy allows parents to send their children to any underenrolled school as long as they provide transportation -- and it has both strong defenders and opponents.

Concerns about equity among schools. Parents have complained about differences between older and newer buildings.

School construction. Fast growth in the county -- and about 1,500 new students each year -- have forced administrators to open building after building. Three more are slated for construction in the next few years.

Minority achievement. As a group, more white and Asian students perform satisfactorily on standardized tests than African-American and Hispanic students. Meanwhile, one Howard County group says that many high-scoring African-American children are not put in gifted and talented classes.

Teacher salaries. The teachers union is upset about Howard County's starting salary, ranked 10th in the state, and believes this will hurt the system's ability to recruit.

Familiar in Pittsford

O'Rourke has faced some of these challenges in Pittsford, where he is superintendent.

Teacher salaries are always a concern, but O'Rourke made the negotiation process easier by forging a close relationship with the teachers union, said Pittsford board member Alan Shaffer. O'Rourke and union president Barbara Shapiro meet regularly.

Pittsford is also faced with crowding. Four of the eight schools are cramped. Residents recently passed a bond issue to pay for renovations and for a high school.

Shaffer said O'Rourke insisted that the new school not overshadow the existing high school. The bond issue includes money to upgrade Pittsford Mendon High School's library, classrooms and infrastructure.

"Comparability is something John was upfront on," Shaffer said.

But the 5,800-student system hasn't required redistricting during O'Rourke's tenure, according to Shaffer. The closest change is when sixth grade was moved from the elementary schools to the middle school level.

Pittsford doesn't have open enrollment.

The district, which is 90 percent white, doesn't have a minority achievement gap, Shaffer said. To address performance of all students, the system offers a "differentiated instruction" program that lets children work at their level in each subject, he said.

`No doubt'

Shaffer -- and others in Pittsford -- say they have full confidence that O'Rourke is up to any challenge in Howard County. He's a problem-solver, Pittsford board members say.

"I have absolutely, positively no doubt of his capabilities," Shaffer said. "Howard County is very lucky to get him."

But Howard County school activists have come to strikingly disparate conclusions about O'Rourke's ability to deal with local issues.

Members of the African American Coalition of Howard County worry that his experience has not prepared him for the complexity of the county.

"The real test is going to come very early," said Ken Jennings, vice president of operations with the coalition.

The county needs a leader who will step in and fix problems, Jennings said. He's upset that small percentages of African-American students with high scores on standardized tests are included in advanced classes, and he wants that addressed.

He viewed David E. Sawyer, the other finalist for superintendent in Howard, as a take-charge person with experience in a large, diverse school district.

By choosing O'Rourke, he said, "it says to me that this board has opted for the status quo."

Some see a listener

But others in Howard County see in O'Rourke someone who will listen, notice problems and do something about them.

Rick Wilson, parent-teacher association president at Wilde Lake Middle School, thinks better listening from administrators would have alleviated resource problems and negative perceptions about his school. Wilson believes O'Rourke's leadership style will help him solve equity problems -- whether those problems are reality or simply perception.

"I think O'Rourke is a patient type of man, and he will effect changes to address that," Wilson said. "He'll get it done."

O'Rourke considers himself up to all that the Howard County superintendency entails -- in part because he knew details of the system even before he was approached about the job. Howard County is among the districts Pittsford keeps tabs on nationally in an effort to learn about new initiatives.

"We've got parallels for most everything Howard County's got," he said.

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