Baltimore County schools assailed by black leaders

They ask more effort in raising test scores of minority children

Elimination of `gap' urged

February 16, 2000|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

African-American leaders in Baltimore County have launched an aggressive attack on the public school system, saying administrators are not doing enough to help minorities.

The chorus of criticism -- from the Baltimore County branch of the NAACP, the African-American Advisory Group and parents at Woodlawn High School -- comes at an anxious time for school officials, who are searching for a successor to Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione.

Hand-wringing over the academic disparity between black and white students isn't new to Baltimore County. However, the recent resignation of Deputy Superintendent Elfreda W. Massie -- the highest-ranking African-American administrator in the school system -- has sparked new concerns among blacks who say they are tired of waiting for tangible proof of progress.

"What it comes down to is a loss of confidence in the school system," said Anthony Fugett, president of the Baltimore County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

The organization issued a statement recently questioning the school system's commitment to boosting achievement levels for minority students.

"For years, the African-American students in particular have suffered from abysmal gaps in achievement, reflected in grossly disparate test scores, suspension rates and special education placement," the statement said. "This has caused us to wonder about the quality of education for these students. The public cannot be satisfied with just reducing the gap; it must be eliminated."

In response, school officials said they are willing to work with the NAACP and other groups to close any achievement gap.

"We agree that there are problems that we need to keep at," said Charles A. Herndon, a school system spokesman. "These are not things that can be addressed and rectified overnight. They are complex issues, and part of our frustration is that progress has been slow. But there has been progress."

Since 1997, the gap between black first-grade males and their white counterparts who meet satisfactory standards on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program reading tests has decreased from 26 percentage points to 11 percentage points.

However, the percentage of black third-grade pupils doing satisfactory work in MSPAP reading, writing and mathematics tests remains about half that of white pupils.

County Councilman Kevin B. Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Randallstown Democrat, said he shares the concerns of the black community over test scores. "I have always advocated that we should put our greatest resources in the lowest-performing schools."

Statement endorsed

The African-American Advisory Group, which consults with school officials, has endorsed the NAACP's statement. Meanwhile, parents at Woodlawn High School have complained that the school has a disproportionately high number of inexperienced teachers. The school, with a mostly African-American student population, also lacks the money to purchase new band and athletic uniforms, they say.

The school has 42 teachers with less than two years experience and only two mentors, said Woodlawn PTA President Clara Hayes. "We have to go to the school board to get the necessities for our school while the rest of the community goes to get extras."

Hayes said she was relieved that the NAACP is taking a more active role in education in Baltimore County. "I'm ecstatic, because we need outside help to make the school board feel that they have to be accountable to this community," she said.

The NAACP statement marks the group's first major initiative since Fugett took over leadership of the Baltimore County branch last fall. The organization's leaders have said they will perform their own review of county school policies to see if they are helping minority achievement.

NAACP members are especially upset by news that Massie will leave her post before the end of the school year to take a job with an educational publishing firm near Chicago.

`Unthinkable rumors'

"We have heard the unthinkable rumors that Baltimore County was not ready for a `black' superintendent," the NAACP statement said.

"I don't know who would make that type of comment," said Board of Education President Donald L. Arnold, referring to the alleged rumors. "Race does not come into the issue. We are looking for the best-qualified candidate."

Kamenetz said he hopes the next superintendent will make minority achievement a top priority.

"To me, the emphasis of the superintendent search should not be based on skin color, but whether the next superintendent will properly focus on improving the disparity of African-American scores," said Kamenetz.

Overall, the NAACP is concerned about the treatment of minority teachers and administrators within the school system, Fugett said.

"When looking at recruitment and promotion, some minorities inside the system, as well as others who might consider this school system, fear that their careers would reach a dead end in Baltimore County," the NAACP statement said.

Members are upset

NAACP members are upset over what they see as an unusually high number of inexperienced teachers at schools with large minority populations, especially on the county's west side. "Minority students, like any other students, deserve the best of instruction," the statement said.

Herndon said the school system is working to resolve any inequities. An idea launched several years ago to pay experienced teachers more money to teach at struggling schools failed, but new plans are afoot, he said.

"We are constantly talking about those kinds of things, but talk only takes you so far," Herndon said. "There are issues out there that demand action and we simply need to move more aggressively on."

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