School panel's suggested reforms are a multiple-choice assignment

Ideas go from redistricting to playground equipment

February 25, 2000|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Members of a school reform committee tentatively agreed yesterday on a sizable list of recommendations to improve the Howard County school system, touching on issues ranging from redistricting to playground equipment.

Leadership Committee on School Equity members hashed out the details in a 4 1/2-hour closed session that they believe will be their final meeting as a group.

The 24-member committee, formed by Superintendent Michael E. Hickey and County Executive James N. Robey in October, has for more than three months studied issues relating to resources, programs, staff, accountability and equity in Howard County schools. Members have collected data and listened to testimony from parents, teachers, administrators and business people.

Their report -- which has not been written -- will be made public March 13.

Until then, committee members will collect more data to refine the recommendations, some of which are incomplete.

"We still have a lot of work to do," said Howard Community College President Mary Ellen Duncan, who co-chairs the committee with consultant Bill Benton.

Duncan and Benton said in an interview after the meeting that the committee identified about 25 issues, each with at least one recommendation. "We took a broad view," Duncan said.

Those issues include:

Redistricting and open enrollment -- Redistricting is the annual process that changes where some students attend school, and the open-enrollment policy allows parents to send their children to any school with space, as long as the parents provide transportation. Duncan said the committee is suggesting that the school board take a close look at both policies together because they affect each other.

Fund raising -- The committee considered equity issues relating to school fund raising because schools in wealthier areas have the potential to net more money. Members have not come to a consensus on a recommendation, but they are trying to find a way to "level the playing field," Benton said. "We don't want to cut off fund raising, but we've got to do something about the unevenness," he said.

The budget -- Benton said the committee looked, in particular, at money spent to promote equity and how the budget is formatted. Allocations are not broken down by school in the budget, but the committee thinks they should be so people can see where the money is going. "What we're saying is, lay all the cards on the table up front," Benton said.

Federal funding -- The panel believes the school system is eligible for money it isn't receiving.

Communication with parents and the community -- It could be improved, the committee members suggested. "A lot of the information available for the public is not understandable by the public," Duncan said.

Staff turnover -- Members have collected data showing that there is significant teacher turnover at some schools with low test scores and higher percentages of low-income students. The situation leaves the schools most in need of experienced instructors with many new teachers instead. Among the committee's recommendations: Higher salaries and more support for new teachers.

Playground equipment -- The school system pays for playground equipment for newschools, but it has not paid for replacements. Parent-teacher associations generally shoulder that cost. In response to complaints, the school board allocated money in the proposed budget for next academic year to begin replacing old or unsafe equipment. The committee might recommend steps above and beyond that, Benton said.

Accountability -- Panel members say school officials should conduct an independent performance review to learn how the schools are doing and how they can improve, Benton said.

Duncan said committee members tried to consider what is fair for all children.

The result is intended to be specific but not "proscriptive," she said. Panel members expect that school officials will want to analyze the report to see what they can accomplish -- and when they could tackle the challenges.

"I think we're going to ask the school system to look at all the stuff and then come up with a plan to present to the school board," Benton said.

He said some community groups have asked the leadership committee to speak about the process and its conclusions, and members plan to do so.

Benton says talking to the community will help make possible the panel's main goal: to see "tangible results" after the report is done."That's what we're really shooting for," he said.

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