School campaign as barometer on board

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March 05, 2000|By C. FRASER SMITH

THIS years race for Howard County school board made at least two important contributions to the commonwealth.

By Tuesday evening, voters will have chosen four contenders for the two board seats that come open at the end of this year.

Beyond that -- and almost as important -- the campaign produced a checklist of citizen concerns that the current board must pause to consider.

If the candidates can be thought of as hyper-sensitive members of the community at large, their criticisms should be viewed as the findings of a blue ribbon panel. Not every complaint merits consideration, to be sure, but some important ones surely do. Call it what you will -- lack of accountability, aloofness, a failure to communicate, lack of trust -- the board needs to address the fairly widespread view that it doesnt care what parents think, feel or say.

They listen, but they dont hear, one of the candidates said. The listening function right now seems an overly structured, pro forma thing, intended to check off the responsiveness box on the duty sheet -- but not always to act on anything.

Few really believe this is the case, but the perception that board members feel no obligation to connect with parents is corrosive.

Virginia Charles, one of the 17 candidates, says she hears the accountability charge often. While the board has a listening post process, it tends to be one-way, she says.

The citizen vents, but the board does not immediately respond to what is said: We have, as it were, a question and no-answer period. Perhaps, Ms. Charles suggests, a way could be found for a more thorough exchange -- one in which the citizen felt his or her thoughts were being considered.

June Cofield, another of the candidates, comes at it from the cyber world. She thinks the board needs to be more interactive.

The optimum outcome, she says: A new trust relationship. Public education systems presume that a board such as this one will be embraced by a community that sees its goals and values reflected in policy. Before the end of this year, says Stephen Bounds, a board member up for re-election, the board will field a new public relations strategic plan. Part of the thrust: Make sure everyone sees that everyone is an ambassador from the board: every day, all the time.

The board may feel a bit beleaguered and harassed, to be sure. Its members already expend a work week on school business so adding another chore may seem like piling on. But perhaps a bit of hard-headed re-tooling may suffice.

The candidates spoke often this year about equity. In the beginning, the word was defined as equality -- of resources, personnel and equipment. The conversation turned quickly to recognize that pure arithmetic equality is an insufficient definition. In some cases, more may be needed to put some schools on an equal footing.

In some other cases, Mr. Bounds said, schools that are perceived to be in the have-not category really get considerably more of the available help than others -- often because their status as challenged or focus schools makes them eligible for additional help.

And what, candidates were asked, should be done about fundraising in school? Doesnt that create another level of inequality? Wealthier neighborhoods will be able to augment programs in ways that make their schools seem even more attractive to the school shoppers.

We might have to look at capping it to make it a little more fair, said Melody Higgins, one of the candidates.

When the new board is assembled after the fall election, it will be asked to address even more fundamental issues, Mr. Bounds says. He lists two:

The minority achievement gap should be the number one goal.

Teachers need to tailor their presentations to learning styles better. Kids learn differently. Some are verbal, some are visual, some are kinesthetic. They come from different places. Some have been read to all their lives. Some whove never been read to.

Next on the list, he said, is quarterly assessment, now just coming on line: Teachers are still getting used to them. They are coming, he said, in an effort to identify students who need assistance before they are lost and hopelessly behind.

The difficulty, says Ms. Higgins, is what must be learned without forcing children and teachers into tests that can condemn as well as instruct.

Children do learn in different ways: Some dont test well. Some have talents that dont get measured. They ought not be labeled. Teachers should not be so pinned to the blackboard by testing that they cant use their common sense to help the child whos finding his or her way to the goal in a different way.

Unlike a more political campaign, one that truly elicits ideas about immediate problems is a wonderful thing for a community. The process of electing new board members in staggered and overlapping terms allows the outside world to send an emissary into the understandably closed-off world of this or any board.

The point: Hey board! Listen up!

C. Fraser Smith writes editorials for The Sun from Howard County.

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