E-mail fosters schools forum

Discourse: Teachers, parents and candidates discover a convenient medium for venting about education and for finding solutions.

March 08, 2000|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

It started small. Twenty people, maybe.

Less than two years later, the group has ballooned to more than 90 members -- and every day without fail, some of them gather to continue an informal discussion about Howard County schools.

All through e-mail.

The people who subscribe to the e-mail list known as Howard County Public Education Forum can write their thoughts and get them to all other members with the click of the "send" button. Messages written by other subscribers come to their e-mail inbox.

The resulting discussions are lively, on topics ranging from school lunches to school elections.

The people who participate -- mostly parents, with a smattering of school board candidates and local leaders -- think they've found a great way to communicate.

Even those who were uncertain about the idea at first.

"I said, `Well, I'll give it a try,' " said Diana Talabac, an Oakland Mills High School parent who was among the first to join. "I was amazed at the level of discourse. The people are very educated."

The Howard education forum is one of at least 13 e-mail lists for people interested in the local school system.

Some lists are huge: River Hill High School's unofficial e-mail group has more than 500 members. Others are restricted to a small membership, such as parent-teacher association executive boards.

Forum open to all

The Howard education forum is open to anyone. Parents Allen Dyer and Alan Shackelford started the list in May 1998, building its early membership with people who testified at a budget hearing that year.

By Jan. 1 this year, subscribers had contributed 2,300 messages to the electronic forum.

Dyer sees the e-mail list as a way for busy people to participate in the schools.

"School improvement team meetings are held at 3 p.m. Who can go to that?" Dyer said. But with e-mail lists, "whenever you like, you can participate. I `see' people on the list server that I would never see otherwise."

Bob Clark, the list's moderator, said parents have sometimes felt that nothing happens when they try to address concerns through usual school channels. But the independent e-mail list gives residents an opportunity to speak out. "If nothing else, it's a place for us to come and vent," Clark, who has a son in fourth grade at Ilchester Elementary School, said with a laugh.

For Ellicott City resident Mary Catherine Cochran, the list has been a source of information and a link to schools her three children don't attend.

Helpful for primary

Discussions are timely and even ahead of the curve on some issues, she's found. Participants were chatting about ways to restructure the school board -- such as increasing its membership -- before legislators proposed bills to that effect.

"I think it's been very effective in allowing people to understand the issues fully," Cochran said.

Talabac, who likes the message list concept so much that she started several for Oakland Mills High School, thinks the e-mail group also has an important place in the school board campaign. She found it helpful for the primary election Tuesday, because most of the 17 people who campaigned for board seats are on the list.

"You get a better sense of the candidates when you have more access to them and their opinions," Talabac said. "You can make a better choice."

The list has been swamped with messages about the board election recently. List members participated in a poll a few days before the primary, with the most "votes" going to Dyer, a candidate, Daniel M. Dotson and Michele Williams, Columbia residents, and Virginia Charles of North Laurel.

Among the leaders on the list are school board Chairman Sandra H. French and County Councilman Christopher J. Merdon -- and a current New York resident.

That would be John R. O'Rourke, who will take over as Howard County's schools leader in July.

"We are informing the future superintendent," Dyer said.

To subscribe to the Howard County Public Education Forum, send an e-mail message to howardpubliced-subscribe@ onelist.com or visit www. onelist.com/community/ howardpubliced.

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