Schools make grade early on

Survey finds levels of satisfaction drop after elementary years

March 09, 2000|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

Parents, pupils and teachers at the elementary school level in Howard County are very satisfied with the school district in many areas -- including school safety, diversity and the quality of instruction pupils receive.

But by the time students get to middle and high school, that level of satisfaction has dropped significantly in many areas to well below the level that district officials deem acceptable.

That's what results of a survey of about 48,000 parents, students and district staff members -- to be released at tonight's school board meeting -- found.

The survey was given to parents, students and teachers in the 1997-1998 school year to identify areas in which the district needs the most improvement. Survey questions were based on the seven areas of the school system's mission statement: community participation, academic preparation, diversity, learning environment, pupil achievement, quality of instruction and the system's overall structure.

Overall, parents, students and teachers seem very satisfied with the district, giving high marks in most areas. But there still are weaknesses.

At the elementary level, for example, six out of seven goals met the district's standard of 80 percent satisfaction. Some even had satisfaction rankings in the 90 percent range. But at the middle and high school level, only Goal 5 -- that indicates whether the district creates an environment that welcomes and encourages participation and contribution -- got a rating of 80 percent or above.

At the secondary level, ratings for most of the goals hovered around the 60 percent to 70 percent range.

The idea that satisfaction dips as students age isn't a new one, said Superintendent Michael E. Hickey. A similar survey in 1997 revealed the same phenomenon. And, Hickey said, it's probably not unique to Howard County.

Hickey said much of the decline in satisfaction probably has a lot to do with lack of parent participation at the secondary level.

"As the student goes farther along in school, the more distant the parent becomes in the whole process," Hickey said, noting the drop-off of parent participation in PTAs and at parent-teacher conferences, as children age. "Parents don't feel as connected, and I think that's one of the factors."

The 1997 survey results and last year's results were similar in other ways as well. For example:

Students at the secondary level still are not satisfied with how much individual help they receive, how students behave in class orr their access to computers.

Staff members aren't satisfied with the time available to give students individual help, how often students use computers or the large umber of students per classrooms.

The satisfaction levels at the middle school level are lower in schools in Columbia, than at schools in other areas.

Hickey said that since 1997 the district has been trying to address issues pertaining to many of those weak areas. Some implementation of new programs, however, didn't happen until this school year, so this most recent survey wouldn't reflect those changes.

For example, the superintendent said class sizes at many elementary schools were reduced this year to 19 students per teacher; class sizes at the remaining elementary schools will be reduced next year. And there's money included in next year's budget to reduce class sizes in high school science and social studies classes, Hickey said.

The superintendent said he also has included a significant increase in funding for technology in the budget, which should help students and teachers be more satisfied with their school computer experiences.

But Hickey ackowledged that not all concerns can be easily addressed.

Although students and teachers both would like more time to consult and tutor individually, "we're not providing any more time because the day is still 6 1/2 hours long," Hickey said.

Middle school parent Rick Wilson, who is president of Wilde Lake High School's PTA, said he thinks the school district can help secondary school parents and students be more satisfied by starting, ironically, at the elementary school level.

"When you get to middle school and high school, if a child hasn't picked up the reading skills and the math skills," Wilson said, "then the divergence between the academic achievers and the academic strugglers just becomes incredible."

Joyce Pope, president of the PTA at Hammond High School, added that many parents are concerned that there aren't enough advanced placement courses at the high school level for those students who do achieve, and that behavior problems become more serious and dangerous.

"Although, in general, the teen-agers that I'm involved with seem to be enjoying high school," she said.

That's the message Hickey hopes to get across, he said. Even though the survey points up areas in need of improvement, he said, "those are still doggone good grades."

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