Proposed school review gets support

Incoming chief says evaluation would provide information

Limits must be defined

Equity committee seeks ways to boost individual attention

April 13, 2000|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Howard County's incoming schools superintendent has agreed with a citizens committee recommendation to have a performance review done of the district's education system.

John R. O'Rourke, the Pittsford, N.Y., school official who begins his job in Howard County on July 1, confirmed yesterday by telephone that he supports the Leadership Committee on School Equity's top priority, though committee members told the County Council that the limits of the review need to be defined.

"I'm very grateful for all the work of the people who participated in this study. That's a recommendation that will result in more information being available," O'Rourke said.

The school equity panel worked for several months to explore problems in county schools that have led parents to avoid older schools, mostly in Columbia, in favor of newer ones in outlying, wealthier neighborhoods. A catalyst was the revelation in September that a group of Columbia parents dissatisfied with Wilde Lake Middle School in Columbia was allowed to hire buses to transport their children to Lime Kiln Middle in Fulton.

The County Council, which is preparing for its annual review of the county budget next month, met with the equity committee's leaders yesterday morning to get a better idea of what to stress with school officials.

C. Vernon Gray, an east Columbia Democrat and 18-year council member, said he has always supported school budgets -- even voting to raise taxes last year to give more money to schools. But now Gray has "become extremely disenchanted with the school board. They've taken a head-in-the-sand approach, telling people [who criticize them that] they are uninformed or misinformed. It's a closed shop," he said about the board.

Council Chairwoman Mary C. Lorsung, a west Columbia Democrat, invited Mary Ellen Duncan, equity panel co-chairwoman and president of Howard Community College, and the other equity leaders who attended to return after O'Rourke takes office to talk more about what the performance review should cover.

The committee's hope, members said, is to find more ways to concentrate on each child individually -- to create a virtual individual education plan for each student.

"We have forgotten the real power of the human spirit. We look at people and say, `They cannot do,' " said Natalie Woodson, a retired Baltimore educator and education chairwoman for the Howard chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

What the schools should do more, she said, is foster a positive attitude -- help children believe in themselves.

Leaders of the equity group's four subcommittees said problems sometimes interlock in ways that make it harder for schools to improve.

Joanne Mead, a teacher at Clarksville Middle School who headed the staffing subcommittee, said her school's principal is using pupils' standardized test scores to identify children who need help, but that is not done in every school.

Principals have tremendous power that sometimes is used by administrators to keep outsiders away, Mead said. School staff members often are afraid to speak their minds, other committee members said, for fear of incurring the wrath of officials with more power.

"You have to be able to say to your staff, `Talk to me -- positive or negative,' " said Terry Chaconas, chairwoman of the accountability committee.

Principals are evaluated only once every three years, and it takes too long to get a foundering administrator help, Mead said. "Someone who is smart and knows the system can make it look like they're doing all right when they're not. We want a yearly evaluation," she said.

A principal in denial about problems at his or her school also can keep out central staff administrators who could offer help. Mary Kay Sigaty, chairwoman of the equity subcommittee that examined redistricting and open enrollment, said the school system's testing office director, Leslie Wilson, is "an incredibly intelligent person who cares" and who has a raft of helpful information about each county student.

"The problem is, she is not allowed to go into a school unless she is invited [by the principal]," Sigaty said, noting again how educational strengths and weaknesses are often intertwined.

Another problem, said Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican, is the escalating cost of building schools -- which is draining the county treasury of dollars that could be used to renovate older buildings.

School construction costs have jumped from $87.07 a square foot in 1996 for Long Reach High School, to a projected $116 a square foot for a duplicate building planned for Fulton.

That project and construction of another elementary school in Merdon's district will use millions of dollars that could have been used to replace air-handling systems at Owen Brown Middle School, said Councilman Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat.

Sidney L. Cousin, associate superintendent for finance, said a shortage of construction workers and higher prices for materials have driven up costs in the past several years.

The new northeast elementary school is expected to cost $9.2 million, excluding land and equipment, which is $3 million more than construction costs for Triadelphia Ridge Elementary School in 1998.

Long Reach High School cost $20.4 million in 1996, while the new Reservoir High in Fulton is projected to cost up to $30 million in construction costs alone, Cousin said.

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