Debate on high school deepens

Educators' report on Woodlawn lists numerous problems

July 31, 2000|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

Defended and decried, the only thing certain about Woodlawn High School is its address. No one - not teachers, not parents - can agree on whether the Baltimore County school is headed up or down.

Last week, a study compiled by a team of county and state educators added fuel to the debate. When team members toured the campus in May, they found dirty, chaotic halls, low teacher morale and an administration lacking leadership.

Those findings provoked an immediate response.

Superintendent Joe A. Hairston, who received the report when he assumed leadership of the school system July 1, has ordered an audit of the school to assess its needs. He has promised state intervention if necessary.

A team of educators, including Southwest Area Superintendent Donna Smither and Associate Superintendent of Educational Support Services Phyllis Bailey, met Friday to discuss how the audit should be performed.

The study astonished some longtime Woodlawn staff members, who said it misrepresented the school.

"I have to wonder where they were standing and who they were talking to," said Hilary Better Scala, who has taught for 18 years at Woodlawn. "My kids are great. They aren't running wild in the hallways."

Many agree with Scala, and say the schools' problems have been overstated.

That's Woodlawn. It has pride, but it has problems, too.

The report - which offered stinging criticism of a campus where 87 percent of the 1,700 students are African-American and about half the teaching staff has less than two years' experience in the school system - exposed a series of problems:

The number of Woodlawn seniors who enrolled in college hit an eight-year low in the 1998-1999 school year, when only about half the graduating class said they planned to pursue a college degree.

The number of students taking the SAT is at its lowest point since 1995. The test is an admission requirement at many colleges.

Scores for 11th-graders on basic knowledge tests given by the state have dropped - in some cases significantly - in three out of the four subject areas since 1993. The percentage of students passing all four tests has dropped steadily since 1991 and now stands at 77 percent.

Focusing attention

Reaction to these findings has been varied.

Parents, some of whom have been fighting for reform at the school for more than a year, have rejoiced that their concerns have been confirmed. They say they are eager to turn the school around.

"The momentum is there, we just have to keep it going," said Mary Faulkner, a Woodlawn parent and PTSA member who has worked to bring attention to the school. "We have the best intentions in mind - we want our school to be strong."

That's what Baltimore County officials want, too.

"I really think the socioeconomic future of the entire region depends on it being the premier high school in the county," said Ronald Boone, director of secondary schools for the southwest area of the county. "We've got to nudge the county's spotlight to Woodlawn High School."

Boone has suggested turning Woodlawn into a teacher paradise.

He talks about adding free days to the school's calendar for teacher training, teaming inexperienced teachers with classroom veterans, and providing opportunities for teachers to earn extra money by teaching after-school tutorials, weekend classes and summer school.

Changing of the guard

Boone has been a mentor to Woodley, who is entering her second year as principal. She replaced James Wilson, who was promoted to an administrative position at school system headquarters - a decision decried by parents, who saw him as a positive force at the school.

"I enjoyed Woodlawn," said Wilson, who was criticized by auditors in 1998 for failing to review his staff's credit card expenditures. In one instance, a teacher - no longer at the school - used a school credit card to buy items for his home. Wilson also spent about $5,500 to take honor roll students to amusement parks.

"It takes a combination of things to motivate students," said Wilson, who is now in charge of the school system's minority achievement department, of the amusement park visits. "I don't second-guess that decision."

Administrators are now focusing on the coming school year. Boone is helping Woodley to organize her staff, which will include 11 additional teachers. Woodley met with school leaders earlier this summer to coordinate discipline policies. She's excited about plans to build a 600-seat, $13 million addition to ease crowding at Woodlawn. The project is set for completion next year.

Woodley - who refuses to discuss the results of the study, as do most school system officials who had anything to do with it - is focused on the future. "I have the qualifications to do the job," she said recently.

Her superiors describe Woodley as an excellent mentor for teachers and a tough administrator who handles smart-talking teen-agers with ease. "She had the strongest record," said Boone. "And the children love her."

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