School system confronts the gaps in its success

Education: As most of Howard County's pupils thrive, educators find improving their lowest-performing schools is a difficult task.

February 24, 2002|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

Measured by test scores, Howard County has the best school system in Maryland. But it is a signal of the education crisis facing the state that even in Howard a growing number of schools appear to be failing their students.

When scores from the latest annual state exams were released last month, Howard Superintendent John R. O'Rourke expressed disappointment and frustration. Since then, he and top aides have been huddling at board headquarters shaping a plan to improve the performance of the county's lowest-performing schools.

To many educators, in Howard and elsewhere, that effort has far-reaching implications. If Maryland's most successful school district - with its bountiful resources and community commitment to education - can't accelerate learning, then who can?

At the heart of the Howard educators' worries are five schools that fall far short of both the county's coveted standing and state goals for achievement on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program exams.

More than 60 percent of Howard County children earned a "satisfactory" score on the tests. The state wants 70 percent of all pupils statewide to achieve that score.

But in five Howard County elementary schools - Dasher Green, Laurel Woods, Guilford, Swansfield and Talbott Springs - only about 37 percent of pupils scored that well.

The system has never had more than two schools score in the 30s in a year, said Howard testing director Leslie Wilson.

"That's a wake-up call for us," she said.

In four of the five schools, the most recent scores fell from the previous year's results - with double-digit drops for three - despite a steady and focused influx of resources. In some cases, scores at these schools have been decreasing for several years.

Laurel Woods posted almost a 7-point increase last year, but overall, the school's scores have been up and down so much, they're essentially flat.

Many of the problems educators face in attempting to close the achievement gaps are well known. Finding answers won't be easy, experts say.

Among the common difficulties:

Large numbers of students entering or leaving the school each year.

A disproportionate number of inexperienced teachers.

A high proportion of poor children as measured by the numbers receiving free or reduced-price lunches.

The schools also suffer from low parent involvement, a need for smaller classes and a lack of preschool programs, some educators say.

The schools share other common problems, experts say, including too few African-American or Hispanic role models in leadership positions, long lead times between the implementation of education programs and their accurate evaluation and an underlying unwillingness of middle-class parents to sacrifice "equity" for the betterment of other children.

"It's a pretense to think we're going to do away with our achievement gaps unless we do away with some of the social inequalities," said Jack Jennings, director of the Center on Education Policy, a national organization that works to improve public education. "To do that means we have to bring the kids at the bottom up faster. You have to spend more time and attention on the poorest kids. It's very hard politically, very hard."

Jennings said school districts such as Howard's - where parents are highly educated and taxpayers spend a great portion of their incomes on education - feel a great deal of pressure when it comes to making tough decisions, such as putting a cutting-edge preschool in a poor neighborhood instead of in the schools their children will be attending.

Many of the five lowest-performing schools in Howard County do have extra resources. Depending on their needs, they may have additional teaching positions, before-, after- and summer-school programs, counselors, psychologists or community liaisons.

"Our schools have just about every program that you can probably think of," said Earl Slacum, principal of Swansfield Elementary, which has seen steady deterioration of its MSPAP exam performance during the past three years, punctuated by a 19.5 percent one-year drop in the recently reported results.

"Probably one of the biggest challenges - and I don't know how you correct that - is the actual mobility rate that we have here," Slacum said. "Because when students come in, we do an excellent job of moving them. The problem is, we don't keep them. We only have them for a period of time."

At Swansfield, more than 12 percent of the students were new to the school last year and a similar proportion left, compared with 6 percent or 7 percent entering or leaving countywide.

The transience of students in these schools is troubling, principals say, and peculiar to lower-income areas that have more apartments than single-family homes.

At Laurel Woods Elementary, Rosanne Wilson said 50 percent of the pupils at her school are new every two years.

"We have five students in our current fifth grade that have been here since first grade," Wilson said. "Five."

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