`Money gap' prevents Howard Co. from addressing `achievement gap'

Budget lacks funds for needier pupils

March 01, 2002|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

The Howard County school system says one of its top priorities is the elimination of the so-called "achievement gap" between groups of district students aiming to reach state standards of success.

The system's Office of Academic Support's sole purpose is to deal with that issue - and, during the past three years, has expanded its efforts and earned high praise.

But neither board members nor Superintendent John R. O'Rourke have added money to next year's proposed operating budget to help that office.

The reason, O'Rourke said, is the "money gap" - the chasm between what needs to be done in Howard County schools and the funding available for those necessities.

"There are severe limits, particularly this year, in terms of what we're able to provide," O'Rourke said. "That's not to say we don't value the program. We had to make a lot of hard decisions with this budget process."

This week, the board approved a $389.6 million proposal for fiscal year 2003. Without including pay raises for district employees, that's $20.8 million more than the school system is working with now and about $15 million more than O'Rourke requested last year.

The proposal has no money for new programs or for expansion of old ones, except the district's growing ESOL program for children who speak limited English. O'Rourke said the ESOL program has been grossly underfunded for many years.

In the Office of Academic Support - which seeks to understand and minimize dysfunctional patterns and gaps in academic achievement - employees agree.

The office requested more than $130,000 in increased funding to accommodate the "exponential" growth in students it serves - Howard County's poor, non-English-speaking and minority children. Without that money, the programs funded by the office would essentially face a cut, officials said.

"To hold us steady is, in fact, to cut back on the services that we could provide," Director Jacqueline F. Brown told board members at a recent work session.

She said the office needs to pay more of its contracted employees a full-time staff salary with benefits and needs to hire more mentors to staff each school. Children taking advantage of the many after-school, weekend and summer programs require a way to get to them, so the transportation budget must be increased, she said. Satellite centers that help reach the district's neediest students are bulging at the seams and have to turn children away.

Board members committed this week to find more money for the department if extra funds turned up during the budget process. Brown said department staffers are content with that pledge.

But, as the system re-evaluates how to accelerate learning - particularly in the five lowest-performing schools - school officials have also alluded to the idea that the "money gap" isn't all that's holding them back. They've hinted that more research needs to be done on the programs the department oversees before pouring more money into them.

O'Rourke said this week that he fully supports the work of the Office of Academic Support - a school system branch that he said might be "unique" in Maryland.

"At the same time, we need to be taking a close look at how we deal with all these issues," O'Rourke said. "As a school system, we know that as a whole we haven't been able to eliminate the achievement gaps."

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