Schools taking steps toward stated goals

Report assesses education system, suggests fixes

Howard County

March 10, 2002|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

Two years ago the Howard County school system embarked on an ambitious effort to find out why some district schools were lagging in technology, in building maintenance, in resources - and, most important, in student performance.

With the cooperation of the county government, a group of citizens studied Howard's schools, particularly the lowest-performing, and produced a 47-page report that officials hailed as one of the system's "most significant" documents.

Now, 24 months after that study, "No Child Left Behind," began making its way through the Howard County school system, school administrators have announced a major step aimed at achieving its declared goals.

Spurred by recent stagnant test scores, school administrators pledged last week to reach the state's goal of at least 70 percent of its pupils scoring satisfactorily on the annual Maryland School Performance Assessment Program exams by 2005 and promised that gaps between that state standard and test performance by minority students in the county will be closed by 2007.

That daunting promise - made as many Maryland school systems stung by declining scores are challenging the validity of the MSPAP - sets Howard apart in its expectations for educational achievement.

But to educators in Howard, the pledge represents a continued commitment to promises in "No Child Left Behind" that have proved challenging to fulfill.

Still, in the time since that study was published, school officials have taken important steps toward the lofty goal the report's title suggests, according to the people who worked on the committee that created the study.

"I think a lot has happened," said Mary Ellen Duncan, president of Howard Community College and former co-chairwoman of the Leadership Committee on School Equity, a 23-member group that studied the schools and wrote the report. "In my personal conversations with [Superintendent John R. O'Rourke], he has from Day One always been interested in the report or some major aspect of the report.

"It's a very big job," she added, "and I think he is moving through the major issues in a very timely way."

The committee - which was divided into four subcommittees: Factors Affecting Equity; Resources and Programs; Staffing; and Accountability - studied county schools from November 1999 to March 2000.

Then-Superintendent Michael E. Hickey and County Executive James N. Robey created the panel in response to perceived inequities in the school system. Issues addressed in the report included federal funding, technology, site-based management, open enrollment, redistricting, staff turnover and the high percentage of new teachers assigned to the county's lowest-performing schools.

Some steps made

Former committee members agree that since the report's release at least three major recommendations have been implemented: the beginning of a comprehensive redistricting plan, individual "portfolios" for every child functioning below grade level and a major outside audit of the school system's performance.

Last year, consultants completed a lengthy and expensive management and performance review of every aspect of Howard's operations. Also last year, O'Rourke was lauded nationwide for his groundbreaking announcement that he would require every third-grader below grade level in reading or math to have a personalized plan of improvement. And in January, the system set new boundary lines for high schools and set the stage to do the same for elementary and middle schools next year.

Individual committee members note other report suggestions that have become reality:

Incremental improvement in the number of African-American elementary children selected for gifted-and-talented programs.

An attempt to standardize the schedules in high schools to ensure equal time spent in class.

An effort to involve the community in major decisions, such as the last high school redistricting.

The hiring of a chief technology officer to handle the district's myriad technological inequities.

A first step toward improving enrollment projections to ensure schools have adequate resources, based on their populations.

But many things are still lacking, ex-committee members said.

Mary Kay Sigaty, who worked on the "No Child Left Behind" report and the longer performance review, said she feared that some of the important recommendations in the citizens' report would get lost "in the morass of the performance review."

"There are many things in the performance review that were also in `No Child Left Behind,' so it's good in that respect that they're getting an additional look," Sigaty said. "But there's still things in it that aren't covered in the performance review."

For example, said ex-member Jerry Bialecki, the report suggested a more open system of tracking money that is spent in schools.

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