County shifts school tactics

Plan to improve scores on state tests stresses cooperation

15 schools targeted

March 17, 2002|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

The people in Jacqueline F. Brown's Office of Academic Support say they often felt like the "Dracula Department."

Armed with research and data about how to better reach struggling students, they were required to wait at the central office to be "invited in" by the very schools who needed the information. If a principal didn't invite them, they couldn't offer the information - however helpful it might be.

"That's site-based management going crazy," said Brown, the department's director.

Since last week, the department's employees have shed their capes and fangs.

The Howard County school system's just-released plan to close the achievement gap represents a major shift in philosophy from past administrations. Where former Superintendent Michael E. Hickey firmly believed in site-based management - allowing principals autonomy over how things got done - John R. O'Rourke has opted for a little more say.

"I'll say this again," O'Rourke said, after presenting the initiative Thursday night. "We are a school system. Not a system of 67 schools."

The plan, which some have called "bold" and "audacious," sets a lofty goal on the back of that one-minded perspective: to have at least 70 percent of county students score satisfactorily on state exams by 2005, and to eliminate by 2007 the achievement gap between that state standard and test performance by African-American and Hispanic students.

With just that shift in philosophy and focus, school administrators believe that goal is attainable.

"If they believe that they can, I believe that they can," said board vice chairwoman Sandra H. French. "There's so much power in any person's belief in what they can accomplish."

Brown said the "paradigm shift" has been long-awaited.

"Those of us who have been fighting this old war horse feel like, `Finally!'" she said. "We're getting better. Under the old structure it was not really easy to feel like we were getting better. What gives me hope is that everybody's playing together."

Kimberly Statham, associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said administrators are working on the final details of the plan, which will target the county's 15 schools with the lowest test scores or highest percentages of poor students: Bryant Woods, Dasher Green, Guilford, Laurel Woods, Phelps Luck, Running Brook, Swansfield and Talbott Springs elementaries; Harper's Choice, Oakland Mills, Owen Brown, Patuxent Valley and Wilde Lake middle schools; and Long Reach and Oakland Mills high schools.

But in essence, the crux of the initiative is more accountability from teachers, principals and central office staff.

Mandatory School Improvement Plans, for example, will be rewritten, with central office help, Statham said, and for the first time, approved and monitored by a top official.

Schools that are struggling will be required to provide before-, after- and summer-school programs for lagging students.

Teachers will take part in "job-imbedded staff development," compulsory training during work hours.

And data will be equally shared between schools and the central office.

"The schools, these 15, the principals will be reporting directly to me, to make sure all of the systems are coordinated," Statham said. "We're going to serve as another set of eyes, because we're going to know the data just like they do."

Many county principals seem excited about the possibilities the new initiative presents.

"I'm really looking forward to it," said Bryant Woods Elementary School Principal Jason McCoy. "We know we have great things going on in our schools. The piece that I think this adds to it, it's going to be more coordinated."

Bryant Woods lags 10 points behind the county average on annual state exams, and nearly 20 points behind the state standard.

McCoy said he believes the more aligned system O'Rourke has set up will help Bryant Woods meet that goal, even if it means McCoy loses a little control.

"I don't see it as a top-down type of process," he said. "I see it as more of a walking side-by-side effort."

Some principals, however, have questions.

Oakland Mills High School Principal Marshall Peterson said parents have been asking him to explain the criteria used to pick schools.

Oakland Mills' students have been improving on their Maryland Functional Tests, and have scores on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills that rival those of Wilde Lake or Mount Hebron high schools, Peterson said.

He has been explaining to parents and staff members what he knows so far, and trying to convince them that he believes there's potential in this plan, even for schools that are relatively successful, such as Oakland Mills.

"What was good, I said, and what I had questions about, I told them I had questions," Peterson said. "But I did say, `Don't think the ship is sinking here.' I don't want them to hear that message."

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