County can teach education lessons

Attraction: Despite money and crowding problems shared with other counties, families from across Maryland are lured to Howard for its high-quality schools.

March 23, 2003|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

Education is a religion in Howard, drawing new residents into the county from across the state to its top-rated public school system. But expensive challenges threaten its ranking.

Schools are crowded -- mainly because of the more than 1,000 newcomers every year -- and the county is running out of land and funds for the fresh facilities necessary to accommodate the growth.

The county never has enough money to renovate buildings, some of which are more than 20 years old and cannot accommodate wheelchairs or the masses flowing through their halls.

(More than 100 mobile classrooms -- the equivalent of 4 1/2 elementary schools -- have been placed throughout the county to stretch capacity.)

Persistent gaps in achievement among races and economic classes lead many to question the validity of the county's claim to superior schooling, which is largely founded on test scores: For nine of the past 11 years, the county has ranked No. 1 in the state in school performance testing.

Most school systems should be lucky enough have this one's problems, though. About 80 percent of Howard's students go to college, officials report relatively few disciplinary problems, and families are active in their children's education.

Ambitious changes are on the horizon, offered by Superintendent John R. O'Rourke and his staff, and they promise to make the next few years the ones to watch as the county and parents struggle with facing the trials ahead.

"In the past, there was much more autonomy and a lot of variability across the school system," said Kimberly Statham, the system's chief academic officer. "We're moving toward a more consistent approach ... with some non-negotiable ways we expect curriculum to be delivered."

O'Rourke has pledged to bring all schools up to state standards, yet to be set, by 2005 and eliminate all achievement gaps by 2007, the year that state-required full-day kindergarten must be implemented in schools. That requirement has prompted further concerns about funding and space.

To reach his goals, O'Rourke has instituted an accelerated achievement plan meant to put extra resources in the neediest locations and balance programs across the county.

Teachers have been given laptop computers to use in data calculation; math and reading consultants have been placed in schools; and intensive programs to elevate all student performances -- from those in remedial to gifted classes -- are in the works and in demand

"We get many requests [for the county's curriculum] from other districts and schools throughout the country," said Sandra H. French, chairman of the Board of Education.

The school system serves nearly 47,000 students -- spending $46.17 on each daily -- in its 37 elementary, 18 middle and 11 high schools.

Two other public schools serve specific students. Cedar Lane accommodates those from ages 3 to 21 with severe mental and physical disabilities. Homewood School is an alternative learning center for children in middle and high school who have difficulty in traditional classroom settings because of legal infractions, behavior challenges or emotional disabilities.

Magnet school

A third nontraditional facility, the Applications and Research Lab, draws about 900 students participating in the county's growing Career and Technology Education Program for part of their school day. The program is a magnet-style offering that provides in-depth instruction in subjects including biotechnology, manufacturing, health care and graphic arts.

Bellows Spring Elementary and Folly Quarter Middle will open next school year. The added classrooms led last year to redistricting for those grades that will take effect when the schools open.

A high school is scheduled for completion in the northeast section of the county in 2005, and it is likely to cause more comprehensive redistricting for the higher grades next year.

Redistricting is one of the most contentious issues for families, students, educators and administrators in Howard.

Almost no one likes it, particularly because it highlights inequities among schools. But officials say that until a better solution is found, it is the way the system will operate.

"It's a Band-Aid fix, but major surgery is needed," said James P. O'Donnell, a member of the school board. "We have very few, if any, alternatives. We have to redistrict. I'd like to have schools magically appear someplace, but that's not happening."

A movement to reduce class sizes, which began in 1998, reduced building capacity by about 2,256 seats.

Averages range from a low of one teacher for every 19 pupils for first- and second-graders to a high of one teacher for every 23.5 students in high schools.

More than half of the county's 3,800 teachers, who many say are underpaid and overworked, hold master's degrees and have taught for an average of about nine years.

Teacher pay to rise

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