NAACP says goals of schools at risk

System staff, community urged to fix relationships

Improvement plan is praised

April 01, 2003|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

The Howard County chapter of the NAACP told school board members last night that if they didn't mend ailing relationships among staff and community, the school system's achievement goals would never be met.

"There is a real need for the board to set a model," said Natalie Woodson, chairman of the NAACP's Education Committee. "If you allow the negativism to penetrate the system, it will tear down the system, and that cannot be tolerated."

Woodson and the other members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People chapter called the meeting to laud the county's Comprehensive Plan for Accelerated School Improvement, a year-old undertaking designed to raise achievement and eliminate performance disparity among races and socio-economic classes.

But she chastised the board for not communicating its goals to the public more effectively and for failing to adequately support and encourage teachers.

"The human relations piece is critical," Woodson said. "Without us all putting our best foot forward, the Comprehensive Plan will not succeed. It is incumbent upon the school system to make sure the message that goes out is a positive one."

Board members and school system staff members said they are constantly striving to improve communication and interactions on all levels.

"I have no doubt that human relations is the most critical piece," said Sandra H. French, the board chairman. "Technology can change, but the human heart and the human soul, that doesn't."

Howard County has been studying ways to improve achievement for all students, but particularly minority students, for years.

The Comprehensive Plan for Accelerated School Improvement, which came out in March 2002, finally offered a road map to do so and meet Superintendent John R. O'Rourke's promise to close gaps between minority students' test performances and state standards by 2007.

The county's growth brought with it more students of diverse ethnic and economic backgrounds, and the school system should change to keep up by offering differentiated teaching methods to address children's varying needs, the Comprehensive Plan suggested.

From 1990 to 2001, the number of black students more than doubled, as did the number of Hispanics, students receiving free and reduced-price meals, and non-native English speakers.

The number of Asian students also has doubled, but they seem to be served well: They're the only subgroup meeting state achievement standards; whites don't meet them on the average.

The plan outlined a monitoring process for underachieving youngsters, new data management systems and the development of Student Improvement Units, set up to coach staff members at 15 targeted, lower-performing schools.

"More than anything else, what we're trying to do is develop a mindset," O'Rourke said, one that includes more accountability for teachers and a shift from students coming to school to learn to students coming to school to be taught.

It takes about three to five years to be able to show measurable and sustained progress, so the Comprehensive Plan set multiyear targets, promising first to raise the average score of county students to state standards by 2005, then to do so for all racial and economic subgroups by 2007.

But Woodson believes the county will see progress soon.

"The whole process will in fact have a positive effect on what's going on in the schools," she said. "I would be not at all surprised if at the end of this year we see some improvement - not based on change in strategies, but based on the attention given to these issues. It makes everybody far more aware and they become more accountable."

The NAACP challenged school systems across the country to create action plans by May last year to reduce racial inequities by 50 percent within five years based on what officials called a "persistent failure of schools to provide equality of opportunity for all students." The infractions and suggested recommendations were outlined in a 40-page "Call for Action" report distributed throughout the nation.

The county chapter works to foster this by interacting with students and the community, offering handbooks on how to nurture a child's education, scholarships, stay-in-school committees and academic contests.

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