Washington County schools are a study in improvement

October 07, 2003|By Michael Olesker

WE MAKE excuses, or we get on with our lives. The oldest excuse for the 30-year calamity in the schools of the city of Baltimore is not enough money. Such laments are heard all across America. The best school systems have the most money, and money translates to high academic scores and the eternal blossoming of communities.

So what in the world is going on in Washington County, out there in Western Maryland, where the traditional public school barometers have run amok and not an excuse needs to be uttered?

In Washington County, they spend only $7,000 per pupil. That is 18th of Maryland's 24 subdivisions. About one-third of its students live below the poverty line. Nearly one-quarter of its adults never graduated from high school, and its rate of college graduates is lower than Baltimore's. The county's teen pregnancy rate is high, and so are its special-education needs. These are all elements of a school system with built-in troubles.

And yet there is this: The county's middle and high school attendance is No. 1 in the state. The dropout rate, once 21st, is now sixth-lowest. In the last Maryland High School Assessment tests in geometry, the system scored fourth-best. It was one of only four jurisdictions to meet federal No Child Left Behind targets in all but one area. SAT scores are rising. Its graduation rate, 78 percent just three years ago, is now 85 percent.

"Our thinking," says Superintendent Elizabeth M. Morgan, "is that this can be a world-class public school system. This ain't Montgomery County or Scarsdale or Great Neck. We don't have that kind of money or background. But we believe we can be world-class."

She sat in her office on a raw and rainy Hagerstown morning but filled the room with a sunlit disposition. Three years ago, Morgan was the No. 2 person in Baltimore's public schools, where political calculations have been known to strangle the life from even the best intentions. She came to Washington County and found, she says, a "super" school board and teachers hungry to help the neediest kids.

And money did not have to stand in anybody's way.

"Every school system has enough money if they deploy it in the right directions," Morgan said. She said this slowly, massaging each syllable to make certain she was understood. "It's like a family budget. You don't have money for certain needs? Then you redeploy money from some area where you do have it."

Since Morgan's arrival, she has lengthened the school day and instituted a dress code. At the poorest-performing schools, all teachers were asked to reapply for their jobs. Some were transferred. "It was the old story," says Patricia Abernethy, deputy superintendent for instruction. "Teachers making excuses, blaming kids for their own failures."

Bonuses were offered to top-flight teachers willing to go to the most troubled schools. "They wanted to go there," Morgan says. "It wasn't just the money. They understood the challenge." There were 18 instructional assistants working with some of the poorest-performing students. They were replaced by nine accredited teachers: the best people, working with the neediest kids.

In impoverished school districts such as Baltimore, there's an old assumption: They can't attract the best young college graduates because starting pay for teachers is too low. In Washington County, they moved enough money around to substantially increase the pay for incoming teachers.

They found that, like a lot of poor jurisdictions, there was great, unsettling mobility: families moving about during the course of the year, and kids getting shuffled from one school to another. Standardized curriculums were instituted where none existed.

"We saw which schools had the most mobility, and we acted on that," Morgan says. "We can't control where they move, but we can control classroom continuity."

And, says Shulamit Finkelstein, executive assistant for strategic planning, parental involvement was stressed. "We needed to find out parents' vision of the schools, and what they wanted for their children," she says.

"Oh, the parents," says Ellen Hayes. She is principal of Salem Elementary School in Hagerstown. Sixty percent of her pupils come from low-income backgrounds. "So many of their parents," she says, "didn't have positive feelings about school. They didn't feel successful in their own lives and didn't have aspirations for their children."

She walks a visitor into a first-grade classroom where children are studying word patterns. "Our approach is: Kids are capable of anything," she says. "Their parents have to dream big for them. The money will be there, one way or another. But you have to dream big."

Propped up against all this is a philosophy, says Morgan: a Japanese word, kaizen.

"It's about the constant quest to improve your craft," the superintendent says. "There's a human tendency to be satisfied by minimum standards. We reject that. We believe you have to know where you're weakest, and work the hardest there. A few years ago, people thought we were ... "

"From another planet," says deputy superintendent Abernethy, finishing the sentence. "This community was underestimating what its children can do. Every kid can go to college. They thought [Morgan] was nuts when she said that. But slowly, the community mind-set is changing. Maybe every child doesn't want to go to college. But we can have every child ready who wants to go."

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