Parents leave school meeting with concerns

Howard High session short on specifics

`It's a performance issue'

Principal has borne brunt of criticism about quality

Ellicott City

October 15, 2003|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

Nearly 100 anxious parents gathered at Howard High last night to find out what is being done to help the Ellicott City school, which was recently added to the county school system's improvement unit because of inadequate progress on academic goals.

But they left with more questions than answers.

"I did not hear what I came to hear tonight," said Howard High PTSA President Jerry Bialecki. "I came here to hear and understand what resources the school would be given and all about the plan [for improvement]."

Bialecki, along with dozens of other parents, was frustrated when Mary Day - who as principal has borne the brunt of school criticism - cut a question session short to usher people into another room for refreshments and to get their ideas on how the school should proceed.

"Are you telling me they don't have a plan?" Bialecki asked. "At this point, the pages should not be blank. I did not come here for cookies and juice."

The school has been given an extended deadline - Oct. 31 - to create and submit its school improvement plan, in part because of its new designation to the school improvement unit, which provides extra attention and resources to underperforming schools.

County Department of Education staff members and Howard High's administrative team told families last night that the school would get two more instructors along with as-yet-undetermined resources, which caused many to bemoan the lack of specificity.

"We hear you, we hear you, we hear you, and we understand some of your frustrations," said Assistant Superintendent Roger L. Plunkett, who earlier in the evening cautioned that "this is just step one to where we want to go, and we will get there."

Plunkett said the Department of Education does not dictate plans to schools but works with them, and that's what's going on now as the best path for Howard High is studied.

During the past month, since the school was made part of the improvement focus group, education specialists have been reviewing the curriculum and teaching techniques used in the school to make sure they comply with county standards.

"We're doing a comprehensive review," Deputy Superintendent Kimberly Statham said in an interview yesterday afternoon, adding that the school will be getting intensive support, direction and attention from her staff, members of which will also spend more time in the building.

Goals for the school include increasing student participation in advanced courses and in taking the SAT. Last year, 65 percent of those eligible took the college preparatory test, which was the lowest rate in the county.

Officials said other performance problems were evident in this year's Maryland School Assessment, which showed 28 percent of 10th-graders weren't meeting state standards in reading, and that 60 percent of the school's geometry students weren't measuring up. The math score was an improvement from last year, however, when 76 percent failed to meet the mark.

The school has been making steady progress, just not enough by county standards, Day said in an interview Oct. 2.

Howard High's graduation rate is the highest in eight years, and the dropout rate is the lowest in the past decade.

"We're improving a little bit, a little bit, a little bit," Day said. "But the school system said that's not enough."

Parents have spent a year lobbying Department of Education staff members and school board members for intervention, claiming the school is not properly preparing students, lacks effective leadership and has physically deplorable conditions - including rat infestation. Statham is overseeing the elimination of the rodent problem.

Plunkett and others have met repeatedly with parents to address their concerns, and many are grateful for the interest.

"I want to thank them for not ignoring the problem," said Marjie Rowe, who added after the meeting, "I'm at the point as a parent that it is unproductive to finger-point. I'm just focused on where do we go from here."

But many have stepped forward to blame Day for the school's lagging performance.

"I hold the principal at any school as the first person responsible," Bialecki said. "This is not a personal issue, it's a performance issue. Right now, I clearly believe that the data speaks for itself. There's nothing personal about this, but someone must be held accountable."

But Barry Fee, a security guard at Howard High, said the criticism of Day is unfounded and that she is among the best principals he has ever seen.

"I've worked in numerous schools, and I've never seen a school run this well," Fee said earlier yesterday. "I've known Mrs. Day for five years. She's a wonderful woman."

The school's improvement survey showed that 65 percent of teachers and counselors had confidence in Day's leadership, and that 49 percent of the 500 responding parents had the same confidence. Both percentages were below county high school averages, which came in at 80 percent on both questions.

In the interview this month, Day said she didn't take the comments personally.

"You can't personalize a principal's job because you won't survive," she said. "That's like asking the president if he takes it personal. You're assigned to get a job done and you do the best you can to do what's expected."

But some parents think the school can do better.

"I do not believe my children are getting a quality education," Bialecki said. "It's a huge task ahead."

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