4 more schools seem in trouble

Data show they fit same criteria as 16 SIU sites

Program targets low performers

Analysis suggests facilities may qualify for assistance

December 07, 2003|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

A data analysis by The Sun shows that at least four schools in Howard County fit the same statistical criteria as 16 schools deemed by the school system to be struggling.

The schools - Wilde Lake and Hammond high schools, Murray Hill Middle and Deep Run Elementary - could, or some might say should, become the next wave added to the School Improvement Unit, an intensive acceleration program meant to bring low-performing Howard schools up to speed.

The availability of resources could keep them from inclusion, as well as the question of whether the 2003 indicators - low scores on Maryland School Assessment tests, high racial diversity, large percentages of poor children and lower numbers of teachers holding advanced certification - support SIU status.

But in data-driven Howard County, which has spent the past year boosting its statistics- gathering methods, it is hard to ignore the numbers.

"People are almost getting tired of it," acknowledged Leslie Wilson, the school system's student assessment director.

Wilson said that while there are no plans to immediately add schools to the improvement unit - Howard High, added in September, was the last - Wilde Lake, Hammond, Murray Hill and Deep Run are being watched by the system and receiving other support to turn them around.

"It's not like there's nothing happening at those schools," Wilson said. "It just might not be as formalized as being in [an improvement] unit."

The figures shared by the 16 SIU schools and the four in the analysis are not shocking by themselves. School systems have long known that economically disadvantaged students have a harder time than the well-off, as do those in special education or those who are non-native English speakers.

Categorizing students by race also makes it look as though being African-American or Hispanic means a child might not do as well as whites or Asians, administrators have surmised.

But coming to those conclusions would be a mistake, Wilson said - despite the oft-bemoaned achievement gap, which shows that those groups on average miss the satisfactory mark more than others.

"I think it's much more about the economics than it is about the children's race," Wilson said, noting that Howard has many high achievers of all races. The problem, she said, is that nonwhite students are more likely to also fall into one of the other categories.

"The fact is, if you're an African-American male, you do have a higher chance of being in poverty and possibly in special education," Wilson said. "You have these cumulative effects. That's one of the reasons we are moving toward looking at every child individually because each one is really a very different mix. You can't classify and label and say, `Because they're in this group, we're going to do this.' "

It is a philosophy very much like another espoused by the school system: You can't judge a school based on one test score, which parents often do when their children are redistricted to a school in which students performed at a lower or a higher level than others on an exam.

Judging a teacher based on a single certification would be wrong as well, said Mamie Perkins, the school system's human resources director.

"Advanced Professional Certification is one piece of a puzzle, but [being a good teacher] has to certainly be about more than coursework," Perkins said, adding that experience, compassion and resources - along with professional development - are what make a stellar educator.

The Maryland State Department of Education recently said, however, that many teachers holding Advanced Professional Certification automatically meet the "highly qualified" requirement for educators found in the 2002 reauthorization of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Because of that, it is easy for some to assume the certification, achieved through further education, equals excellence.

"The very nature of the name indicates it is something to be inspired to have," Perkins said.

"I think it can make you a better instructor, along with other things. But certainly coursework alone is not the answer."

Understanding that could help parents digest numbers showing disparity among advanced certification holders at various schools. For example, at Laurel Woods Elementary, which is part of the SIU, 10 percent of the teachers there held advanced certification last spring, according to the state. At Lisbon Elementary, which performed better than the county average on the assessment tests, 66.7 percent of teachers in core subjects held advanced certification.

Perkins attributes the difference to high turnover in schools that have greater challenges.

"Certainly schools with higher levels of poverty will have more issues. It deems the school more challenging," she said, adding that experienced educators leave, taking their advanced certification with them, and are often replaced by fledgling teachers who do not hold such status.

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