Contentious year tests faith in school system

Problems: Accusations of improper grade changing and the use of ineligible athletes were among the difficulties.

March 21, 2004|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

For years, Howard's top-ranked education system has been the foundation for much in the county, buoying residential and business growth, and drawing national attention for its progressive ways.

Students continue to outperform their counterparts in other districts, bringing home marks that have made the system No. 1 for 10 of the past 12 years.

Howard County's average college-prep SAT score rose to 1,096 out of a possible 1,600 in 2002. That's the highest in the state and 74 points higher than the Maryland average. It is also 72 points above the national average and is the highest in county history. And on the Maryland School Assessment and High School Assessment tests, Howard students outranked nearly everyone else and again scored well above state averages.

"The single constant over these past 30 or 40 years has been the teaching staff and the quality of children coming into the system," said Gene Streagle, who retired as the system's director of high schools in 2001 and teaches education leadership classes at the Johns Hopkins University. "Things were going well and have always gone well because of those two factors."

But this past year has caused many to wonder whether the foundation has cracked.

In June, a school board member quit and later said some other members directed "unrelenting, vicious behavior" toward her.

In September, the results of a $248,000 survey showed that teachers have serious doubts about the district's leadership, with more than half indicating low confidence in the school board and recently deposed Superintendent John R. O'Rourke.

In October, a new law prevented the Howard County Board of Education from holding certain closed meetings under suspicion of excessive secrecy.

In November, a varsity football team forfeited its season after ineligible players were found participating. Five other sports teams would later forfeit games or seasons for the same reason.

In December, two members of the superintendent's Cabinet were accused of improperly changing a student's grade. Later that month, it was discovered that high school instructional hours were regularly misreported to the state to avoid sanction.

And in January, the superintendent was asked to leave the county before his contract expired June 30 by school board members who questioned his leadership capabilities. He left Feb. 29 after accepting a contract buyout package of more than $100,000.

"Every time you turn a rock over, another thing comes running out," said Ken Jennings, an education activist and vice president of the African American Coalition of Howard County.

Despite the turmoil, Howard's population remains among the best educated in the country. Nineteen of every 20 residents have a high school diploma or its equivalent, according to the 2002 American Community Survey of 231 jurisdictions.

College attendance rates are high, officials report relatively few disciplinary problems, the staff is dedicated and many programs are lauded nationwide.

Still, gaps in achievement among races and economic classes persist in the county, as they do across the nation. In March 2002, Howard introduced a blueprint to help struggling students. It promises to bring all schools up to state standards by next year and eliminate achievement gaps by 2007.

To reach those goals, extra resources have been given to the neediest schools; teachers received laptop computers to help assess student needs; math and reading consultants have been placed in schools; and efforts to elevate all student performances - from those in remedial to those in gifted classes - are being made.

"There are a lot of good things happening in the school system," said Sydney L. Cousin, who took over as interim superintendent March 1, replacing O'Rourke until a permanent replacement can be found.

Cousin retired in June from the Howard County school system, where he had worked for 16 years as director of school construction and as associate and deputy superintendent.

"If you ask me to try to list priorities right now, [furthering the education blueprint] would be the No. 1 priority, and dealing with the budget would be another one," Cousin said.

The school system has requested a record-breaking budget this year - more than a half-billion dollars in capital and operating funds - and it probably will have to be trimmed severely.

"We're going to have to cut some of our really important objectives. It's not going to be easy," school board member Patricia S. Gordon said last month during a meeting with the County Council.

Most of the increase in the budget request can be attributed to a negotiated 6 percent salary increase for more than 6,000 school employees. The rest is made up of efforts to meet the needs of enrollment growth by providing more teachers and supplies; sharp rises in employee health insurance rates; and having to fund deferrals from previous years, such as augmenting programs for immigrant students.

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