A tough year for county's schools

Controversies: Budget constraints and problems with personnel slow academic progress.

May 16, 2004|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

For Anne Arundel County public schools, this was supposed to have been a year of expansion and team-building.

But budget constraints, internal politics and public controversies have slowed the progress of the 76,000-student school system headed by Eric J. Smith, a nationally recognized schools chief from Charlotte, N.C., in his second year as Anne Arundel's superintendent.

Last fall, school officials rolled out several initiatives to shake up the system, which ranks average in academic performance in the state and suffers from a persistent achievement gap between white and minority students.

Many of Smith's initiatives were aimed at putting disadvantaged students on an equal footing with their more privileged counterparts.

This included the adoption of uniform textbooks and school schedules, elimination of watered-down, low-level courses that were disproportionately filled with minorities, and creation of support programs for struggling students.

At Smith's urging, a record number of high school students - including a larger percentage of minorities than in the past - began taking algebra and college-level courses.

Nor were high-achieving students left out in the cold. For them, Smith launched the International Baccalaureate program, a path of advanced study with a global perspective. And he dispatched newly hired gifted-instruction specialists to two dozen elementary schools.

Two months into the school year, Smith declared himself happy with his academic reforms and expressed confidence that the public would see positive results this year.

His intentions going forward, he said in an October interview, would be to forge strong relationships among staff members, foster community involvement in the education process and ensure safety and security at the county's 117 public schools.

But events over the next several months were to disrupt his plans.

A principal whom Smith hired to improve the lot of struggling minority students at Annapolis High, the county's flagship school, sparked a revolt among some parents and teachers that became a wider racial and political problem for the central administration.

Critics of Deborah Williams, who accused the former Prince George's educator of being heavy-handed and uncommunicative, started a well-publicized campaign for her ouster.

Caught between those who opposed Williams, a black woman and former Prince George's County administrator, and a local African-American community that urged him to support the principal, Smith set aside other duties to put out fires at Annapolis High.

In March, after supporting Williams for eight months, Smith replaced her. He said he felt she had lost control of the school and that students' safety was in jeopardy.

"It was a situation that was difficult to work through," Smith says now. But he emphasizes that he wants to return the focus on something he considers more urgent: the sense of failure and alienation harbored by many black and Hispanic students, who make up more than half of Annapolis High.

Despite the principal's removal, discontent still smolders among some members of the Annapolis High community, some of whom turned against Smith and the school board.

This year, Smith has continued to fight off criticism from some quarters that his management structure is top-heavy, a perception that emerged after last year's contentious budget process.

Resentment lingered after Smith won more than $14 million in county funds for his initiatives at a time when county employees - including teachers - saw their salaries stalled.

In a setback for the superintendent, the eight-member Board of Education reduced in February his budget request for next school year by more than $7 million.

Board members who in the past had rarely opposed the superintendent now said they wanted to do what they could to stem public criticism of a "bloated" administration and form a better relationship with the cash-strapped county.

The board also voted against Smith's wishes to take nearly $175,000 in funding out of the school system's public information office - a department perceived by some as overpaid - and use the money to create several new classroom positions.

Among other things, the trimmed-down $664 million budget request likely will prevent Smith from starting a middle school component of the International Baccalaureate program and expanding alternative education for hundreds of students with severe behavioral problems. The board's budget, now awaiting county approval, has been protested by some parents in favor of Smith's plans.

"If money was not an object, we could fund so many amazing things," says board member Tricia Johnson. "But unfortunately there always constraints with the budget."

Smith does not deny that the school system's progress has been slowed this year. But he says there is no turning back from the direction in which the district is moving.

"Certainly, resources define how aggressively we can pursue our goals," Smith says. "But it doesn't take the district off its strategy for moving ahead."

High school students appear to be getting used to the new eight-class block schedules and more rigorous coursework. And parents have responded enthusiastically to the International Baccalaureate program, which elicited twice as many applications as last year.

An important measure of the school system's success will come in June, when the results of state's standardized tests are released.

"I'm looking forward to the results," Smith says. "Again, if they don't turn out as anticipated, we continue our work. It's a moving target, so we've got to continue to look ahead."

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