School officials review policies

Inquiries into allegations of grade-tampering spur the changes

`Opportunity to get better'

July 25, 2004|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,SUN STAFF

In the wake of two separate investigations into allegations of grade-tampering at Oakland Mills and Centennial high schools, Howard County school officials are reviewing and clarifying policies and procedures that govern grade changes, student plagiarism and academic eligibility for sports activities.

Central office administrators also are developing guidelines and training material to improve communication between parents and teachers, in particular, for conferences involving parents who are public officials or school employees.

"All these things - integrity of an academic report, grading, parent-teacher conferences - [are] the heart of the system," said board member Joshua Kaufman.

These administrative issues were highlighted in the past year by two high-profile investigations into grade-tampering and other appeals that were unknown to the public because of privacy laws, board members say.

Members were able to identify weaknesses in some of the system's policies and procedures through the appeals, said Chairman Courtney Watson.

"This is an opportunity to get better and improve," Watson said. "That's what we're trying to do."

By revamping policies in some cases and developing guidelines in others, school officials hope to prevent situations similar to those that resulted in the discipline of at least three Howard County educators after the two inquiries into grade-changing allegations.

"It will definitely clarify our existing procedures and help prevent similar things from happening in the future," Watson said.

In February, then-Superintendent John R. O'Rourke demoted Assistant Superintendent Roger L. Plunkett and former Deputy Superintendent Kimberly Statham after an investigation into allegations that they strong-armed transcript changes for Statham's daughter at Centennial High School.

Both administrators denied the accusations that were widely disseminated in December through an anonymous e-mail, and appealed O'Rourke's decisions to the Board of Education.

In May, the school board cleared Plunkett and Statham of the charges.

Statham is now the system's chief academic officer. O'Rourke accepted a buyout in late February after the school board decided not to renew his contract.

In a separate investigation, O'Rourke recommended firing Oakland Mills athletic director, coach and history teacher Kenneth O. Hovet Jr., who was accused of improperly changing the grades of a football player.

Hovet, who has been on administrative leave since November and has not been paid since January, has appealed, and the school board is scheduled to hear arguments Aug. 3.

Last month, the Board of Education directed central office administrators to come up with ways to address the policy and procedural issues identified by the board members.

School officials have taken steps, including a mandatory training session last month for athletic directors, high school registrars and high school principals to go over procedures for documenting student eligibility for extracurricular activities.

The procedure for checking students' academic eligibility will not change, but school officials are tightening training of staff members, said Sandra Erickson, chief of administration and school instruction.

The school system will conduct a random audit of athlete eligibility records at one high school per season.

School administrators will also work on:

Reviewing policies that deal with grades, including how grades can be changed and clarifying the process for withdrawing from a course.

Developing standards for student writing, including information on plagiarism, starting this summer.

Developing lesson plans for students on plagiarism for the coming school year.

Developing standardized writing-style manuals for elementary, middle and high school levels during next summer.

Revising a guide for conferences between elementary-school teachers and parents, a handbook piloted in three schools and expected to be used by all elementary schools by November.

Creating a training video for elementary-school teachers on developing skills for teacher-parent conferences, including information on dealing with parents who are public officials or school employees with children.

Developing an administrative handbook to spell out all administrative processes to implement policies and procedures.

By encouraging training and developing better guidelines, Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin said it will help prevent issues from "rising to the level of the Board of Education."

"We want to settle these issues in the school level," Cousin said. "We could do that by making teachers aware of best practices."

School administrators will also craft a proposal to create an office of mediation and ombudsman, which would handle parental concerns that can't be resolved at the schools.

Board member Sandra H. French said the school system should emphasize that parental concerns or problems be resolved at the schools and not at the central office.

"If we have the first procedures already set up, there would be no need for an ombudsman," French said. "If our policies were clear enough, specific enough, and the principals and teachers really understand it, these problems would be dealt with on the local level."

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