Higher scores, lower funds

Schools surpass districts that spend more per pupil

Teachers `make it work'

Assessment shows system ranks in top five in state

Carroll County

September 19, 2004|By Gina Davis | Gina Davis,SUN STAFF

Carroll County school officials are fond of saying their schools provide "a lot of bang for the buck."

Among Maryland's 24 school districts, Carroll spends less per student and has fewer teachers per student than all but two of these school systems, but its students consistently outperform many others that have greater financial resources.

In recent state assessment results, Carroll students scored in the top five districts statewide.

Carroll spends $7,724 per student, about $1,000 less per student than the state average of $8,765, according to state education statistics.

"With about 30,000 students, if we were spending at the state average that would amount to $30 million more" being spent on students, said Greg Bricca, director of research and accountability for Carroll's school system.

Bricca said that if Carroll had that additional funding it could, among other things, hire more teachers to help reduce class sizes, "something we're always struggling to do."

The state's school funding formula dictates that the wealthier a district is, the more of its own money it is expected to provide for educating its students.

Under this formula, Baltimore received $3,159 per student last year, well above the state average contribution of $2,177. Carroll received $2,513. The rest of the money a district needs comes from local and federal funding.

Because Carroll doesn't have many large businesses from which to draw tax revenue, Bricca said, it relies chiefly on residential taxes to support its schools.

"It puts us in a bind," he said. "We're stretching the county budget to try to keep up."

Administrators and educators credit teachers and parents for the students' achievement.

"We're all proud of being able to get these scores while not having the funding of a system like Montgomery County," said Ken Fischer, a biology teacher and science department chairman at Winters Mill High School in Westminster. Montgomery County - which has about 140,000 students and is the largest district in the state - spends about $10,415 per student.

On the state High School Assessment exams released last week, Carroll's average scores were second only to Howard County. They outscored Montgomery County on each of the four tests - English, algebra, government and biology. Carroll also outscored Howard on the algebra test.

Those results are especially crucial because the state Board of Education voted this summer to require students starting with the Class of 2009 - next year's ninth-graders - to pass all four HSA exams to graduate from high school.

With the stakes becoming higher for student achievement, Carroll teachers and administrators say they have an environment that puts students first, and that's why their system works.

"We have quality people," Fischer said. "There are good teachers everywhere, but when people are looking around for jobs, they know that in Carroll County, they'll have good kids to work with, good parents and a good administration.

"We know that we're not getting paid as high as [teachers in] other counties," Fischer said, "but people who come here don't want to leave."

Fischer said a supportive administration helps keep teachers motivated. He pointed to efforts by the administration to increase the teaching staff and salaries each year, as well as a commitment to providing teachers with the latest technology.

With that kind of support, "having low funding isn't as big of a problem as it might seem on paper," he said.

"Our student/teacher ratios are probably stretched," he said. "But what makes the difference is that teachers are willing to make it work."

He said teachers are willing to put in the time - before and after school, as well as during lunch breaks - to develop strategies for student improvement.

Sherri-Le Bream, principal of Winters Mill High, said her job is to give teachers what they need to do their jobs.

"If they feel you're being supportive and allowing them to take risks, they respond positively," she said. "Our budgets are tight. But if they ask for resources, I do what I can to get them those resources."

As principal, she said, it is also her job to create an atmosphere where teachers feel comfortable seeking ideas from each other.

"We have professional learning communities ... where teachers collaborate," she said. "They look at student results and share best practices."

For instance, when one teacher is struggling to reach a student, another may suggest an alternative teaching method, Bream said.

Fischer agrees that putting student achievement first is the answer.

"There are obstacles wherever you teach," he said. "The stakes are pretty high because nobody wants low [test] scores."

He said controversy often surrounds standardized tests, with people questioning what the scores reveal about student learning.

But he maintains that the test results, while not the only indicator of student achievement, do give clues as to whether students are learning.

"We believe that if we teach what is in the curriculum, we're not teaching to a test, we're teaching" what students need to know, he said. "If we teach the curriculum, the students will perform well on tests."

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