River Hill High is the lieutenant governor's 17th stop as he examines education.

Steele visits Clarksville

February 08, 2005|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,SUN STAFF

At a band class yesterday at River Hill High School, Maryland's lieutenant governor stood next to percussionists, following along as they played music.

"You were bold, but you were not with us," band director Joe Fischer told the percussion section.

"That's my fault, teacher," Michael S. Steele replied, drawing laughs from students.

Steele spent the morning touring the Clarksville school and talking with students, school officials, parents and community leaders to find out what is working - and what is not - in public education.

River Hill, one of the state's premier high schools, was the 17th stop on Steele's statewide tour of schools as chairman of the 31-member Governor's Commission on Quality Education.

Steele - followed by security, a press secretary, the principal and other state and school officials - dropped in on several classes, greeted and shook hands with students and watched as they worked.

Steele encountered drama students who told him about their latest production, West Side Story, scheduled for early next month. He asked questions about their show ("How big is the cast?") and told them he also was a high school thespian, having acted and sung in such shows as Damm Yankees and Fiddler on the Roof.

"One of my favorites was Macbeth, western style with a cowboy motif," said Steele, who told the cast to "break a leg" and that he would try to attend a performance of West Side Story.

He appeared on the morning announcement segment on the school's television sets, briefly sat in on an art class where students were sketching self-portraits and watched as ninth-graders played a Jeopardy-like game in an English class (categories: sonnets, ballads and poetry terms).

After the brief tour with Principal William Ryan - "It's great hanging out with the principal without being in trouble," Steele said - the lieutenant governor sat with about 30 students to get to the focus of his visit: finding out what students think of their education, school, teachers and programs.

"A very simple rule: Nothing you say will get you sent to the principal's office," Steele said.

Steele wanted to know what the students disliked about their school (crowding, large classes and a new class schedule) and what defines a good teacher (enthusiasm, passion for the subject and teaching, dedication).

Then, the lieutenant governor asked about the students' typical day - when they wake up, what time they eat lunch, whether they get tired at midmorning and when they get home.

Steele told the group he would like to see a starting time later than 7:25 a.m. for county students because of their hectic schedule, lack of sleep and lack of time to eat again after early lunches.

National studies have found that teenagers are not getting enough sleep, and that has been associated with reduced learning ability and inconsistent performance.

Steele acknowledged that with a schedule change, some students would have to shift their after-school activities and work schedules, and that it would require school systems to make logistical changes, including bus routes.

"It's no panacea, folks," he said. "My focus is on the block of time you're in the classroom."

Many students seem to support starting school between 8:30 and 9 a.m. and attending classes past 3 p.m.

"A schedule like that, for me personally, would work out," said Amy Zhang, a senior, who told Steele that she is taking four AP classes. "After the [last] bell rings, I don't want to do anything except go to sleep and eat."

In September, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. issued an executive order creating the Governor's Commission on Quality Education to examine teacher and principal accountability; growth, schools and community linkages; global best practices in education; and school readiness and early childhood programs. The commission is to issue a report by September.

Steele said he is learning a lot about Maryland's education system.

"Basically, what we've seen is [that] our programs, by and large, are strong," Steele said before he met with parents and school and community leaders in a meeting closed to the media. "Our students are engaged in education. These kids do pay attention to what's being taught."

Challenges remain, including disparity in how resources are distributed among school systems, Steele said.

Steele said he was impressed with River Hill's school spirit, its students and programs.

Students said they were pleased with the opportunity to share their concerns with the state's No. 2 elected official.

"He interacted really well with the kids. He seems very connected with the students' mindset," said Lisa Rosinsky, a junior. "Sometimes, you feel like they are all up there and don't care."

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