Evaluation offers advice about school initiatives

Schedule, freshman seminar among topics addressed

Carroll County

February 10, 2005|By Gina Davis | Gina Davis,SUN STAFF

Citing confusion and a lack of consistency about the purpose and implementation of several key educational initiatives in Carroll County's high schools, an independent evaluation has concluded that the district should eliminate its career focus requirement, change freshman seminar to an elective and require a more streamlined advisory program for students.

"We think this is a very good school system," said Laslo V. Boyd, managing partner of Mellenbrook Policy Advisors, a Columbia-based policy analysis and research group. "This is not a school system in crisis."

Carroll school officials hired Mellenbrook in September to conduct the evaluation after several years of debate and a lack of consensus - among educators and the community - about the merits of various high school programs.

A team of three Mellenbrook advisers drew its conclusions after conducting interviews with administrators, teachers, parents and students, as well as conducting surveys. The team also reviewed academic research and studies related to the district's issues.

The group surveyed 9,300 students and 575 teachers. According to the report, 80 percent of the students and 84 percent of the teachers returned surveys. The team was also impressed that nearly 2,000 parents - who, unlike the others, had to stamp and mail back their responses - participated in the survey.

Boyd and another team member, Patrick Gonzalez, president of Annapolis-based Gonzalez Research and Marketing Strategies, described the amount of responses as "extraordinary."

At a briefing yesterday yesterday, Boyd said his team found that while many people have strong feelings about the county's school system and are generally focused on the right objectives, they have spent too much time and energy arguing about such issues as whether freshman seminar is a waste of time.

The team found "lots of consensus on the ends, the goals, not necessarily quite as much consensus on the means" of achieving them, Boyd said at last night's school board meeting.

In all, the team made nine recommendations in its 71-page report. Five related to specific programs, and four address broader concerns about how the decisions are made and communicated. They are:

Retain the "four-mod" schedule for all seven high schools, which includes four 90-minute classes. Switching back to a seven-period day would create more debate and confusion and no clear educational benefit, the team wrote.

Make freshman seminar voluntary, not required.

Create a consistent approach to the advisory program for all high schools. "We couldn't find an educational rationale for the variations in how it's implemented," Boyd said.

Provide more opportunities for students to take Advanced Placement, honors and other demanding courses. The team recommended that the district consider such things as rethinking how many students are needed to offer a class, pooling students from more than one school to fill a class, more options for dual enrollment at local colleges, and allowing students to enroll in distance-learning courses offered online.

Eliminate the six-credit career focus requirement. "There is no academic research that concludes that selecting a career focus in 9th grade enhances either learning or decisions about careers," the report found.

All major policy decisions should be made with maximum input, and in a way that clearly communicates the goals, before they are final.

Pay more attention to how policy, regulations and programs are to be implemented.

Clearly communicate "on a regular basis" to the public the district's goals and objectives.

When introducing new initiatives, consider how those programs will be evaluated.

While several school board members had questions about some of the team's findings, the panel's vice president, Laura K. Rhodes, reminded everyone that they had committed to respecting the results when they decided to hire Mellenbrook several months ago.

"We can take this report and pick it apart, and have the continued discussions that we have had for six years, and get to the same place where we are right now," she said.

"I know there are things in here that I have spoken out with a different opinion on," Rhodes said. "But from my perspective, and a reminder, we had a discussion about the respect we were going to give to this report. ... Otherwise, why did we do it?"

Board President Gary W. Bauer said the report's findings confirmed his concern about the system's ability to follow through on initiatives.

"I've thought about when we introduce new initiatives ... we need to continue to evaluate them," he said.

Superintendent Charles I. Ecker said he agreed with the report's findings about the importance of communicating more effectively with the public as well as the district's employees about the system's goals and the purpose of new initiatives, and he said he would explore ways to improve communication.

"Communication is one of the most difficult things," he said. "That's been one of the most difficult things that I have found. How do you communicate with the public? ... A lot of times the public is very busy, and they may or may not read what you send them."

The report is available on the school system's Web site at ccpl.carr.org/ccps, and for reading at each middle and high school.

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