Turmoil and controversy marked the past school year in Howard County, but stability and optimism seem to be guiding the school system this academic year.
"It's been a very good year so far as measured by people's attitude and spirits," said Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin. "I've said this over and over again, it's a good place to live, work and educate your kids."
Last year's controversies overshadowed the academic achievements of the county's 48,000 students. But the focus on the school system's two goals - raising student performance and providing a nurturing environment that values diversity and commonality - has been renewed under the leadership of Cousin, who took over last year.
"We're going to make sure ... that we do have a nurturing environment for students, staff and community - that people feel welcomed in school as a place that folks want to be, because that will help us to raise academic performance," he said. "You can't have one without the other."
Howard County students continue to outpace their counterparts statewide as recent test scores indicate - solidifying Howard's reputation as the top-performing school district in Maryland.
Its Class of 2004 posted an average score of 1097 out of a possible 1600 on the 2004 SAT. It was the county's highest total and 71 points above the state average. And on the High School Assessment and the Maryland State Assessment, students made gains and scored well above their counterparts in the Baltimore region. This year, 52 of the county's 69 schools were recognized by the state for their performance.
"I would certainly applaud the school system in making an effort to provide a quality education to all students and also provide a degree of equity in terms of access to a quality education to all the subgroups, minority students in particular," said Natalie Woodson, chairwoman of the education committee of the Howard County National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
But school officials say they are not resting on their accomplishments. Challenges remain, including meeting needs of a growing and diverse student population and closing the achievement gap among races and ethnicities.
While black students made significant strides on the recent High School Assessment tests, they lag behind their white classmates.
"We continue to work on those [issues] - closing the achievement gap and dealing with equity and disparity among schools and school communities," Cousin said. "We're doing it in a very positive way."
The school system's goal is to bring 70 percent of students' test scores up to state standards this year and eliminate the achievement gap among races by 2007, well ahead of the 2014 deadline set by the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
Since 2002, when Howard put its ambitious plan in place, school officials have provided extra resources and launched intervention programs in lagging schools; provided more before-and-after school and summer programs; and placed reading and math specialists at those lagging schools.
Another initiative is the first-year implementation of full-day kindergarten at six of the county's 37 elementary schools - Bryant Woods, Laurel Woods, Phelps Luck, Running Brook, Stevens Forest and Talbott Springs - and Cradlerock, a prekindergarten-through-eighth-grade school.
The remaining schools will be phased-in over the next three years, including 12 schools in the 2005-2006 year. About 450 kindergartens are enrolled in the full-day program this year.
Beyond the academics, this school year has been about restoring stability after a contentious past.
As the school year began in August, sentiments such as "a new beginning" and "a fresh start" were thrown around by school officials and parents.
Just a year ago, the school system was embroiled in numerous difficulties, including two grade-tampering controversies and the abrupt departure of Superintendent John R. O'Rourke after a public fallout with the school board.
After appointing Cousin as the interim superintendent last March, the school board gave the longtime school employee a four-year contract in July.
Board members tapped Cousin for the permanent position, noting his 16 years of experience with the Howard school system (he retired for a year before returning), leadership skills and ability to quell the recent turmoil.
It seems as if Cousin has done just that. At a recent school board meeting, Deborah Wessner, president of the PTA Council of Howard County, applauded Cousin and board members for listening to the community, parents and students.
Added Woodson: "After almost a year he was appointed interim, he certainly has made every effort to not only continue to push the school system forward but try to avoid any kind of slippage that was possible with the dreadful internal challenges that confronted the school system last year."