Turning low funding into high test scores

April 24, 2005|By Gina Davis | Gina Davis,SUN STAFF

Doing more with less. Getting more bang for your buck.

These are just a couple of ways to describe how Carroll County educators have been managing, year after year, to maintain the district's stature as one of the state's highest-performing systems despite lacking the funding of some of the state's wealthier counties.

"We do very well because of the great staff we have and because of our parents," said Superintendent Charles I. Ecker. "Certainly our staff does a lot ... but we can't do it without the parents. It's a cooperative affair."

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

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

Meanwhile, in recent state reading and math assessment results, Carroll students scored overall among the top five districts statewide. On last year's state High School Assessment exams, Carroll students' 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.

Carroll County was one of 15 school districts statewide to meet state-mandated achievement objectives as part of requirements - otherwise known as adequate yearly progress - under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

In addition, Carroll's was the only system that had all of its schools meeting that objective individually and had no schools on the state's alert list. Maryland, as a state, did not meet that goal, according to state education officials.

Carroll's results from the Maryland School Assessment last year showed improvements in every category, including considerable gains in reading and math by the county's special-education students. The total student population, including groups such as blacks, Hispanics, Asians and special-education students, must meet proficient levels in math and reading by 2014, as required by federal law.

"We certainly did very well compared with the rest of the state, but we also have challenges and opportunities ahead," Ecker said.

He said it would be important to maintain intervention services, particularly in reading, math and science, for students who need additional help.

Carroll County has become a magnet for families, particularly from neighboring Howard and Baltimore counties but also from Montgomery County, in search of a good public school education and relatively affordable homes.

As a result, Carroll's school system has watched its student population rise steadily. The growth has led to many crowded school buildings.

The district has built several new schools in recent years - including Elmer Wolfe in Union Bridge and Linton Springs in Eldersburg in 1998 - in an effort to keep pace with the growth. When Parr's Ridge Elementary opens in Mount Airy this fall with about 440 children in kindergarten through second grade, it will be the system's 14th new school in 15 years.

The district's 23rd elementary school, Ebb Valley, is scheduled to open by the 2008-2009 school year in the northeastern part of the county with pupils in kindergarten through fifth grade. Ebb Valley had been scheduled to open for the 2009-2010 year, but the school board last summer pushed up its plans, in part to address concerns about the crowded conditions at Manchester and Hampstead elementaries.

As part of the state-mandated Bridge to Excellence Act, the school system is also preparing to implement full-day kindergarten this fall at eight schools - Charles Carroll, Cranberry Station, Elmer Wolfe, Parr's Ridge, Robert Moton, Taneytown, William Winchester and Winfield.

All-day kindergarten will be phased in at the remaining 14 elementaries by the 2007-2008 school year as required by the state law. School officials estimate that the change will double the number of full-day kindergartners across the district.

After 10 years of steady enrollment increases - during which the district gained an average of 374 new students each year, for a total of 28,828 during the 2003-2004 school year - school officials were surprised to learn that this year they actually had fewer students. It was a modest decrease as of September, when the records showed 28,774 students on the roster.

School officials, struggling to address crowded schools and aging buildings, are reluctant to breathe a sigh of relief. Many of them expect enrollment numbers to continue climbing during the next decade.

"Is this an indication that we're in a downward spiral? I don't think so," Dave Reeve, the district's supervisor of transportation services, said when the enrollment numbers were released last fall.

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