On duty: a can-do attitude

Undaunted: Media specialist Mary West's effort amid less-than-ideal working conditions this summer school session has won praise and admiration.

Education Beat

News from Howard County schools and colleges

July 03, 2005|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Mary West, media specialist for Howard County's summer school, was in for a little surprise when she reported to Oakland Mills High School two days before the start of the summer session. The library (or media center, as it is known these days) was closed for painting, and everything was packed away.

West had no base of operations and no books to dispense, but she was undaunted.

West, who has been dispensing books, videos, computer advice and more for summer school students in Howard County since 1991, set up a folding table in the teacher's planning room, unpacked her notes and schedules, and got to work.

"In spite of the handicap, we're still going to do what we need to do for summer school," she said Tuesday, the second day of the session.

Because students cannot take books from the school library, West will drive to Howard County library branches and pick up the needed books. And she is making sure students know how to use computers in the school's five computer labs to access the public library and the school system databases.

West's can-do attitude has won her praise and admiration from co-workers and the summer school principal, Rick Robb.

"She's our most valued employee," said Robb, who also teaches English at River Hill High School and is principal of the school system's Evening School.

"I love working with Ms. West," said Matt Basch, a college student in his second year as technology director for summer school. "She's great."

Rosemarie Deming, a guidance counselor, has been working with West for seven summers. "She's wonderful," Deming said.

"Mary is able to fill any audio-visual need, find any resource for any student and her answer is always yes," Deming said. "She's magnificent. It's an absolute honor to become her friend."

As media specialist, West, who holds the same job at Hammond High School during the school year, dispenses, tracks and often repairs books, videotapes, digital video discs, overhead projectors, televisions, videocassette recorders and computers.

The school system has technicians to handle mechanical problems, but West is a capable trouble-shooter, the kind of person who, at home, can fix a leaky faucet and handle other routine repairs, she acknowledged with a laugh.

West grew up in Georgia and earned an undergraduate degree from North Carolina Central University in Durham. She moved to Columbia in 1972 and worked at Howard County Community College for a year before getting a master's degree in library service from the University of Michigan, attending school in Michigan while her husband stayed in Howard County.

In 1974, she joined the Howard County school system as a media specialist at Wilde Lake High School. She moved to Hammond in 1977 and has been there ever since. She also recently started working part time at the college.

"It's interesting how life is a circle," she said.

Her children, now 22 and 30, attended Oakland Mills, she said.

Of course, West has seen many changes since she became a media specialist. When she started, she said, there were no computers. Now, students rely on them. West goes into the computer labs to demonstrate how to gain access to materials, but she also promotes books.

"I still love books," she said. "I still love the printed word. I encourage them to use books as well [as online resources]," she said.

The county's summer school program typically has 500 to 600 students during its six-week session, but this year, the number is approaching 700, Robb said.

Students showed up at the door the first day, asking to be taken in. The program is voluntary, and it is up to students to sign up. The increase, Robb said, seems to be caused in part by a change in schedule at some of the schools, so that classes are spread over an entire year instead of a half-year.

Every Friday, Deming and West bring breakfast for about 40 teachers and 12 to 15 members of the support staff. The breakfast, said Robb, keeps morale high among the summer school staff.

"It basically builds an enormous family atmosphere," Robb said. "Summer school is family, and teachers have been coming back year after year."

He noted that summer school staffers are giving up their summer vacations to teach students who might not pass their classes otherwise. It is a lot to ask, but West makes the job easier.

"She just takes care of us, that's all there is to it," Robb said.

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