IB vote reveals views of Smith

Some board members unhappy with superintendent reject expansion

October 09, 2005|By ANICA BUTLER | ANICA BUTLER,SUN REPORTER

Keith Rafferty skipped two of his International Baccalaureate classes at Old Mill High School on Wednesday so that he could address the Anne Arundel County Board of Education.

Though he was among the first high school students in the county to take the challenging IB courses, he told the board he would like the opportunity to be extended to more students. He urged it to expand the program, currently offered only at Old Mill and Annapolis high schools, to Meade High School next year.

Rafferty and the nearly 20 other people who spoke in favor of the expansion left the meeting disappointed.

"It seemed like they all kept on saying that they supported IB, but then it didn't seem like the support was really there," Rafferty, 16, said a day after the board voted against expanding the program.

On the surface, the debate was a matter of whether to expand the IB program, but it was apparent at the meeting that the vote also was a way for some board members to express their dissatisfaction with Superintendent Eric J. Smith.

Board member Eugene Peterson said he is a proponent of the IB program, but that the school system and the superintendent lack a clear plan for creating "high-end" educational opportunities throughout the school system.

With the impending departure of Smith, who recommended the expansion to Meade and brought the idea for the program when he arrived three years ago, growth of the IB program is uncertain, although one of the school system's goals is to have 10 percent of Anne Arundel students earn IB certificates by June 2007.

Also in doubt for some is whether Meade High School, without the program, would be able to attract the children of the many families expected to move to the area because of military base closings and realignments.

Rafferty's mother and father also spoke at the board meeting last week, as did other parents, politicians, the commander of Fort Meade and the president of the county Chamber of Commerce. No one spoke against the expansion.

The proposal seemed certain to fail after the board first discussed the issue at a meeting last month. After a sometimes acrimonious hourlong debate, the board tabled the proposal until its meeting last week.

Smith, and those in favor of the expansion, argued at both meetings that the popularity of the rigorous classes would mean that without adding the program to Meade, students next year will be subject to a lottery to get into the program.

They also pointed out that placing the program at Meade would increase the prestige of the school and would be more attractive to families relocating to the area.

In voting down the expansion, 6-2, board members said they didn't have enough information and that there first needs to be a strategic plan in place for the future of the program.

To some who attended the meetings, the decision seemed to be more a vote against the superintendent than a vote on the IB program.

"This ought to be a discussion about academic achievement," said Crofton resident Tom Frank, speaking before the board. "You're going to send a message," he said, adding that expanding the IB program is "not a question of whether, but a question of how."

Peterson replied by saying that the debate - and vote - was not about personalities, but planning.

But in an interview later last week, he said the program was one dictated by the superintendent and that the board has had little input so far into how the program was implemented.

But the popularity of the program - and the need for a speedy expansion - shouldn't have been a surprise to the board, Smith said in an interview.

Smith brought the IB plan to the county with him when he arrived in 2002. The next year, the board of education agreed to begin the IB program at two high schools and to begin a pre-IB program for middle school pupils. That program has not yet been funded.

"At my very first meeting [as superintendent], we had parents lined up at the podium calling for improvement in gifted programs in Anne Arundel County. We've done that. We've increased rigor in the middle schools dramatically ... and we've significantly increased [advanced placement] and brought IB," Smith said. "As you bring more demanding course work to the school district, you create an excitement about doing that level of work, and students respond to the challenge. The good news is they responded ... in larger numbers than we anticipated."

Smith said that at the time, he and the school board believed that offering IB at two high schools, each with the capacity for 100 students, would be sufficient for about three or four years, while a plan for expanding the program could be developed.

But it became apparent last spring, Smith said, that just two high schools wouldn't do.

"There were more students signing up for the Old Mill program than room was available. We took it to the board, and got their direction whether we should have a lottery or should we bring in trailers and make space," Smith said. "They said `make room.' We knew enrollment was going to be a problem."

Enrollment figures show that Old Mill and Annapolis high schools exceed state-rated capacity, but Meade High School is under-capacity.

District officials say they can't project how many applications they'll receive for the 2006-2007 school year. Applications are due by Dec. 1.

Board members have said they have to, and will, revisit the matter, but it's unclear when, or what the next step will be.

anica.butler@baltsun.com

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