Ecker outlines challenges

Student achievement, teacher recruitment on schools chief's list


Carroll County's schools are among the top performing in the state and routinely score above national averages. To build upon those strides, the chief of schools recently pointed to several challenges that the district must tackle, including increasing minority student enrollment in Advanced Placement courses, recruiting and retaining highly qualified teachers and preparing students for state assessments.

"We have a long and rich history of providing a quality education," Superintendent Charles I. Ecker told school board members at last week's meeting. "We've had a lot of successes. We also have some challenges."

A national distinction that Ecker pointed to as evidence of Carroll's strong public school system was the district's "Gold Standard" rating in Expansion Management magazine, a publication that helps companies seeking future locations. Carroll ranked in the top 16 percent of 2,800 schools nationwide that the magazine rated, he said.

"I'm proud of this distinction," he said.

The system's successes, Ecker said, include:

With an average combined score of 1046 on the SAT for the 2004-2005 school year, Carroll's students scored 20 points above the state average and 18 points higher than the national average.

From 2002 to last year, the system saw a nearly 75 percent jump in the number of students taking AP courses. However, minority students made up only 3.7 percent of AP enrollment in the 2004-2005 school year.

Carroll was among the top three highest-scoring school systems on last year's High School Assessments -- four end-of-course tests in biology, government, algebra and English that students must pass to graduate.

The system has one of the state's highest attendance rates -- 95.6 percent in elementary, 95.2 percent in middle and 94.6 percent in high schools last year.

The district also has one of the state's lowest dropout rates -- 1.24 percent last year.

Carroll recently was named an "outstanding school system" by the Maryland chapter of the International Dyslexia Association -- the first time the group has bestowed such an award -- for its efforts in providing services for students with the learning disability.

The board's student representative, Brendan Schlauch, a senior at South Carroll High in Winfield, said, "As I move on to college, I feel prepared and confident about the challenges I am expected to face."

Ecker said that while the system has many achievements, the challenges are real and must be addressed to maintain momentum.

For instance, nearly 30 percent of teachers and almost 60 percent of the system's administrators are eligible for retirement, a fact that Ecker said is troubling.

"That's a scary figure," Ecker said. "We have to be concerned about retaining and recruiting new people."

With 2,115 teachers on staff, Carroll's school system ranks 23rd out of 24 districts in the state in the number of educators it employs.

"To get to the state average, we'd need to add 382 positions," he said. "That's a couple of dollars."

On the flip side, he said, Carroll ranks second in the state for the proportion of overall "staff in front of students" -- teachers make up 56 percent of the district's staff.

Statewide, Carroll ranks 16th for starting salary for teachers with bachelor's degrees, Ecker said. A starting teacher earns $36,051, according to the school system.

Ecker pointed to performance on state standardized testing as another critical concern.

Carroll ranked in the state's top three performing school districts on the exams last year, but the numbers indicate that many students would not have earned their diplomas had those scores counted toward graduation as they now do, Ecker said. For instance, with about 75 percent of Carroll's students passing the algebra exam, that means that about 25 percent didn't pass it.

"This concerns me," he said. "We may have a lot of students who may not be able to graduate the year after next."

Ecker said he wants to hire two resource teachers to help students prepare for the state's High School Assessments. The teachers would split their time among the high schools to work with students who had passed the courses but had failed the tests.

He said that while the school system plays a vital role in educating students, the district's success depends upon parents encouraging children to do well.

"I don't want this to sound like an excuse. The school system can do a lot and can do more, but it can't do it all," he said. "We need parental support. This is very, very important. We have good involvement, but we need more."

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