A passion for education, equality

Eugene Peterson is strong in his views and vocal in their expression

May 09, 2007|By Susan Gvozdas | Susan Gvozdas,Special to The Sun

Nobody can accuse Eugene Peterson of being tight-lipped.

The most outspoken member of the Anne Arundel County school board, he's accused charter schools of "[sucking] money away from public schools." He supports raising income taxes to their limit as the county braces for Fort Meade's expansion, saying "we all need to bear the sacrifice of educating soldiers' children." He thinks too many high school classes still look segregated by race.

"Gene is very open and frank with his opinions," said board President Tricia Johnson. "When he expresses his opinion, you know where he stands on an issue."

Peterson, 59, goes up for re-election tonight at the School Board Nominating Convention, where he is competing against real estate agent Stephanie Hodges for the seat representing legislative districts 21 and 32. Longtime board attendee Thomas Frank of Crofton, former chairman of the citizens advisory committee, Simeon Georgiou and Davidsonville Elementary School Principal Patricia Nalley are vying for the at-large seat now held by Konrad Wayson, who is not running for a second five-year term.

This will be the last nominating convention under the old system, in which conventioneers send the top two vote-getters' names for each seat to the governor, but he is not required to select from that list. Next year, Gov. Martin O'Malley must appoint someone from a list produced by a new nominating commission.

The eight-member school board's vice president, Peterson headed into the election unapologetic for his bluntness: "I can't change who I am."

He credits the wife of a professor at Yale University, where Peterson's father worked as a cook, for steering him into a college preparatory course and helping him to secure scholarships to Kenyon College in Ohio. He went on to earn a master's degree in political science from the University of Washington.

That shaped his primary belief that minority students in county schools need advocates to push and prod them away from remedial coursework and into believing they are capable of more.

"I escaped it because of education," Peterson said. "I got scared straight and turned around."

Today, he supervises a staff of four people in the Office of Civil Rights for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. He has lived in the Russet community in Laurel for 13 years with his wife, Arlette, and daughter, Sarah.

While Sarah attended Meade High School, Peterson joined the Meade High School PTA and eventually became its president, served on the state's parent involvement council and became president of the County Council of PTAs. He was appointed to the school board in 2002.

Peterson said he has made good on his commitment to take on childhood obesity. He spearheaded efforts to restart the county's health fair and health council, helped develop a wellness and nutrition policy for the school system and pushed for schools to require an additional half-credit of physical education.

He also helped broker the 2004 agreement between the school district and the Office of Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education. It set terms for the county to settle complaints that African-American students were being disciplined more severely and taking a disproportionately high number of remedial classes.

Although the county still needs to work on closing the achievement gap, Peterson has pushed the process along, said Carl Snowden, a longtime civil rights activist.

"If Eugene Peterson were not to be reappointed, it would be a major loss both to the school system as well as to the African-American community," Snowden said.

Peterson speaks with passion, and the board needs more people who are willing to do that, especially people of color, Snowden said, adding, "I think what we need more so are strong African-American males telling it like it is."

Peterson supports the superintendent's policy of requiring all Annapolis High School teachers to reapply for their jobs next year, saying too few minority students are in advanced classes. Without teachers to encourage minority students to challenge themselves, many will fall behind and get lost in the system, he says.

"That's what good, wonderful, dedicated teachers do," Peterson said.

His stance won the ire of some Annapolis teachers, but Peterson's underlying concern was for students, said Debbie Ritchie, president-elect of the state PTA. She worked with Peterson when he was president of the County Council of PTAs.

"Whether right, wrong or indifferent ... he's not trying to protect administrators or teachers," Ritchie said. "He's trying to make sure kids are taken care of."

More recently, Peterson has taken on County Executive John R. Leopold, who in his fiscal 2008 budget gave the school system $27 million more than last year - not the $101 million more requested - and eliminated funding for feasibility studies for new schools, including West Meade Elementary.

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