Balt. Co. students give boss an earful

Forum lets schools chief stay in touch

May 28, 2007|By Gina Davis | Gina Davis,SUN REPORTER

When the head of one of the country's largest school systems asked the students how he could be a better superintendent, 17-year-old Scott Carbone didn't hesitate to give his two cents.

"I know you've been to my school, but I've never seen you there, and I don't think many others have, either," Carbone, a senior at Chesapeake High in Essex, told Baltimore County schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston during a recent meeting at the system's headquarters in Towson. "Be more visible, more interactive with the kids."

Elaborating later on his meeting with Hairston, Carbone said, "At our school, a lot of students think he's just the man above who makes all the rules. ... They think he just wants to make their lives miserable. But I know from these meetings with him that he's not just somebody sitting in a chair who thinks he's better than everyone else. I understand better the reasons for the decisions he makes for the schools."

Carbone's comments are typical of the exchanges that Hairston has had with students in the two years since he formed the Superintendent's Student Advisory Group.

"These meetings are incredibly significant to me because [the students] put everything we do into perspective," Hairston said. "They keep me grounded."

While each school system in the Baltimore metropolitan region has a student member on its school board, only Baltimore County's superintendent holds monthly meetings with a student advisory group. In Anne Arundel, Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell meets at least four times a year with the Teen Advisory Council, which includes two students from each of the county's 12 high schools. In Baltimore County, the advisory group's composition changes each year and includes the school board's sitting student representative and a student from each of the district's five geographical areas.

The students meet with Hairston once a month over sandwiches and sodas with an agenda that includes topics such as what students think about the state's High School Assessments as a graduation requirement.

Advisory group member Jennifer Oswald, an 18-year-old senior at George Washington Carver Center for Arts and Technology, said that when her schoolmates grumble about taking HSAs and other standardized exams, she is able to explain why the tests matter because of the meetings with Hairston. Meanwhile, she uses time with the superintendent to convey students' concerns about the exams.

"When I go back to school, things like the HSAs come up on a daily basis, and I can explain from a different perspective," she said. "The meetings show you that there isn't always one right answer or solution."

Hairston, who said he created a student advisory group when he was a principal at Suitland High in Prince George's County, added that too often administrators rely upon each other for advice and forget to include the most important people in the educational process: the students.

As an example of students' influence on his decisions, Hairston said he stuck with a plan to eliminate about 1,000 remedial courses during a recent four-year period because teens made it clear that they felt the classes were a waste of time.

"Students know when something is meaningful or not," he said. "They understand the big picture."

Klara Kim, a 17-year-old junior at Woodlawn High, said the meetings have led to tangible improvements.

"You tell him he should do this or that, and a couple months later you start to see the changes," she said.

For instance, earlier this school year she raised concerns about broken security cameras at her school. Soon after, the cameras were in working order, she said.

Another advisory group member, Peter Bacon, said that during the meetings, "everything is up for discussion."

"He doesn't just say, "That's tough, deal with it," said Bacon, 17, a senior at Dulaney High in Timonium, who also is the student representative on the school board. "We're providing feedback about what's going well and what's not. He's always analyzing the situation for different possible ways we can approach it."

Of course, having access to the superintendent doesn't necessarily mean that students will get their way.

"When changes are made, you usually wonder, `What were they thinking?'" said Glory O'Jiere, 18, a senior at Kenwood High School in Essex. "Before I was on the advisory group, I had a more limited perspective. What I've learned from this is a better understanding and I can take answers back to my school."

Carbone, whose mother is an instructional assistant at Deep Creek Middle School in Essex and whose father drives a school bus, said he doesn't sugarcoat his comments during the meetings.

When Hairston visits schools, he should have lunch with students - not just peek into classrooms when they can't talk to him, Carbone said in an interview after the meeting.

"I want to be honest and upfront," Carbone said. "He has established that he wants the honest truth, not just something that makes him feel good."

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