When Cindy Vaillancourt owned a paint-your-own-pottery shop in Fulton, she marveled at how some patrons used the quaint surroundings as a community gathering place, and how amid churning out artwork, they shared frustrations with Howard County's school system.
The Clarksville resident ultimately sold the pottery shop, but the stories remained with her, and left her determined to gain a spot on the county Board of Education.
"It was interesting talking to teenagers and hearing what was going on in the high schools. I found it very sad that some of these kids who were so badly served by our school system felt like abject failures," said Vaillancourt, 47, who is running for a seat on the board, her first run since her unsuccessful bid in 2004.
She said that the school system has its strong points, but there is much room for improvement. She says a revamped approached to vocational education would be one of the first things she'd do because during her years in the pottery shop, many youngsters, including couples on dates, would talk about how their school experiences left them uncertain about their futures.
"The message was that you had to go to college and you had to be a rocket scientist, and some of these kids were just not interested," said Vaillancourt. "The [school system] did not have alternatives for kids who wanted to go into a trade.
"We can get these kids through our education system with their love for learning intact, and they can be plumbers, feed their families, support themselves, have their self esteem and confidence intact and still go on to college one day," said Vaillancourt.
Originally from Akron, Ohio, Vaillancourt has lived in Clarksville for more than 10 years. She graduated from Denison University with degrees in English and history. She has a son who is a rising sophomore at River Hill High School and a daughter, a rising junior at Denison, who graduated from Glenelg Country School.
"Cindy is passionate about education and a strong supporter of ensuring that all students' needs are met so that each is able to maximize his or her learning potential," said Cassie Kilroy Thompson of Clarksville, communications specialist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County's student support services.
Vaillancourt doesn't mince words when conveying her concerns about what ails the Howard school system. She says that while the county's schools are "so close to being really great," they are heading in the wrong direction, partly because of taking too many cues from the state and federal governments instead of using their own approaches to teaching children.
"If Howard County can't do that, who could?" she said. "There is really no arguing with success, and when you're the top-rated school system in the state, and you say, 'We have a better way,' it seems to me that your argument could rule the day.
"We do well compared to the other systems that are like us, but that's a fairly low bar," Vaillancourt added. "I'm not necessarily all that impressed by us doing well on those kinds of criteria. We could be doing better per school."
She said besides changes in the vocational programs, she believes the county should increase open public debate, and provide "world language to students," beginning in kindergarten.
And she acknowledges her detractors.
"One of the things I've been told is that I need to be more positive and put the positive spin on things, because people don't want to hear bad stuff," said Vaillancourt. "And there are a lot of good things that you can say. It is true that we are doing a lot of things better than a lot of other places.
"And my kids would not be in these schools if I didn't think they were good. But I don't think all parents have that option and that luxury, and I think that's one of the things that needs to be changed. Everyone should be able to put their kids where they think is the best place for them."
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