Reservoir High School's motto is "The Friendliest School in the Country," but that didn't describe the atmosphere at a long-sought meeting between several hundred divided parents and Howard County school officials in the Fulton school's auditorium Wednesday night.
With suspensions over the last six years nearly twice the county average and experienced teachers transferring and resigning in higher-than-normal numbers, some parents have lost patience, while others defended the school or wondered what the fuss was about. Both sides were cheered along the way as parents with differing views made their points. Six of the seven county school board members also attended but said they just came to listen.
Top school officials tried to set a positive tone from the start and took up the first half-hour with presentations of statistical charts on teacher satisfaction, academic test results, and transfer and suspension data. Reservoir, next to the growing Maple Lawn mixed-use development on Route 216, opened in 2002. It serves children from Fulton and North Laurel in southern Howard County and is a few students over capacity, with a diverse enrollment of 1,566, according to the school's website.
Of the more than 120 teachers at the school, 38 percent have less than five years' experience. School officials noted, however, that although Reservoir has had the least-experienced teaching staff among Howard's 12 high schools for several years, this year Reservoir moved up to sixth. Principal Adrianne "Addie" Kaufman has been in charge since the school's opening.
"I am Addie Kaufman, and I am the very proud principal of Reservoir High School," the principal said to loud cheers in opening the meeting.
"We understand your concerns and appreciate your interest in making Reservoir the best school it can be," added Ray Brown, the system's chief financial officer, speaking on behalf of school system Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin, who is out on extended medical leave. But his words did not satisfy some parents, especially Julie Reybold, a physical therapist from North Laurel with a child at Reservoir.
"Our concern here is that Reservoir is an outlier in several different categories, and we'd like to know why we're so far out here," Reybold, who has become a leader of the dissident parents, asked a cadre of school officials she felt had not answered parents' questions during the two-hour meeting. "Why are teachers leaving Reservoir at twice the rate of other high schools? "
Reservoir suspended 81 children for attendance problems in 2008, she said, while the county average was six. She was "very disappointed" with the meeting, she said.
"It was 2008! Let it go!" shouted Ken Hill, 49, the booster club president, who was standing across the large room. Hill said he has two seniors at the school who have both been accepted at colleges.
Earlier, Hill told the crowd, "I want to talk about what's working," pausing for cheers from the audience. "I just want to say what a great school Reservoir High is."
After the meeting, he accused Reybold of "finding the worst possible scenarios in the school" to bring up. "Did Addie over-suspend? Sure," he said. "But the flip side is, my kids are safe."
Lynn Martin, 48, of Fulton, the PTSA president, said her group is remaining neutral. "There are a lot of people here who have no idea why this meeting was called," she said. "My biggest concern is negative press about [teacher] turnover. You can't get teachers here."
Linda Wise, the chief academic officer for Howard County schools, said school officials take seriously parental concerns about substitute teachers, poor classroom discipline and other problems, adding that every question Reybold's group submitted in writing last week will be answered in writing on the school system's website.
"We have been dealing with it. We have more work to do," Wise said about the complaints. Other parents also raised questions.
Gary Wilson, 58, whose three children graduated from Reservoir, asked if the teacher turnover rate is a worry and what the plan is to fix it. Nichelle Frazier, 39, said she has two children at the school and asked why her son has had two long-term substitutes this year — including a second sub after the first one left.
Tamara Brooks, 48, complained that she had to pull her son out of a class where she felt a teacher wasn't grading his work properly and 18 of 30 students received failing or barely passing grades. "Where is her level of competency?"
Kirk Thompson, director of personnel for the schools, told another parent concerned about multiple long-term substitutes in a computer class that "your challenge is our challenge," especially when it comes to finding good information-technology teachers. "It's a critical need area," he said.