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Dissection of county school system is under way

June 27, 1998|By GUY FLETCHER

The classrooms are quiet now, free of the sounds of chattering children and teachers instructing students on the wonders of algebra, reading and the American Revolution.

Empty classrooms belie the flurry of activity behind the scenes in Washington County's public schools, where school officials, parents, teachers, students and business leaders are dissecting the system.

The recommendations they will make this fall, which could carry a hefty price tag, could shape a public education agenda in the county that will last well into the next century.

"Something has to happen. We cannot continue to operate the way we have been. It's just not working," said school board member Doris J. Nipps.

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She and others believe that at stake is not only the future of school children, but also the county's ability to attract new businesses and compete in a global market that requires highly skilled workers.

"This is a critical time in the life of education in this county," said Carolyn W. Brooks, chairwoman of the schools' Citizens' Advisory Council.

The driving force behind what some call a reform movement at the Washington County Board of Education is last year's audit of instruction in county schools. The analysis detailed numerous deficiencies in the school system, including lack of organization in management structure, micromanagement among school board members and a lack of necessary means to assess its own performance.

"I think the public is clamoring for accountability for the school system," Nipps said.

Schools Superintendent Herman G. Bartlett Jr., who took the helm of the school system last November, said he believes the most serious charge in the audit is that school administrators have become disconnected from the classrooms and the communities around them.

"When you first read that audit ... it's really horrible. It says some awful things about our school system," said Bartlett.

Others agree that without a link between the schools and the community, little progress can be made in a classroom.

"We can have the greatest program, but if people don't buy into that or aren't a part of that, we are not successful," said Frank Finan, director of curriculum and staff development for county schools.

According to the audit, the trouble began at the top. A laundry list of problems cited in the report included high staff turnover in administration, lack of policy to manage curriculum and job descriptions that were either outdated or nonexistent.

Bartlett told the story about interviewing for the superintendent's job last year and requesting a copy of the administration's organizational chart, which shows various job titles and where they fit in a chain of command. He collected one chart from school board members, another from the school system's policy manual and a third from the school board's personnel office.

No two were the same.

"I had three different charts all in one package," Bartlett said.

Troubles in the front office trickled down, as some saw different messages coming from the school board, superintendent and central office administrators, school officials acknowledge. Teachers, who were not listed on the organizational charts, often had no idea which message was the right one.

"I think if there's confusion at the top, if there's a lack of communication at the top, it trickles down and the teachers don't know what they are supposed to do," Nipps said.

Educators say quality of education is a broad issue that affects many segments of the community, not just students and their families. For example, about 50 cents of every dollar paid in property taxes in the county goes to the school system.

Also, the county's ability to produce a well-educated work force can have a direct impact on the kinds of jobs available here, they said.

"The ability to attract high-skilled jobs, not just warehouse jobs, in the county depends on having an educated work force in the community," said Theresa M. Flak, assistant superintendent for instruction.

For years members of the business community have complained about the quality of education in the county and the degree to which the school system prepares students for careers and higher education.

Many business leaders said they are encouraged by efforts to improve the system.

"I think people realize how important education is and how undereducated this community is compared to the rest of the nation," said Wayne E. Alter Jr., chairman and CEO of Dynamark Security Centers.

While school officials acknowledge the audit's many criticisms, they insist the school system is not institutionally bad, but that adjustments must be made in key areas.

"It's easy to say, 'Everything is all bad.' That's not the focus. The focus is, 'Show us our weaknesses and where we can improve,'" said school board member B. Marie Byers.

That the school board agreed to undergo the intensive audit, a first in the state of Maryland, proves that school administrators are committed to reform, she and others said.

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