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Teacher retention a priority for Forrest

June 01, 2000

Edward Forrest doesn't have a high-powered, organized-to-the-last-detail campaign like fellow school board candidates Bernadette Wagner and Roxanne Ober. But the 36-year-old Smithsburg pharmacist has managed to do something they couldn't do during their recent tour of all county schools - make contact with some classroom teachers.

Ober and Wagner were stymied in their efforts to do that when administration officials e-mailed principals to tell them that they had no obligation to open the teachers' lounge for visits from the Paramount-area duo. And guess what? They didn't.

Forrest had better luck coming at teachers sideways, during PTA meetings and at other school functions. And it probably puts them at ease when he tells them his "number one priority has been the issue of attracting and retaining teachers."

Salary considerations are a big part of that, Forrest said, but he added he's also concerned by the large number of educators who are retiring early.

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"It's important to look into why, to see if there's something pushing them out," he said.

Forrest got a hint of the possibilities by talking to some teachers, who he said "feel they're left out of the decision-making process."

That's not just because so much of what the schools do now revolves around the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program. Forrest said, but because of the "grass roots" budget process.

In that system, each school community is supposed to get together and list its priorities. But for the second year in a row, Forrest said, none of the individual schools' priorities made it into the budget.

"It strikes me as odd that not one priority from any of the 45 schools made it to the top 36" list in the budget, Forrest said.

But don't expect anyone to complain publicly about it, Forrest said, because "teachers are afraid to speak up and principals tell me they feel intimidated."

As a school board member, Forrest said, he would attempt to combat such feelings by encouraging educators to join committees that develop policies "that affect their day-to-day jobs."

It's important to get teacher input on such matters, Forrest said, because it's not just a matter of their feelings or comfort. Their issues go right to the quality of instruction, he said.

Because of state testing, "some teachers are concerned about the loss of flexibility and creativity," Forrest said. He added that because schedules and lesson plans have become so inflexible, teachers feel "compelled to move on" whether or not students have mastered the material because educators know they'll be assessed based on how much ground they've covered.

Another change Forrest says he'll work for is additions to the guidance staff. Classroom teachers need more help today, Forrest said, because the changes that have occurred in society are showing up in the classroom.

There's a need to provide more sites for students who are habitually disruptive, Forrest said, and at the same time to somehow involve parents in the process more than they are now.

How could parents be persuaded to do more?

Perhaps if they saw that the priorities their individual schools identified in the "grass roots" budget process, Forrest said, then they and the county commissioners might be willing to fully fund the budget.

Right now, he says, "they feel it's an exercise that has no result."

Other concerns Forrest has identified include:

- MSPAP testing, and the possibility that in the older grades, students don't work to do well on it because it doesn't affect their grades. During the test, Forrest said, teachers are pulled from other areas to proctor "and instruction comes to a screeching halt."

- Elementary music classes. Eliminated from most of the system, it's been re-introduced as an after-school program at Old Forge. There's a small cost and scholarships for those who can't afford that, he said. It's a program that could be expanded, he said.

- The foreign-language program planned for middle schools, which will be staffed only when a related arts teachers retires. "It's not even planned for Hancock or Clear Spring, based on enrollment," he said.

- Harold Phillips' proposal for trimming the number of schools operated to save money. Forrest said he'd like to see the plan, but says because so many schools are so near capacity, he doesn't see consolidation happening easily or quickly.

It's a plateful of issues, especially for a father with three children under 10. But Forrest said because of the flexibility his job as a Martin's Food Market pharmacist provides, he's ready to handle them.

As for his campaign, don't expect anything flashy or fancy, Forrest said.

"I'm pretty much doing this out of my own pocket," he said.




Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor for The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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