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Schools doing well, even if community isn't

February 22, 2004|by TIM ROWLAND

A furor erupted this week in Hagerstown over a young, homeless deer. A couple tried to take it in and nurse it back to health, but feared the state might step in with less than satisfactory results.

Once the story broke, the newsroom was flooded with calls. Everyone, it seemed, had an opinion, or wanted to help, or had a suggestion what could be done with the animal. The concern throughout the community was palpable. People were calling from across the country. The story made the national wires and even the "Today" show. The governor was notified and news copters hovered overhead.

All this is well for the disadvantaged deer, but the pity is that the same sort of concern and interest never seems to materialize for a disadvantaged child.

Animals - deer, geese, pit bulls - always seem to find more defenders than kids.

The 2003 report for child well-being in Maryland has been released, and the results should be of the sort that would take a concerned citizen's mind off deer, for the moment.

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The report ranks Maryland counties in eight categories, covering child health, home life and education. The schools come out well; the homes less so.

According to the report, children in Washington County are relatively healthy at birth - the county ranks in the middle of the pack, statewide.

But from there, things get worse before they get better. Two categories stand out. First, kids in Washington County rank in the next-to-last category statewide for safety in their homes and communities. This category takes into account factors such as abuse or neglect, juvenile arrests and domestic violence.

Second, kids in Washington County are in the bottom category statewide in terms of "stable and economically independent families." The criteria for this category include child poverty, single-parent households and homelessness.

The bright spot in Washington County is in its school system, where we rank at the top of the heap for "children successful in school."

The three determining criteria are attendance, academic performance and basic skills in reading, writing and mathematics.

According to the state study, only three other counties did as well. And Washington County was better than Frederick, Montgomery and Anne Arundel counties.

In other words, Washington County schools have some of the worst home environments in the state to work with, but are able to more than make up the difference once the kids get into the classrooms.

"What you see in the schools are a reflection of society at large," said board member Bernadette Wagner. We cannot change the people that live here ... but we have been deploying funds for programs that help, and we have dedicated teachers and administrators that can make a difference."

The challenges are incredible, particularly as they relate to economics. Nearly 40 percent of the children in Washington County qualify for subsidized meals, an indicator of poverty. "We do know that there are kids who get their only hot meal of the day at school," Wagner said.

Local teachers must also deal with high school-to-school mobility, because parents must move after falling behind in their rent. Dozens of kids who start the year in one school will end up in another, the victims of eviction. That's why the system went to a countywide reading program, so kids who move mid-year can pick up on the same lessons in their new school.

City and some county schools have initiated homework clubs and keep their doors open late so children have someplace safe to stay. Dropout prevention programs, Saturday school, community learning centers and literacy programs are all designed to raise the level of education in communities.

Obviously, educating the kids is only half the battle. Just as difficult is overcoming a general community disdain, or at least suspicion, of education in general. There's still a knee-jerk negativism toward any request the schools put forth for increased funding, and you'll hear the catchphrases of "waste" or "lack of accountability" or "top-heavy administration."

No outfit the size of a school system is going to be totally bereft of these problems, and it never hurts to demand an accounting of how tax money is spent.

But if the Maryland report on children demonstrates anything, it's that our school system should start receiving the benefit of the doubt.

These are state findings, not subject to local spin. And they show the teachers, administrators and board are more efficient than most counties in Maryland at taking the material they are handed and producing quantifiable results.

If these results are a more educated populace, that means that wages will go up, the poverty level will shrink and young people will make better decisions about secondary education and the proper time to begin a family.

And if all that happens, Washington County families will begin to produce kids with more stable economic backgrounds who are more ready to learn. If our school system can be productive with a child-poverty level approaching 40 percent, imagine what could be accomplished should that percentage some day be cut in half.

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