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As schools achieve more, new challenges face area

October 14, 2004|by BOB MAGINNIS

How's the state of education in Washington County's public school system? Judging from the data presented at Wednesday's Chamber of Commerce breakfast, it's good and getting better.

But members of the School Board and top administrators cautioned that additional progress won't come easily, or without a cost.

But before those few sour notes came some sweet statistics:

- Graduation and attendance rates met the state's "adequate yearly progress" targets. And, 41 of the system's 43 schools met all the so-called AYP targets, compared to 38 in 2003.

- In the past four years, the high-school dropout rate has fallen 3.2 percent and attendance is up in elementary, middle and high schools.

- Graduation rates rose as well, with 86.5 percent graduating in 2004 as opposed to 78.3 in 2000.

- The percentage of seniors completing the requirements of the University Systems of Maryland and Career Tech Education is also increasing.

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Those completing USM requirements include 58.4 percent of students, while CTE "completers" account for 45.9 percent of all students.

- On Maryland's High School Assessment program, which tests students in algebra, biology, English and government, the percentage of pupils with passing scores increased in all categories except English.

- On SAT scores, the number of students taking the test increased, as did math scores, though not by much. Verbal scores haven't grown in four years and have actually dropped slightly.

So what does all this mean? By any statistical measure presented on Wednesday, a reasonable person would have to agree that the system is moving in the right direction.

Some will argue it's not moving quickly enough, but the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which mandates yearly progress, will no longer allow educators to rationalize students' poor student performance because of low income or family backgrounds.

But there will be challenges. Getting those English/verbal scores up will be one, possibly because when you're doing algebra, there's only one right answer.

Not so with English, in which two great writers can each tell the same story in very different ways. Getting students to read and debate the merits of each is one of the things that makes students better thinkers. Reading teaches children that there are possibilities beyond what they can see from their front steps.

When I worked in the mentor program at Fountaindale Elementary School, I gave an African-American student a copy of the biography of Dr. Ben Carson, a black man who became a pediatric neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Carson did not come from a comfortable suburban home, but from a poor neighborhood in Detroit, where his mother stressed that education was the only sure route out of poverty. Local youths need to read that and other stories of success.

To do that, some speakers on Wednesday touted the mentor program, in which adults are matched with students so the two can meet for an hour a week of reading, homework or just talk.

But mentors won't solve the money problems that will stem enrollment that is growing at a rate much faster than state officials anticipated.

William Blum, the school system's chief operating officer, said that he had "significant concerns" about the projections from the Maryland Department of Planning. In one year, the system will add enough students to fill one new elementary school, officials said.

To cope until construction catches up, Blum it's likely computer labs, music and art rooms will be used for other classes. Portable classrooms will be added as well, he said,

According to Joetta Palkovitz-Brown, executive director of early childhood and elementary education, class sizes may also have to be increased.

Other challenges cited by school administrators and School Board members include the fact that 14 percent of the school population is now enrolled in special-education programs.

That segment that seems to be growing, School Board member Roxanne Ober said, noting that the number of autistic children enrolled has gone from 14 in the 1990s to 64 now.

Superintendent Elizabeth Morgan closed the program by saying that although Washington County spends less per-pupil than some neighboring counties, its achievement levels are higher. On problem areas such as English, she pledged the system would try different strategies until it finds those that work.

Finally, as School Board member Russell Williams said, "There is no free lunch." In the days and years to come, citizens will be called on to give more support to the schools - as taxpayers and volunteers.

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