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Bester opens doors so paper can grade its progress

July 31, 2005

On the front page of today's newspaper are two stories about Bester Elementary School. They are the first of what will be many stories in a year-long series The Herald-Mail will produce about the school.

For the next year, we will follow closely attempts by school administrators, teachers and parents to improve academic achievement at the school.

Bester, at the intersection of South Potomac Street and Memorial Boulevard, holds title to some of the worst statistics in Washington County.

It is one of the oldest operating schools in the county. Its students have the highest poverty level. And its test scores are among the worst.

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The Washington County Board of Education has taken an aggressive stance when it comes to Bester. While the school was pulled from the brink of state takeover because of improvement in student test scores last year, school officials say they want to see far more improvement.

The school has a new principal - Kathy Stiles - who is credited with helping to turn around similar academic underperformance at Eastern Elementary. Stiles is taking on the newest challenge with a positive attitude, saying there is no reason Bester students can't succeed.

As it did with Eastern, the school system required all the teachers at Bester to resign and reapply if they wanted to stay at the school. Only about one-third of the staff will be returning.

Teachers will work longer hours and spend more time with special programs to help improve students' performances.

The question is - will it work?

To answer that question, The Herald-Mail has been given unprecedented access to Bester Elementary, its staff and the administrators who will help lead and track performance there.

The idea of having the newspaper closely follow Bester over the next 10 months was not ours. Schools Superintendent Elizabeth Morgan suggested it.

Education reporter Karen Hanna and I met with Morgan and other administrators about a month ago to talk about the idea of a year-long series on Bester. For our part, the newspaper was concerned that access might be cut off half way through the year or that our definition of "full access" would not meet the school system's definition.

Following that meeting, I was satisfied that the newspaper and the school system were operating under the same definition. Morgan clearly believes her team of administrators and teachers can turn Bester around and she's willing to open the inner doors to prove it.

Over the next year, we will periodically go to school with some Bester students. We'll also sit in on staff meetings at the school and administration meetings at the Central Office.

We will track test scores and monitor new programs for effectiveness.

We will meet with Bester parents.

What we won't do is get into personnel issues or individual student issues. If the situation warrants, we will write about programs that don't work but we won't be blaming any individuals.

Our goal in the series is to track Bester's progress ... or lack of progress, if that turns out to be the case.

Whatever happens over the course of the coming school year, the school system is willing to have it happen under a spotlight. As we begin this project, we applaud school officials for that.

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