Father losing faith

principal has plenty

July 31, 2005|By KAREN HANNA

Administrators committed to improving Washington County's poorest school could notch one success if they can relieve Robert Socks' frustration.

Bester Elementary School might lose one student, his daughter, if they fail.

"I think it's probably the worst elementary school I've ever seen. I would go around to every elementary school in Hagerstown, and I guarantee it's the worst one in town," Socks said in an interview earlier this summer.

Despite improving test scores, administrators have gone ahead with plans to refill positions at Bester, where poverty levels of about 80 percent - not student performance - have led the county. Teachers had to reapply for their jobs for the coming school year.

According to the Maryland State Department of Education, less than 65 percent of the school's students in grades 3, 4 and 5 read or did math on grade level in the 2004-05 school year.

Principal confident

New Principal Kathy Stiles said she sees no reason why Bester students can't do as well on the assessments as students at the county's higher-performing elementary schools.

"I do believe that these students can do it. It's just like a kid that's at Greenbrier or Paramount (elementary schools)," Stiles said in an interview several weeks ago.

More than 85 percent of students in grades 3, 4 and 5 at those elementary schools passed the Maryland School Assessments this year.

Stiles and teachers - only about one-third of Bester's staff from the 2004-05 school year will return when classes start this fall - say they are committed to the promise of the No Child Left Behind Act: student achievement levels of 100 percent.

Steps to brighten the school already are taking shape inside Bester, where gray walls have been repainted and yellowing bulletin boards replaced.

"I think some kids go home and it's such chaos, but to come in here, and it's neat and clean and organized, kids need that structure," teacher Tiffany Tresler said as a friend's children helped put away books and box up calculators.

Like Stiles, Tresler spent two years at Eastern Elementary School. Scores there rose dramatically after the county re-advertised instructional positions and added hours to the school day.

"I saw once you put in excellent teachers, people who care, and you focus on the school, and you give the teachers what they need ... we saw it at Eastern, the scores began to go up," Tresler said.

Bester received some good news this summer.

Passage rates for the school and all categories of students on the 2005 Maryland School Assessments were high enough to meet the state's standards for achievement. Last year, just three of 28 special-education students passed their math tests, and the state warned the school it could face sanctions if it did not improve in that category.

Since it moved off the warning list, Bester this year will not have to provide one potentially costly remedy to parents - the state would have required the school to bus interested students elsewhere, if it had not improved.

Socks, the father of an 8-year-old girl who he said has been the victim of repeated harassment by other students, said he believes lack of discipline is at the root of the school's problems; other parents point to the neighborhood's instability and poverty.

According to the State Department of Education, more than 20 percent of Bester's students moved into the school during the course of last school year, while 16.5 percent moved out.

"You'll see kindergartners walking home by themselves, and you know they're going home to an empty house," PTA President Kim Sandeen said.

Sandeen this year applied for a waiver to extend her tenure to continue as president, an office that is normally limited to two years.

No one else wanted the job, Sandeen said.

Poverty and priorities

Assistant Principal Teri Williamson said one of the school's challenges is to make education a priority for students and their families.

"In terms of what the children bring to school, and in terms of being ready to learn, the children compare exactly to Baltimore City or Prince George's County, and most people would have no idea, and to be honest, I had no idea," said Williamson, who this year will work her second year at Bester.

At some levels, fewer than half of students eligible for free or reduced-priced lunches passed the Maryland School Assessments, compared to about 80 percent of higher-income students.

JoEtta Palkovitz-Brown, the school system's executive director of early childhood and elementary education, said children in poverty often lack background experiences, the "Velcro," to affix what they learn to what they know.

She compares it to walking in cold to a complicated science course.

"If you never experienced nuclear science, and you walk into a classroom and people are throwing these terms around, you have nothing on which to attach it," Palkovitz-Brown said.

Parents say they are concerned the school's improvement plan has too often shuffled the people who have formed bonds with their children - the teachers.

"I just don't understand it. We're off the watch (list). Why did we have to go and rehire all new teachers?" PTA Treasurer Karla Heinrich asked after a meeting at her house. "I don't understand that. There's too much change, not enough consistency."

Whatever the new school year brings, Socks said he believes something needed to be done.

He is fed up with Bester.

"If I was rich, my daughter would be in private school ... and my daughter used to love school," Socks said.

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