School transition team urges review of achievement gap, discipline policies

Baltimore County schools should work to more quickly eliminate achievement gaps and ensure that discipline policies are applied consistently to all groups of students, according to recommendations made by the transition team appointed by Superintendent Dallas Dance.

The report, presented to the school board Tuesday night, also urges the school system to review staffing levels and find more funding to renovate aging schools, among other recommendations.

In his own report on his first 100 days, Dance said curriculum and school infrastructure will be the major focus over the next school year, along with having "tough, honest conversations."

"Honesty will be the driver," Dance said.

The transition team's findings say that the schools should evaluate whether discipline policies work and ensure that they are applied fairly to all students. The county's suspension rate is one of the highest in the state. Like many school districts in Maryland, the county disproportionately suspends black and special-education students.

Earlier this year, the school board put in place a new discipline policy that encourages staff and teachers to intervene with students before they are suspended and gives principals more flexibility in dealing with bad behavior.

In addition, the team called on the school system to focus on eliminating achievement gaps. Test scores for black and special-education students in the county are far below those of white and Asian students.

Brian C. Morrison, president of the Baltimore County Alliance of Black School Educators, told the board that the school system should take concrete steps to hold teachers and principals accountable for closing gaps, adding that leaders also should focus on recruiting more black teachers.

Dance's 21-member team, which first met in June, also recommended that the school system work with county government to study how to save money through cooperative agreements. And it suggested a review of the system's "entire organizational model," with a focus on redundant duties.

The school system announced in August that it would move some of its employees into vacant county government space in Towson, which officials said would save $1.5 million annually.

Former state school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, who chaired the transition team with former Virginia school Superintendent William Bosher, said school leaders must be very clear with the community about why they commit resources to certain schools because parents and school staff often question what they perceive as inequities.

The report urges the system to draw up a communications plan "to significantly increase the avenues and flow of information." The school board and former Superintendent Joe A. Hairston, who retired in June, had been criticized for what some parents called lack of transparency.

The group studied past school audits and reports, and worked with 20 focus groups of parents, teachers, administrators, local officials, students, community representatives and others. Members examined topics including teaching and learning, budget and finances, technology, equity and creating safe environments.

The school system should evaluate its student-teacher ratio but also make sure there is flexibility to meet each school's needs, the team said. The school system had been criticized last year over large class sizes in high schools after teaching positions were eliminated.

High-need areas should get priority staffing, the report says.

The team's report also supported some actions Dance already has taken. Members suggested that he reorganize the central office; he recently hired a chief operating officer and chief academic officer.

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