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Towson education professor seeks seat on Howard school board

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Bess Altwerger is a teacher educator. After 25 years of teaching teachers at Towson University, the retired professor is one of 13 candidates seeking four open seats on the Howard County Board of Education.

"I'm doing it because I'm passionate about public education," Altwerger said of her first run for public office. "It's been my whole life, other than my family, and I want to put that passion to good use. I'm involved at the national level and now I want to focus on my hometown, my home county and make it the best education system it can be."

Altwerger considers herself an education activist.

She was instrumental in founding Save Our Schools, a now international education advocacy group calling for action against No Child Left Behind and now Race to the Top, saying that quality of instruction has dropped as a result of an increased focus on test scores.

She earned her Ph.D. in education from the University of Arizona and has been teaching Howard County teachers to teach as a professor at Towson for the past 25 years. Although retired, Altwerger still teaches one class a semester as an adjunct professor.

Altwerger, 62, started her career in New York City as a reading specialist before moving west to attend the University of Arizona. She has been a teacher educator since 1980 when she started as a Professor of Multicultural Teacher Education at the University of New Mexico.

With Save Our Schools, Altwerger serves as the organization's National Action Co-Coordinator, organizing marches and conferences around the country. The organization is currently in the process of planning its first international conference scheduled for this summer.

Altwerger has two children, who graduated from Wilde Lake High School, where Altwerger says they received a "fabulous education."

"At the time though, education was not as driven by test scores as it is now," she said.

Altwerger is one of four candidates to receive the recommendation of the Howard County Education Association.

She believes teacher morale is down because they don't feel supported by the board or school system administration.

Her daughter is currently a Spanish teacher at Wilde Lake High School, but Altwerger clarified that her daughter loves her job and teaching at Wilde Lake. She just wants a fair contract.

Altwerger called the teachers union endorsement "extremely important."

"To be honest, if I had not received that endorsement I would not be as enthusiastic about this race," she said. "I want to represent teachers on the school board."

Altwerger is disappointed to see the current relationship between HCEA and the school board, adding that teachers believe they have not had a fair contract in years.

"If they want to have the best school system in the state or the best school system we can have, they need to be advocates for the teachers," she said. "I do not believe that the HCEA is asking for a contract that is unreasonable at all."

Altwerger adds that she is worried about teacher salaries lagging behind Montgomery County because some teachers aren't able to afford living in Howard.

Regarding the implementation of the Common Core State Standards, Altwerger calls it a disaster of a national experiment.

"My students are very frustrated," she said, adding that this isn't just a local phenomenon.

Altwerger criticized the Common Core, saying some standards are not appropriate for the age group and that teachers don't have the professional freedom to choose appropriate texts.

"I think we're doing the best job we can here in Howard County, given the situation," she said.

Altwerger also cautions that the school system is not as equitable as some may think.

"There's beginning to be a really clear income and racial divide across the schools," she said.

To combat this, Altwerger suggests smaller class sizes, experienced teachers, bilingual education, and more parent partnerships.

Altwerger believes her broad range of experiences with education locally and nationally would be an enormous help to the Board of Education.

"I have the knowledge that I can share with the Board that will enable us to make the best policy decisions possible," she said.

This is part of a series of profiles of Howard County School Board candidates.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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