School focus groups 'dive deep' looking for improvement

By now, hundreds of people in Howard County have helped begin forming a strategic plan for the school system, whether it be through the Listen and Learn forums hosted by Superintendent Renee Foose last fall, submitting their thoughts online or by attending one of several focus groups in the past week.

About 60 people were on hand at one of those sessions on the evening of Monday, Jan. 28 at Howard High School in Ellicott City.

"Your input here today will help guide our efforts over the next five years," Foose said in a video played at the session. "I aspire to lead a school system that will serve as a model with the state. Our test scores are consistently among the highest in the state, and our graduation rate exceeds the national average. We're a strong school system, but I know we can do better."

After taking the reins from former Superintendent Sydney Cousin in July 2012, Foose announced the creation of a strategic plan that will "go live" July 1, said Caryn Lasser, coordinator of strategic planning and improvement.

"It's going to be a quick turnaround, getting the information back so we can use it to inform our work as we begin crafting our vision for the school system's future," Deputy Superintendent of Curriculum, Instruction and Administration Linda Wise told the group. "This is very exciting for us."

Focus groups have held meetings at Howard and Centennial high schools, and one more session is scheduled for Friday, Feb. 1, from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., at the Department of Education in Ellicott City.

On Monday, the focus group broke up among tables in the Howard cafeteria, each one moderated by a school system employee. The issues of teaching and learning, safe and nurturing environment, communication, family and community partnerships, technology, business and organizational practices and staffing and leadership development were discussed.

The groups of five to eight people chose their tables based on their own interests, prompted by Foose in her video to "dive deep" into their respective areas. There, they identified the strengths and weaknesses of the school system, pointed out opportunities for growth, and wrote down their suggestions on sticky notes attached to large sheets of paper. Those sheets of paper then formed a "gallery walk" people could peruse, with stickers to place on the best ideas.

Saanura James, of Ellicott City and a mother of two elementary students, came to the focus groups because she has two young children in the school system. She sat at the table focused on teaching and learning.

"I'm impressed with what we already do," James said. "But overall, we have to be better at training our teachers with differentiation — meeting your students where they are. We need educators that represent our diverse students. We can't teach the way we taught before; we have to find alternative methods to reach them."

James said that in 10 years in the county, she had never seen a opportunity like the focus groups to have her input taken into account.

Nor had Van McKenna, of Ellicott City, who has lived in the county for 16 years. An ESOL teacher at Rockburn and Ilchester elementary schools, and the mother of a Howard County graduate, McKenna said she brought "two different lenses" to her group on family and community partnerships.

Like McKenna, Maxine Drazenovic is an ESOL teacher. As an ESOL teacher at Longfellow Elementary School, Drazenovic said she faces challenges trying to engage her students' families.

"It's a little harder to get our families involved, and we're always looking for new resources in the community," she said.

Strengthening partnerships among the schools, social and civic organizations and churches is a must, said Albert Jackson, deputy pastor of student ministries at Celebration Church, and parent to three children in the school system.

"The student body we minister to on a week-to-week basis, we want to make sure their futures are secure," Jackson said.

Tracey Williams, of Ellicott City, is a pupil personnel worker in the school system. In working with students who "don't have as much at others," she knows the importance of partnerships.

"I see the opportunities we're missing for our kids," she said. "We need to use our community partners more readily. We have already have wonderful partnerships that need to be enhanced if we want to improve our kids' learning."

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