Plotting a strong course in education

CHANGES ARE happening in Anne Arundel County public schools -- on that all sides seem to agree.

Since Eric J. Smith took over as superintendent in July, he has begun shaking up the 75,000-student school system, indicating that he wants to run a tight ship.

Smith is placing the county's schools on uniform class schedules. He plans to invest heavily in new textbooks, so that students in all schools will be, quite literally, on the same page. He also has begun academic initiatives to close achievement gaps among groups of students.

"We're trying to weave this place together to be not a system of schools, but a school system," said Smith, who was named one of the nation's top urban educators after he led the district that includes Charlotte, N.C., for six years.

Although he has received criticism from parents and teachers worried about how quickly he makes decisions and carries them out, Smith has confidence in his methods.

"We have made some changes this year, and we've gone through some controversy and so forth," Smith said. "This is to layer on top of what is already a very good, solid school system. ... When the power of Anne Arundel County is applied to the same end result, we're going to see that the system truly takes off."

Anne Arundel public schools rank in the middle of the pack among Maryland's school systems on most state and national standardized tests. It is the fifth-wealthiest county in the state, but spends $7,782 per pupil each year -- or $200 less than the Maryland average.

Some county schools are among the best in the state. Severna Park High School, for example, ranked fifth in Maryland on last year's high school assessments, behind schools in Montgomery and Howard counties, which each spend more per pupil. Other Anne Arundel schools were among the lower-scoring half of about 200 high schools statewide.

Smith said at the time that he believes the disparities reflect economic and racial achievement gaps, and that those gaps can be closed by regulating the quality and delivery of instruction in all schools.

The distribution of wealth in the county has an impact on schools. Those in more affluent areas, such as Severna Park, Crofton and the Broadneck Peninsula in central Anne Arundel, score well on standardized tests and have high rates of parental involvement.

Fourteen elementary schools, mostly in Annapolis and northern Anne Arundel, receive federal Title I funds because they have performed poorly on tests and have large numbers of needy students. School officials are trying several pilot programs at these schools, including a reading curriculum that stresses phonics and a state-required, all-day kindergarten initiative.

The western part of the county -- including the communities of Odenton, Severn, Gambrills and Maryland City -- is a fast-growing area where the county has focused development efforts. A new middle school and elementary school have gone up in the past seven years.

Officials are planning another elementary school for Seven Oaks, where they expect soon to see an influx of at least 700 new students, because of the development of hundreds of new homes on land formerly managed by the Fort Meade Army post.

Because of the proximity of the post, schools in the area have some of the county's highest rates of student mobility, according to school officials.

At Meade High School 17 percent of the student body transferred out during the past school year, and 15 percent were new students. contrast, the student transfer rate at Severna Park High in central Anne Arundel was less than 4 percent.

Students in Anne Arundel have many learning opportunities outside the classroom. Retreats, camps and environmental workshops are held at Arlington Echo in Millersville, the county's 24-acre outdoor education center overlooking the Severn River.

Thousands of students are bused from their home schools to the county's two vocational schools to take part in programs ranging from culinary arts to computer networking technology.

Smith and the Board of Education have ambitious goals for the system. They have set 2007 as a deadline to more than double the number of eighth-graders who pass Algebra I; nearly triple the number of high school students taking college-level coursework; have 85 percent of students reading, writing and doing math proficiently; and make schools safe for students and welcoming to parents.

The eight-member school board, which hired Smith, largely has backed him on every point. The student board member holds the only such position in the state with full voting powers. "[Smith has] been upfront about what he's trying to do," board President Michael J. McNelly said. "Not only does the board understand what he's trying to do, but they agree with it."

Recommended on Baltimore Sun