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Nearly 300 principals from four counties gathered at Old Mill High School yesterday to try and improve their report cards.

County administrators and their counterparts from Calvert, Charles and St. Mary's counties will meet through Wednesday to hammer out the logistics ofmaking the Maryland School Performance Program work for their schools.

The program establishes achievement standards for the state's functional exams as well as attendance and dropout and promotion rates.

"I'm just as curious as everybody else," School Superintendent Larry L. Lorton said. "It's the first time the four counties have been brought together and the state has mandated a cooperative effort.

"I hope the next 2 1/2 days will be a fulfilling challenge. The real purpose of all this to share the things that we are doing that is successful. The idea is to develop strategies for kids. We are just trying to reaffirm our mission," Lorton said.

School systems began receiving grades from the state Board of Education in November.

Anne Arundel met or exceeded state standards in only two of eight areas -- elementary attendance and promotion rates for grades one through six.

The gathering at Old Mill is one of six taking place throughout the state this week.

Bonnie Copeland was given the difficult task of implementing the highly criticized performance program after state School Superintendent Joseph Shilling stepped down in spring to head the Queen Anne's County school system.

"It's one thing to develop it, but another to implement it," said Copeland, acting state superintendent.

"We want to get people to buy into to it and get Marylandon track," Copeland said.

County administrators served as host yesterday and led discussions in some workshops, including those looking to increase parental involvement and set performance goals for schools. Katherine L. Henry, coordinator of the school system's Office ofStaff Development, kept things moving along.

After listening to performances by the Shipley's Choice chorus and a solo by Lenwood Barber Jr., a student at Annapolis Middle, Broadneck Senior principal Lawrence Knight introduced keynote speaker H. Dickson Corbett, an educational researcher.

Corbett's message focused on putting new school mandates into the proper perspective, always keeping in mind what is best for students.

"We should be thinking about what students needto know 15 years from now and work back from there," Corbett said. "We need to start with what it is students need to become."

After stopping his speech to field suggestions on what students should know,he offered what he said is the basic criteria for student success: ensuring they have knowledge, empathy, self-determination and the ability to think critically.

After only one day, the meeting achieved one of its goals: It got people talking about making the state plan work, rather than focusing on what are perceived as its deficiencies.

"I'm hoping to come away with strategies to make sure that students at Van Bokkelen will be successful," said principal Charles Owens.

North County principal William Wentworth, who led a session on giving officials at individual schools the freedom to make their own decisions, said he wanted to share strategies already put in place at the county's newest high school.

"I shared the management system I've used that has been successful for me," said Wentworth, who schedules monthly meetings to discuss school goals.

"We came up with a common link (to what) we feel are problems at North County -- that students seemed to be having trouble with thinking skills. I feel good about the fact that we were able to identify that.

"We want to createa situation where students can achieve success. We're not talking about lowering standards."

County principals will continue meeting through Friday, looking for ways to improve their grades.

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