A new teacher can sometimes work wonders.
Six months ago, the Howard County school system was given a flunking grade by the Maryland Commission on Human Relations.
Last night, a state commission representative gave the school system an A, saying its policies and programs are models for other systems to follow.
What changed, said Superintendent Michael E. Hickey, was his hiring in September of Jacqueline F. Brown as the school board's human relations coordinator.
"She has made a difference in the school system like no single individual should be expected to make," Mr. Hickey said.
County human rights commissioners who participated in a public forum last night on the school system's human relations program, were equally effusive.
"I want to commend Dr. Brown for the amount of work she has done in a short time," said Commissioner Harold Williams.
"I'm amazed at how well you did," said Jan Nyquist, chairwoman of the county commission. "I've received very positive feedback from other school systems."
Dr. Brown came to the school system from Bowie State University, where she was associate professor of counseling psychology and director of the Kellogg Foundation-funded Violence Prevention Education Project. She deflected the praise.
"This is the first and only Board of Education in the state to adopt human relations as its No. 1 rubric and priority and make it the No. 1 policy and umbrella to take us into the 21st century," she said.
Starting with members of the school board, Dr. Brown has been conducting a series of "God knows how many hours of workshops" that in three years will "have touched every school and every bus driver," she said.
In addition, every county school will have human relations training. Kindergarten through fifth grades have a program called "A world of difference," and middle schools and high schools will have a program called "multicultural living skills." The middle and high school programs are already in the pilot stage, she said.
"These are the floors of the human relations program" upon which everything else will be built, Dr. Brown said.
Already in place, she said, is a program designed to deal with prejudice or bias of any sort whenever it occurs in the classroom. It starts with a so-called "signal incident" in which one person responds negatively to another. The signal incident becomes a "teachable moment" for the class.
Despite laudatory praise for Dr. Brown and what she and the school system have accomplished, last night's forum indicated there is still work to be done.
Harper's Choice Middle School student Juan Linares and three of his Hispanic classmates told the commission that a recent survey showed that students could not identify a "Hispanic celebrity or Hispanic contributor to a better life."
The four called for a Big Brother-Big Sister, student achievement and gifted and talented programs for Hispanics.
"Guidance counselors look down on African-Americans" said Dianne Nelson, a parent with daughters in Hammond High School and Owen Brown Middle School. She said one of her daughters was "blatantly disrespected by a guidance counselor" the mother's presence.
School officials said such incidents are inexcusable, will not be tolerated and will be addressed quickly under the new policy.