What's ailing the Anne Arundel County school system is the equivalent of "a persistent low-grade fever," and Superintendent Carol S. Parham wants to bring the system back to good health.
"Our biggest problem is that we've been in a crisis mode for over a year. That makes it difficult for all of us," she said. "It's analogous to someone with a low-grade fever. It's not going to kill you, but eventually your vital organs are going to break down and your body just won't be operating efficiently."
After a tumultuous year in which a teacher confessed on national television that he had sex with a 16-year-old female student, and parents claimed black students were being unfairly punished, Dr. Parham, 44, has her work cut out for her.
Several issues beg her attention: countywide redistricting to help relieve overcrowding in classrooms; changes that must be made in flawed student and employee discipline programs; and the need to improve relations with parents and employees.
"The most important thing she has to do is finish getting her team together," said Thomas Twombly, vice president of the eight-member school board. "Then, she has to delegate and let her managers do their jobs, and make changes. There are too many people still with the word 'acting' in front of their titles."
Until this month that list included Dr. Parham.
Formerly human relations director, she was named acting superintendent about a year ago while then-Superintendent C. Berry Carter II was under investigation for allegedly mishandling child-abuse cases during the years he had been deputy superintendent.
The probe showed a disturbing pattern in which child-abuse complaints, especially those against teachers, were handled by the school system instead of being turned over to police or social workers. Mr. Carter resigned in late October.
In February, after seven months as acting superintendent, Dr. Parham was given the $100,000-a-year job on a permanent basis.
She's already started making her mark on the system, the 47th-largest in the nation with nearly 70,000 students, more than 7,400 employees and a budget of $408 million.
In June, she ordered a major reorganization at the school level. New principals were assigned to eight high schools, six middle schools and 14 elementary schools. Thirty-one assistant principals were moved. And she promised to shift some teachers.
She also divided the school system's operations and gave the work to two associate superintendents. In every other county school superintendent's tenure, the tasks had been performed by one deputy superintendent.
Associate Superintendent Ronald L. Beckett is responsible for administrative, financial, school construction and employee relations issues, while Associate Superintendent Kenneth P. Lawson deals with such issues as the curriculum. Two of their four assistants were just appointed.
About a half-dozen other jobs remain open, including assistant superintendent for instruction.
"How do I know this is going to work? I don't know, but unless we do something differently, we'll never know whether it works," Dr. Parham said of her new chief executive officer-type management plan. "There's no penalty for doing your best and being creative. If it doesn't work, we'll change it again."
What's in store for students?
"We're going to look at instruction, and the dropout rate," she said. "We've met 12 of 13 standards for the Maryland School Performance Program -- except the drop-out rate."
Dr. Parham also said she wants to improve conditions at the elementary school level and may implement changes suggested a report known as "Bridging the Gap." It pointed out inequities such as elementary teachers having less planning time than middle or high school teachers and that not every elementary school has its own guidance counselor.
"Our clientele has changed," Dr. Parham said. "Twenty years ago it wasn't necessary to have a full-time guidance counselor in elementary schools. Now, the socioeconomic issues that affect families make it essential."
A uniform code of student discipline is being developed, and a plan to find alternatives to suspensions and expulsions that leave children home alone while parents work is in the works. Administrators and teachers will receive cultural sensitivity training as part of an agreement with the federal civil rights office.
"The crisis mentality has undermined the public's confidence and trust," Dr. Parham said. "I promise to listen, but that doesn't mean I'll always be in agreement with them."
The student-teacher sex scandals brought the system's problems into the open. Three of the five teachers involved were cleared of criminal wrongdoing, one was convicted and one was not prosecuted.
The damage to the school system's image was compounded by charges last fall that black students were punished more harshly than white students. (The school system has signed an agreement with the U.S. Office for Civil Rights to keep racism out of the student discipline process.)
The problems are also costing the system money. The employee discipline process, for example, moves so slowly one teacher has been on paid leave for two years while awaiting a decision.
In addition, Dr. Parham has added a human relations expert and must pay for staff members to be trained in cultural sensitivity.
Fallout from the sex scandal will continue to dictate some changes this year. School officials are devising a process for what to do when a teacher accused of a crime, such as child abuse, is cleared by a jury. An independent investigator has recommended that the school system do its own investigation to see if policies had been violated. The cases of the three teachers who were cleared, and the one teacher who was not prosecuted, have not been resolved.
Dr. Parham also has to contend with a brewing labor crisis that threatens to affect the opening of school.
The school board wants to withhold a longevity raise promised to employees. Unions representing teachers and other school employees have threatened job actions and grievances if the raise, negotiated in the union contracts, doesn't come through.
Dr. Parham would say little about the labor negotiations except that she was confident "something will be worked out."
Praise for Dr. Parham
So far, she has handled her job, and the pressure, with equanimity.
"I think she's handled the turmoil exceptionally well," said Michael A. Pace, the school board president.
"She was thrown into the middle of a firestorm and kept calm and kept the ship on course. The way she's handled the beginning of her term is a good indication of what's to follow."
Mr. Pace also said relations between the school board and superintendent are expected to improve under Dr. Parham. Relations have been rocky, and marked by rapid turnover. Since 1984, there have been four superintendents, including Dr. Parham.
She's already showing her commitment. She moved from Ellicott City to a home outside Annapolis and has made an effort to be more visible than some former superintendents.
To demonstrate her interest in what's happening in classrooms and the community, Dr. Parham visited two schools a week during the school year and sponsored forums with parents and teachers.
When there has been a crisis at a school, be it a fight involving students at Severna Park High or a faulty well pump at Davidsonville Elementary, she's gone where she felt she was needed: right to the school.
"A lot of times I'm told 'Superintendents don't drop everything. You don't have to go,' " she said.
"But I do. Principals can expect to see me."
Other changes, she warns, are coming.
"I get a little tired of people saying nothing's going to change," she said. "I know that I have to try. There's a lot of long-term damage that can be done by continuing to operate in a crisis mode and being under siege.
"This crisis mentality undermines the public's confidence and trust. It's my job to make a continuing effort to restore that trust."
RONALD L. BECKETT
New job: Associate superintendent for administration and support services
Status: Married; two daughters
Experience: Served three tours of duty in Vietnam during his Army career from 1961 to 1983. He then went to work for the Anne Arundel County school system as assistant superintendent for support services, a job he held until his promotion this spring. He was an assistant professor of political science at Widener University in Chester, Pa., from 1970 to 1973 and taught at the U.S. Army War College from 1982 to 1983.
Education: Attended the U.S. Army's Command and General Staff College and the Defense Language Institute, where he studied German and Russian; master's degree in political science from the University of Alabama, 1969; bachelor's in engineering from West Point, 1961.
New job: Associate superintendent for instruction and student support services
Status: Married; 19-year-old daughter
Experience: From August 1993 until his appointment this spring, he served as acting associate superintendent for student support services and instruction for Anne Arundel County public schools. From 1989 to 1993, he was assistant superintendent for student support services.
Before moving to the central administrative office, he was principal of Old Mill High School for four years. During that period, he also worked on the countywide redistricting committee.
From 1974 to 1979, he was assistant principal at Severna Park High, transferring from a job as an administrative trainee at MacArthur Junior High School. His first job in the school system, in 1969, was as a social studies teacher at Corkran Junior High.
Education: 1980-1983 studied administration and counseling in higher education at American University; master's degree in educational administration and supervision from Loyola College, 1973; received Maryland teaching certificate in social studies and history, 1969; bachelor's degree in social studies education from the University of Maryland at Baltimore, 1969; graduate of ,, Severna Park High School, 1965.