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Kenwood teachers, students anxious about staffing plan


Nicole Wright said she was worried that her favorite teachers will leave Kenwood High School in response to an edict from Principal Frederick W. Cogswell: get with his program or get out.

"I've seen teachers today, crying, feeling really bad," the 16-year-old sophomore said yesterday.

She and many other students were unhappy about the principal's announcement this week that all teachers must reapply for their jobs by Tuesday if they want to stay in the eastern Baltimore County school next year. Those who want to leave and those the principal doesn't want will be assigned to other county schools.

Students said they would protest the "zero-based staffing" with a walkout today.

"I give a lot of credit to our teachers," said Kristine Perrin, a 17-year-old senior. "There are teachers that are going to be lost here. That's an ultimatum that no one should have to face."

Several teachers, meanwhile, said they were upset about being made scapegoats for the school's problems.

"We understand the reasoning, but we don't understand the method," said one teacher who asked for anonymity for fear of retribution. "It's harsh. If we weren't dedicated, we wouldn't be here."

Kenwood, which serves the economically stressed, working-class communities of Essex and Middle River, is among the county's worst performing schools in terms of attendance and student scores on the Maryland Functional Reading Tests.

While Baltimore County has taken similar steps to turn over the faculty at several schools that became magnets or adopted special programs, this is the first time the housecleaning has been applied to a school that isn't undergoing major changes.

Faculty has support

The Kenwood plan has drawn mixed reviews in the community. Sen. Michael J. Collins, who taught at Kenwood for 30 years before retiring in 1992, said that "there should be no suggestion, or indictment made, of the faculty for the societal problems that are gripping our communities in the 1990s."

He and others noted that the school has an unusually high transient population and a large number of students from single-parent homes. According to 1990 U.S. Census figures, most of the communities served by Kenwood had median household incomes 20 to 25 percent below the county's $38,837 average.

Mr. Collins said the school has had a chronic attendance problem despite efforts to improve. He said he doubted that replacing a large portion of the faculty would turn things around overnight.

"It is taking a very complex problem and . . . well, as Mencken

said, it is devising a simple solution to a complex problem that is simple, attractive and wrong," he said.

Baltimore County Council Chairman Vincent J. Gardina, a Perry Hall Democrat, said teachers shouldn't be blamed because "these problems are in the community. Teachers can't be everything to everyone. Families have to take some responsibility, too."

Former County Executive Dennis F. Rasmussen, a Kenwood graduate who has a nephew there, said Kenwood's problems are the result of "a combination of factors." Among them, he said, are the area's general economic decline and the loss of some of the school's better students to nearby Eastern Technical High School, a regional magnet.

Mr. Cogswell, 52, the man sent to deal with those problems, was a popular principal at Owings Mills High School when he was transferred to Kenwood two years ago.

"I've seen him work with teachers in the classroom, and he has this ability to zero in on affective strategies teachers can use to teach students," said Alice DeShazzo, an assistant principal at Owings Mills who worked for Mr. Cogswell.

Mr. Cogswell said yesterday that his zero-based faculty plan was not an attack on his faculty. But he said that something had to be done to improve Kenwood students' test scores. "They're testing poorly because they apparently do not have a grasp of the basic skills that are being asked of them . . . they have failed to learn," he declared.

"Did one person make those test scores go down? Impossible," he added. He said anything from learning problems to parents who don't insist that their children go to school could contribute to Kenwood High's current state. In any event, he said, "we need to change the way we're doing business."

Some risks

He argued that zero-based staffing will bring in teachers who will "assume ownership" of the students' learning. "The bottom line is, I want them committed to my kids," he said.

He acknowledged that the plan is risky because it opens the door for all teachers to leave, but will simultaneously let in teachers "who will stand in the middle of the hall and say I like it here and I want to be here."

Some teachers, however, say Mr. Cogswell is part of the problem. One veteran said discipline has been relaxed to the point at which students who are habitually late or absent go unpunished. He said assaults against teachers result only in suspensions, and that offenders are often sent back to the assaulted teacher's classroom.

The same teacher said Mr. Cogswell can't deal with a diversity of faculty opinion. "Mr. Cogswell doesn't want to talk with a teacher unless that teacher agrees with him 100 percent. He won't consider . . . ideas that are divergent with his. . . . His way of dealing with the problems here is to clean house."

Ray Suarez, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, agreed. He said that over the past two years, the Kenwood faculty has become one of the most demoralized in the system because of threats by the administration and concerns about discipline.

"I've gotten many complaints about discipline being eroded to ,, the point that teachers feel it is an unsafe place to work," he said.

The school itself was in an uproar yesterday, with TV cameras, reporters, and anxious students bumping against each other in the halls.

Many students clamored for a chance to point out Kenwood's strengths, including after-school tutoring, a drama club, a step squad, student exchange programs, honors programs, a marching and concert band, an ROTC program and on-campus day care for students with children.

Some students resented the principal's portrayal of the school as an insult to them and several called him "the ghost" because they said they rarely see him.


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