In Defense of Dunloggin Middle and Its Principal
Thank you for your recent recognition of the Dunloggin teachers as a group of dedicated professionals who promote
academic excellent. We have always been proud of our attempts to meet the needs of every child within the entire Dunloggin community. We were dismayed by your reference to our school as "an accident waiting to happen" and we can't help but wonder about the sources for your column.
You did not interview any teachers from our school nor did you visit our classrooms before you came to the conclusion that we are "entrenched," "insist that [we] know best how to run the school," and "have resisted changes since 1974." Did you do your homework accurately, as any responsible journalist should, or did you do it the "quick and easy way" by letting someone else "hand you all your answers" without regard to the truth?
At "The Academy" we encourage our students to thoroughly research a topic so they can make fair and reliable judgments. We invite you to visit our school and learn this lesson for yourself.
The above letter was signed by 38 teachers at Dunloggin Middle School.
I visited my parents' home in Columbia to celebrate Mother's Day. Seated at the kitchen table, checking through her students' assignments, was my mother. This scene is one which I have become very familiar with over the years, for my mother has been a dedicated mathematics teacher at Dunloggin Middle School for the past 15 years.
Sunday was somewhat different, however, because just beyond the stacks of schoolwork was the Howard County section of The Sun, open to a commentary by Kevin Thomas which was quite critical of both the teachers at Dunloggin Middle and the parents who were fighting for their children's education. Because my mother was one of the teachers Mr. Thomas was criticizing (whether he realized it or not), some may dismiss this letter as hopelessly biased and therefore not worth considering. I hope this is not the case because I am a product of Howard County's public school system and I believe my experience is worth relating.
I entered Dunloggin Middle School in 1978. The teachers, some of whom are there today, consistently challenged and encouraged me to learn and develop, stressing the fundamental truth of education that knowledge comes from curiosity, persistence and hard work. I went on to Oakland Mills High School, where I also benefited from some very good teachers, but I remember high school as being not nearly as demanding as Dunloggin Middle. I can state without reservation that Dunloggin Middle was the best preparation I received for the challenges of my higher education at Rice University and my current real world career as a management consultant for a prestigious international firm.
The current teachers at Dunloggin Middle have tried to uphold this standard of excellence and have been consequently supported by the parents. For their efforts, the teachers have been subjected to threats of transfer (this has happened to not just one teacher, as reported, but several, my mother included) and now the parents have been publicly chastised by Mr. Thomas.
The teachers and the parents do understand the best way to instruct their students no matter what their socio-economic backgrounds. A history of success should not be altered simply because the school population has changed. To do so would be the ultimate form of discrimination and deprive these young minds of the opportunity to excel.
A recent article in The Economist details a University of Iowa study which found "homework's power to influence success ranks second only to ability, and ahead of race and family background." The message is clear: Dunloggin's method of pushing students of all abilities to work hard has been proven a superior method of preparing students for real world demands as opposed to "feel good" curriculum. . . .
It is the school administration, not the teachers, who have been ++ missing the point. They, and the school board, are tasked to facilitate education, not conduct their own pet experiments on what is already a successful system.
James G. Dolphin
When I moved to Howard County 16 years ago, I was excited to procure a teaching position at Oakland Mills Middle School. I soon learned just how fortunate I was.
The administrator, Jesse Scharff, set a positive tone for the school which encouraged both staff and students to work to achieve their fullest potential. Mr. Scharff accomplished this with a soft-spoken and friendly, yet firm and capable brand of leadership which I came to respect.
The Oakland Mills community enjoyed a wonderful diversity which Mr. Scharff and the staff nurtured and celebrated. Of course, there were some discipline problems: We did have more than 500 adolescents under one roof. Mr. Scharff handled youthful transgressions consistently, fairly and firmly. Mr. Scharff was always accessible to the teachers, while maintaining a level of professional respect. He did have high expectations for his teachers, and most of us were eager to grow by reaching toward his goals.
Now I read in the The Sun for Howard County that parents at Dunloggin Middle are campaigning to remove Mr. Scharff from their school, stating that his administrative style is the antithesis of the leadership I enjoyed for four years at Oakland Mills. While I know Mr. Scharff will be embarrassed to see his name in print yet another time, I felt I had to write this letter to present what I feel is the truth.
Literally thousands of students, parents and teachers whose lives have been touched by this capable administrator must feel the same way, but were not contacted by the reporters.
Ironically, while I was working with Mr. Scharff at Oakland Mills, my own three children were attending Dunloggin. There were discipline problems at Dunloggin in the early 1980s, just like at any other school with 500 adolescents. Apparently, these problems continue today. If the community would allow Mr. Scharff to do his job, it would appreciate just what an effective administrator it has. If it is successful in its push to have him transferred, there is another community somewhere in Howard County which is about to receive a truly gifted leader.
Patricia E. Greenwald
More about Dunloggin Middle
As a past PTA president of Dunloggin Middle School and a current staff member of the school all I can say is "yipes!" You must be right: We can't possibly want a middle school in Howard County which emphasized a "traditional" education.
With the recent publicity that the University of Maryland has 45 percent of its incoming freshmen class needing remedial work in
math and English, what you most certainly don't want is a Maryland middle school that stresses academics!
While the elementary schools of Howard County group students by ability in the subjects of math and reading and the high schools in Howard County group students by ability in the subjects of math, English, social studies and science, those adhering to the middle school philosophy discount such groupings for the students of grades of 6, 7 and 8. Some Dunloggin staff and families are asking themselves, "why?" Why is grouping so right for elementary and high schools and so wrong for middle schools? . . .
In Kevin Thomas' column of May 14, he paints quite an emotional picture to describe his version of the concerns of parents with children in Dunloggin Middle School.
"Snooty and inflexible," "Resisting change for a generation now, ever since 1974" is only part of his description of Dunloggin parents. Sadly, he uniformly stereotypes a community in such a negative and derogatory fashion.
For a family who has lived in the area for only two years, such negative generalizations are disturbing. . . . Parents we have met have not differed significantly from parents in other locations.
There are universal concerns about the quality of education their children receive, the morale of their teachers, and a concern that teacher complaints and comments are heard and addressed by the school's administration.
Finally, parents in all locations have worked for even-handed discipline so schools are safe and orderly for all students.
Parents with children at Dunloggin Middle School are currently struggling with some, if not all, of these issues. The particular problems Dunloggin is facing have been worsened . . . by the poor dialogue between our school administration and teachers and by the poor communication between the administration and parents. Problems are not resolved by transferring teachers because they have a different point of view, nor are questions and concerns addressed when an administration is reluctant to meet with its parents.
Mr. Thomas did a disservice to the community in his emotional and inflammatory column. His rhetoric served to inflame, not inform the reader. We are disappointed that the editorial staff of The Sun allowed such a negative column to go to print.
!Sharon and Pete Markey
Kevin Thomas' rather emotionally charged column of May 14 is in desperate need of balance from the parental perspective. Although my children are not yet at Dunloggin Middle, in a few short years they will be.
Mr. Thomas made several inaccurate observations, but he was correct in stating that Dunloggin Middle has not accepted wholeheartedly the "middle school concept," which among other instructional strategies includes heterogeneous grouping and cooperative learning and philosophies such as the General Studies program and the integration of "life skills" with academic skills.
Rather, Dunloggin has steadfastly remained committed to the option of traditional methods such as homogenous grouping and to academic achievement as the major focus of school instruction. By not going along with all of the countywide programs embodied in the "middle school concept," the teachers and students of Dunloggin stood out. As a result, Dunloggin was derisively dubbed the "Academy" by some administrators of this county. What we had was a neighborhood school that tried to be responsive to the neighborhood and not only to the central office of the Howard County Department of Education.
Parents of children at this school, according to Mr. Thomas, are ++ "well-connected and affluent" and have worked with the teachers to keep Dunloggin a top-notch school. Is Mr. Thomas suggesting that economic well-being is fueling parental involvement? If a school is working and providing an exemplary education for kids, isn't it a parent's job to make sure that excellence is maintained?
Mr. Thomas would have us believe that parents are fighting against changes like the "middle school concept" solely to keep the "status quo," when, in fact, a more likely reason might be that parents and teachers have resisted the "middle school concept" because there are flaws with it. Change for change's sake is not always the best course.
The specific issue here was the possible involuntary transfer of a math teacher [after] 17 years at the neighborhood school. It is department policy not to comment about personnel issues such as teacher transfers. Nevertheless, according to Mr. Thomas, this particular teacher was transferred because she is "not a team player and is openly defiant of authority." I'd like to know where he gets his information.
Mr. Thomas cannot understand why the possible transfer of a single teacher has caused such an uproar. I think he does not see this problem for what it is. Even though Mr. Thomas writes that "Dunloggin's staff has been near legendary in these parts in its insistence that it knows best how to run the school," he fails to connect this point to a broader-based motivation behind the reforms at Dunloggin.
He suggests that parents have been partners with the teachers in keeping the Howard County Department of Education administration at bay but misses the significance of this observation. What happened? Why now is the central administration forcing Dunloggin to change? My guess is that Principal Jesse Scharff is simply the unfortunate agent of change placed there by a central office worried that unless Dunloggin applies the "middle school concept" and similar reforms to its program, it will not conform to the now state-mandated standards.
I think the real issue here is control. How much legitimate control do the teachers and parents have over the program at their local school? When there is a disagreement over school policy . . . how is the disagreement resolved? . . . If a teacher finds fault with a mandated program or instructional style, what does she or he do? If the community wants a traditional school program but the central office says "no," who wins?
Mr. Thomas writes that the principal has been making decisions to strengthen the school, that he is an "officer of the school system." I must applaud Mr. Thomas on his metaphor. This principal is an officer, and as an officer he has made decisions to satisfy his superiors at the central office. But have they been good decisions for the education of the students in his charge? . . .
Those who know more about the day-to-day life of the children in
Dunloggin Middle are parents and teachers, and they have sounded an alarm. It is an alarm that rings out the question: Isn't the local school a shared responsibility of the neighborhoods and the central office of the Howard County Department of Education?
Dunloggin's Teachers, Parents
In the past, Kevin Thomas has written articles on education that have been well-researched, factual and balanced, but "The Academy Has Accident At Last," was not one of them.
Dunloggin Middle School parents have been testifying at the Board of Education's "listening post" for the past few weeks, pleading with the board and Dr. Michael Hickey to remove the principal for what they detailed as "incompetence" in running the school and interacting with students, staff and parents.
In response, Dr. Hickey asked his associate superintendent to interview the Dunloggin staff related to the conduct of the principal. Meetings have been held between the parents and the central administration concerning alleged problems at the school involving the behavior of the principal.
Yet, Kevin Thomas, in his analysis of the problems at Dunloggin blamed -- you guessed it -- parents and teachers.
The teachers at Dunloggin Middle School are among the best in the county. Don't criticize parents and teachers who demand high standards, support them!
Don't belittle parents and teachers who expect discipline to be administered in the school, applaud them! "Positive reinforcement" and other student reward incentives for good behavior are important, but they are not a substitute for discipline, order and respect. . . .
James R. Swab
The writer is president of the Howard County Education
I have no children in any Howard County school . . . nor do I have any affiliation with the Dunloggin Middle School PTA. However, I was shocked and dismayed at the position taken by editorial writer Kevin Thomas in his critical column concerning parental involvement in the education of their youth at Dunloggin Middle School in the May 14th Sun for Howard County, and even more dismayed at the authors of the letters published in the May 22 edition applauding Mr. Thomas' position. . . .
In his invective, two major errors in judgment stand out.
First, he seems rather shocked that parents feel they have a right to voice what they want from the educators of their youth. It seems Mr. Thomas forgets, as the Department of Education often does, that educators too are public servants who are paid by these parents and other citizens like myself to run a school system that serves the parents and the community -- not the educators. . . .
Secondly, I found his sermon on current school philosophy regarding discipline equally inane. Recently, I addressed the Howard County Council at the annual county budget hearings. I spoke in an effort to protect the police budget from being the victim of cuts in order to find funds for the school system. At this time, I criticized our county educational system for allowing lawlessness and total disregard for private property to grow on a staggering scale. I noted that violence is almost uncontrolled and unpunished in some of our schools. I quoted data from county records showing. . . that juvenile delinquency has increased almost 100 percent in the last four years. . . .
Mr. Thomas and apparently many in our educational system feel that the parents have all the responsibility to instill discipline at home, but no right to demand the same discipline from the schools where their child spends an equal amount of his/her waking hours.
While Mr. Thomas quotes the same old party line about the middle school concept of discipline that "emphasizes positive behavior" rather than punishment, the crime statistics are standing testimony to the fact that something obviously isn't working. Isn't it just possible that the parents of the Dunloggin Middle School PTA have the right idea when it comes to making and keeping a school "at the top of the ranks?"
William G. Volenick
I am writing in response to the letter of Doris Green Walker, Esq. (May 14), concerning the fairness of the judicial selection process in Howard County.
Fifteen lawyers applied for the pending judicial vacancy in the Howard County Circuit Court. Of that number, six were recommended to the governor by the Howard County Judicial Nominating Commission, myself included. The nominating commission is made up of lawyers and non-lawyers, men and women, African-Americans and whites. That group met with all of the applicants, reviewed a lengthy application and writing sample submitted by each and received input from many groups and individuals prior to making its recommendations.
Prior to meeting with the nominating commission, the applicants went through a process of evaluation by many different groups. Those groups represent many different interests. The Waring-Mitchell Law Society, which represents the interests of the African-American lawyers of Howard County, conducted an evaluation process and made recommendations. The Women's Bar Association, which represents the interests of women lawyers in Maryland, conducted an evaluation process and made recommendations. The Maryland State Bar Association, which is the formal organization of lawyers throughout the state, conducted an evaluation process and made recommendations. . .
The Howard County Bar Association, of which I am . . . president, also conducted an evaluation process and made recommendations. The process involved a committee of association members meeting with each applicant who wished to be interviewed and reviewing his or her application and writing sample.
That committee included African-American and white lawyers, men and women. That committee voted on the qualifications of each candidate. The result of the committee's deliberation was made known to the entire membership of the association during the referendum meeting in which all members were entitled to vote on the qualifications of each applicant. Additionally, each applicant had the opportunity to send information to every member of the association prior to the referendum, and candidates could disseminate information about themselves at the referendum meeting. . . .
The referendum of the Howard County Bar Association was fair. As with any democratic process, the results may not satisfy every individual or every group. However, the association's
referendum was but one of the many sources of information available to the nominating commission in making its selections. Groups with many interests were a part of that process. . . . Not being a member of the commission, I cannot speak to the weight given by the commission to any of these sources of information. But speaking on behalf of the Howard County Bar Association, I can say that our process was fair.
Louis P. Willemin
No Student Impact?
In the recent battle over the Board of Education's capital budget, the county executive was quoted in defense of his ordering the board to increase the capacity of high schools to 1,600 pupils, as saying, "Building larger schools will not affect the educational program one iota."
Increasing the capacity of Howard County high schools to 1,600 to avoid building another high school will, in reality, create schools of 1,900 or more students. The Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance has a built-in tolerance of a 20 percent overcapacity.
We have already seen this effect in elementary schools. That effect will move on to the high schools. A student body of 1,600 to 2,000 will indeed create fundamental change to the high schools in Howard County. It will have an effect on course offerings and schedules. There will be dramatic changes in some things. Because of our smaller schools, Howard County has always prided itself on the numbers of students who take part in athletics and in vocal and instrumental music competitions. In the extracurricular program, there will be fewer participation opportunities available to kids -- whether it is on the soccer team or in the jazz band or in the school play-- as a "star" system evolves. Scholarship opportunities will be reduced as fewer kids get a chance to showcase their talents.
Can a high school principal know the names of 1,600 to 1,900 individual students? They can barely manage that feat with 1,200 to 1,400 students. Without structural staffing changes, the already present opportunities for anonymous kids to fall through the cracks will increase. The safety issues of large urban schools, violence and truancy will be an increasing reality.
I find it difficult to believe that these are the kinds of changes that parents want for their children's schools. It is perplexing that this proposal should be forced on the school system at a time when some Howard County parents (and politicians) are voicing both their concern with large, impersonal education factories and their interest in vouchers which would allow them to send their children to small private schools with small classes. . . .
In New York, such diverse groups as the conservative think tank Center for Educational Innovation at the Manhattan Institute and the Alliance of Community Organizations for Reform Now, an advocacy group for low-and moderate-income people, have joined a reform effort aimed at creating small, personal learning communities in collaboration with parents and the community. For these reformers, smaller is better. . . .
Perhaps in Howard County these proposed changes can be met with a similar restructuring of the high school and its staff, e.g. schools-within-schools, academies with their own headmasters, additional support for students such as pupil personnel workers. I say, "perhaps," because these are additional costs and these are years of retrenchment. I seriously doubt that the current County Council will look favorably on funding major innovations to the high schools.
But to say that these changes will not affect students "one iota," for good or for ill, is mistaken at best and disingenuous at worst. It will. . . .
Deborah D. Kendig
The writer is a former member and chairwoman of the Howard County Board of Education.