School issues go beyond scores; Problems that burden families affect pupils

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Marguerite Harrison works each day to instill in her 10-year-old son, Earl, the importance of a good education.

After years of watching him struggle in the public schools of Prince William County, Va., she opted for a better way. Attracted to Howard County because of its schools' excellent reputation, Harrison and Earl moved in 1997 to the Seasons apartment complex in North Laurel, a block from Laurel Woods Elementary School.

"He's pretty much a B student now," Harrison said, proud of the fifth-grader's accomplishments. "I've pushed him to read more, and his teachers do a good job staying on top of him," she said. "I've seen a change in his demeanor."

Harrison and school officials hope the improvement in pupils like Earl will be reflected in May in the next round of Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests given to third- and fifth-graders. Laurel Woods ranked last among county elementary schools in 1998: Only 35 percent of its pupils were achieving satisfactorily.

While school officials have pledged renewed efforts to improve scores, some observers say it's unfair to blame the school for the effects of social problems that trouble many of Laurel Woods' families.

They highlight the rapid turnover of pupils as families relocate, pockets of poverty, single-parent households, immigrants struggling with the English language and a higher rate of crime than in many areas of Howard.

"When parents are working day in and day out to make ends meet, how can they find time to check their children's homework? How can they find time to make it to the PTA meeting, and how can they find time to encourage their children to read?" asked Elaine Warner, a child psychiatrist who counsels troubled youths in the area.

"When kids come to school having stayed up all night watching television, how can they be expected to perform? When they come to school hungry and sometimes abused, how can they learn? Teachers are charged now with raising our children. It's an incredible task," she said.

North Laurel, like much of Howard County, prides itself on being a diverse community, but some residents say race and class divisions are increasing. Some people say affluent white parents have removed their children from Laurel Woods and sent them instead to Forest Ridge and Gorman Crossing elementary schools.

Last year nearly 30 percent of Laurel Woods' 483 pupils received free or reduced-price lunches; many live in subsidized housing.

Tom Flynn, president of the North Laurel Civic Association, accuses the county of neglecting the area.

"North Laurel has a reputation throughout the county as being on the other side of the track. The southeast part of the county is really neglected at the expense of Columbia and the western part of the county," Flynn said.

It is in the rental neighborhoods in North Laurel, a mile from U.S. 1, where Howard County police have been working to rid the area of the drugs, crime and prostitution that surfaced almost a decade ago.

"You can buy any kind of drug you want in North Laurel," said Lt. Tim Branning of the Howard County vice and narcotics division. "Any given time -- day or night -- you can find people dealing drugs. You can pretty much find a buffet of anything you want."

In recent months, police increased patrols near the elementary school after receiving reports of drug activity nearby.

"One of the reasons why we try to kick some butt in this area is because there are a lot of good people who don't want the drugs," Branning said.

A few years ago, the situation was so bad at the Seasons apartments, where Harrison and her son live, that the management donated an apartment to police to set up a satellite office. Officers use the apartment to write reports, hear complaints and meet with concerned neighbors.

"The residents love having us here," said Officer Jody Maybush, who patrols the area. "They love having the police car in front of their homes, and they like knowing that they can come and talk to us."

Harvey Unger, 65, who has lived at Seasons for 24 years, said the police presence has helped alleviate drug dealing in the area. "Things have gotten better it really used to be out of hand," Unger said.

Less than a mile away from Seasons are expensive, single-family homes, some costing well over $200,000. Those areas are generally free of drug dealing, police say, and many of the parents in those homes send their children to Gorman Crossing or Forest Ridge.

Former state Del. John S. Morgan, who represented North Laurel in the General Assembly for eight years, said that the school district made a "big mistake when they decided to redistrict" last year and drew new boundaries determining which schools children would attend. Morgan said there is an "unequal distribution of kids" who attend Laurel Woods, and believes that the school needs to be more economically diverse.

While Morgan believes that the the school is well on its way to improving, he says the perception of the school by the outside community has to change as well.

"People don't want to buy a house in a school district if they don't think the school district is good," Morgan said.

Harrison is happy with the school.

She says scores alone cannot measure Earl's success, noting that he performed poorly last year on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills (CTBS), a standardized national exam for second-, fourth- and sixth-graders that serves as a precursor to the MSPAP test.

She monitors his progress in hopes that he will perform well on the MSPAP.

"Everyone at the school is so professional. I feel comfortable with Earl being there," she said. "I know that he is learning."

The support that the school offered to Harrison and Earl was particularly important because Harrison was facing challenges of her own. She was separating from her husband, Earl's father, and that was taking a toll on mother and son.

"Earl and I have been through a lot together," she said. "I'm proud of him because, through it all, he's pulled himself up by his bootstraps."

With the emphasis on test scores, Harrison reminds her son to persevere.

"There could've been a million reasons why Earl didn't do as well as he should've on that [CTBS] test," Harrison said. "Who knows? His allergies might have kicked in the day that he was taking the test -- there are a lot of factors."

In the end, she tells him what is most important is that "he tries his hardest and has good character," she said. "If he's a good person and works hard, that's really all that matters," she said.

"He'll be just fine."

Sun staff writer Erika D. Peterman contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 2/08/99

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