Battling schools' negative image; Area leaders worry reputation will hurt property values

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Shellie Seyer, a Long and Foster real estate agent, had almost closed the deal -- the house in Disney Estates was perfect for the young couple who were expecting their first child. There was only one glitch -- the less than stellar reputation of the local schools.

The $225,000 house was in the Meade High School feeder system, a network of 12 schools in the western part of the county that has, over the years, developed a reputation for low academic performance and disruptive students, some of whom live in poverty.

At the high school on the grounds of Fort Meade, a brawl a few years ago, the death of a student over a pair of tennis shoes and what was seen as a racially motivated protest earned it a violent reputation.

"[The couple] worried about the image of the neighborhood, the school system and the resale value of the house," Seyer said. "They liked the house a lot, but after talking to their family, they decided to buy a house in Howard County instead."

It was a familiar snag for Seyer, who has been selling houses in the county for 13 years.

"The attitude is, 'Oh, those military kids,' " she said. They believe it's a transient area, and the parents there are not concerned about their children, she said.

This negative image has prompted business leaders, parents and educators to launch a public relations campaign meant to smooth the schools' rough edges and show residents, prospective home buyers and business owners that the schools, especially Meade High School, are not bad and are committed to improving.

It is an image makeover of sorts that will start with a community forum at 7 p.m. Oct. 4 at the high school. It is being sponsored by the West Anne Arundel County Chamber of Commerce, whose members worry the school system's reputation will harm property values and businesses. "If people already have a preconceived notion about what the area is like, they won't want to live here," said Joseph L. Bracone, a chamber member and senior vice president of Citizens National Bank in Laurel.

Business owners gauge the quality of a local school system, he said, to determine the quality of the work force. Like prospective home buyers, they use standardized test scores to measure success and grade the quality of neighborhood schools.

"If the test scores are truly a reflection of the quality of education and those scores were low," Bracone said, "then it would be natural to assume that the quality of the employees is not as good as it should be."

Representatives from the schools will attend the two-hour forum at Meade High School. Parents, teachers and principals will be panelists in discussions about school safety issues, academic programs and student achievement.

"People say they don't want to live in the area because the schools are lousy," said Dick Kolasheski, chairman of the chamber's Economic Development Committee. "We are trying to be a catalyst for change in the school system and give them an opportunity to show off the good things they are doing as well as encourage businesses to get involved with the schools."

Brightening the school system's image is going to be an uphill battle. Test scores are lower at the Meade area schools compared with others in the county. Meade High School draws a quarter of its students from military families and has one of the highest transience rates in the county school system. Last year, 231 students transferred into Meade, while 262 transferred out, according to school records.

About 18 percent of the 1,800 students at Meade High School qualify for free or reduced-price lunches -- a measure of poverty in the area.

Ten years ago, the body of a ninth-grader was found about 200 yards from the school. He had been strangled, apparently in a dispute over his $115 tennis shoes, police said.

In 1992, police were called to the school when nearly 100 students refused to leave after Los Angeles police officers were acquitted in the Rodney King beating.

And although police insist that a brawl five years ago that left a librarian, a teacher and five students hospitalized was not racially motivated, many were left with the impression that the fight stemmed from a racial issue.

These attention-grabbing events, combined with other less serious discipline problems, have led some teachers to leave the school, sometimes after only a year. Although most high schools receive fewer than 20 new teachers every year, 34 of the 110 teachers at the school are new this year. About 10 percent of them are teachers whose first classroom experience on their own will be at Meade.

Mark Papier, a former history teacher at the school, said he left last year after spending one semester there. He said he was one of 40 new teachers at Meade when school began August 1998.

"It was the worst teaching experience I have ever had," said the educator, who now teaches at a Frederick high school. "It's an old building that is not conducive to a good educational experience."

He described the almost daily food fights in the cafeteria, and an instance when students ran screaming up and down hallways after being kept outside too long during a bomb scare. Students were often heard using foul language, and teachers were asked to be bouncers during lunch and to form a perimeter around the cafeteria to stop any uprisings.

"When I had students falling asleep in class, I would send them to the office only to be told that they had kids in handcuffs, and they did not have time to deal with sleeping students," he said.

At the elementary school level, the state has threatened to take over Van Bokkelen Elementary School because of low academic performance. That school on Reese Road draws some of the poorest students in the county, many of whom live in a public housing project known for drug trafficking and crime.

Still, Seyer and others say, the school system's reputation is undeserved. A year after the fight, more than 950 students signed a pledge to keep peace and order in the school. And 26 students were trained as peer mediators to help settle disputes before they get out of control. Two student members of the county Board of Education were from Meade High School and more than half of the graduates attend college -- some at Harvard, Yale and the Naval Academy.

The number of students at Van Bokkelen with satisfactory scores on standardized tests has jumped 50 percent since the school has been under the threat of reconstitution, earning an award from the state Department of Education as well as $33,430 to be used on materials to improve education at the school.

So the problems, educators and business leaders say, at Meade High School as well as other schools in the Meade feeder system, are no different from the ones found in schools in other sections of Anne Arundel County.

"My daughter goes to Severna Park Middle School, and there are always bomb threats there," Seyer said. "So it's a totally unfair reputation that the Meade system gets."

Meade High School's new principal, Joan Valentine, has said she is determined to improve academic performance and make the school safer.

Peter Nicolini, area supervisor for the Meade feeder system, said he was "surprised and perplexed" by the system's reputation when he took the job in July. He said he has spent time at the high school and has never seen the disruptive behavior Papier described. He and his staff are conducting a complete review of the instructional program to determine what needs to be changed to better suit the transient population in the entire feeder system.

"The mobility of the population, that is something that is really hard to get a handle on," he said. "Ninety percent of the students in some of the elementary schools did not go through all six years at the same elementary school. Many of the students spent maybe two years in the feeder system, so we don't know what instructional level they are at when they arrive at the school."

Bracone, who is a 1965 graduate of Severna Park High School and has lived most of his life in Anne Arundel, said the high school did not always have a violent reputation. But the killing, the fight and the protest have left lasting impressions.

"These incidents carry through even though they are ancient history," he said. "Kids go home and put their spin on it and perceptions become reality."

Pub Date: 9/26/99

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