Fighting the idea that new is better; Perception: While older schools often are saddled with inferior equipment and an inferior image, they offer tradition and familiarity.


Thunder Hill Elementary is the type of school that doesn't fit neatly into the emotional debate about differing perceptions of Howard County's public schools.

While some older Columbia schools have set off discussions about slipping standards and fleeing parents, 30-year-old Thunder Hill has flourished. Last year, 80 percent of the school's second-graders achieved at least a satisfactory score in reading on the Comprehensive Tests of Basic Skills -- well above the 70 percent countywide average for second-graders.

The computer rooms are small, paint is peeling, and much of the wooden 1960s furniture is scuffed and scratched. But staff members and parents at the school say the building's worn spots symbolize the time-honored teaching methods that make the school successful.

"With so many of our faculty being here over 25 years, the stability and consistency really make this school what it is," said Mike Rock, a gifted-and-talented program teacher who has been at Thunder Hill for 29 years.

But with the spotlight on school equity, some have complained that Columbia's older schools -- such as Thunder Hill -- are lagging in technology and equipment. Complicating the issue, many Columbia schools exist in ethnically and socioeconomically diverse neighborhoods, leading to concerns about a have and have-not structure built along income and racial lines.

School officials are aware that they must combat the popular notion that new schools are synonymous with state-of-the-art education. To keep the gap between old and new schools from becoming too wide, the school system employs a renovation schedule and a "technology equalization plan" to provide schools with up-to-date computers.

"It's not that they are being neglected, it's just that the schedule of renovations dictates when we have to schedule them," said Associate Superintendent Sydney Cousin. "You won't find areas of neglect in any of the schools in Howard County. If these things are pointed out to us, we take action to correct them."

Yet, people tend to look enviously at newer schools, their sparkling media centers, fresh-out-of-the-box computers and Internet-ready classrooms, and assume that older schools are being overlooked, school officials say.

But some critics say that is more than an assumption; it is the reality.

At last week's public hearing on the capital budget, Owen Brown Middle School teacher Ann DeLacy described such problems as a temperamental heating and air-conditioning system that forces students and staff to dress in layers, the lack of a computer specialist, and old textbooks. DeLacy also noted that none of the school's classrooms has Internet access, and many lack computers.

"The perception of disparity has a negative effect on staff and students," DeLacy said at the meeting.

Exodus from Wilde Lake

DeLacy said she is concerned that those perceptions could lead to an exodus of students similar to the much publicized departure of dozens of students from Wilde Lake Middle School to Lime Kiln Middle this year -- a move sought, and won, by parents dissatisfied with Wilde Lake Middle.

"The people who can afford to move out do move out," DeLacy said. "I'm just afraid that the same thing that happened to Wilde Lake [Middle] might happen to Owen Brown."

More complaints might be raised Monday, when County Council members are scheduled to hold a public meeting to discuss school equity. The Columbia Association also has weighed in, proposing to donate $100,000 to help some of the town's schools.

The equity question is hardly a new one to the school system. Rewind to the 1970s, a period of booming school construction in Columbia, then a fledgling community. "When I moved into the county in 1973, the Howard County schools were complaining that Columbia, the new city, was getting all the new stuff," said Karen B. Campbell, school board chairwoman. "Of course, we've come full circle."

Board member Sandra H. French, an Ellicott City resident who has lived in Howard County since 1971, remembers when "my entire community was up in arms at the Board of Education because all they were doing was pouring resources into the Columbia schools."

It makes sense to French that the school system is turning its attention to growth pockets in the western and northeastern parts of the county.

Baffling notion

Still, French acknowledges that she is baffled by the notion that new schools are better than older ones.

"People are always impressed by image, and all you have to do is put a fresh coat of paint on something, and wow, it looks great," said French. "But when it's time to send their kids to college, what comes to mind as the most prestigious? The older schools, the Ivies. Why don't they think this way in terms of our older schools in Howard County, that they have tradition behind them?"

"I think it's sort of a societal thing," Campbell said. "We are a society that values new as better, and as I told [County Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray], you can't make an old building new."

Larry Clabaugh, a professor of education at LaSalle University in Philadelphia, said many education studies provide ammunition for those parents who prefer new schools in affluent areas to older schools in poorer ones.

"Socioeconomic status is a fairly strong predictor of success in school," Clabaugh said. "So, when people evidence a desire to affiliate their children with people of higher socioeconomic status, it isn't surprising. Since schools began 6,000 years ago, they have been a way of either confirming status or conveying status. A lot of times, how the school is perceived is more important in these decisions than the reality."

But not everyone covets the cachet of a new school. Suzan Marcon's 13-year-old son spent his six primary school years at Thunder Hill, and her 9-year-old son is in the fourth grade. Marcon said she couldn't fathom attending a new, untested school, especially after her experience at Thunder Hill.

"When we moved in, we felt like we were already a part of something, rather than we were creating something," she said. "There are teachers at the school who have been there since the school opened. We have parents at the school who, they themselves, went to Thunder Hill. So there's a feeling of continuity. You walk in, and you instantly feel comfortable."

Wilde Lake Middle School Principal Brenda Thomas knows a little bit about old and new schools. She was the eighth-grade team leader at Elkridge Landing Middle School the year it opened, and she now heads one of Columbia's oldest institutions.

Being in a new school has its advantages, Thomas said, not the least of which is better access to the latest technology and a chance to shape traditions and policies.

"The downside of that is that you're working with a lot of new people that you've never worked with before, and you really don't have an established way of doing things," Thomas said. "So you spend a lot of time on process issues -- how things are going to be done. In an older school, you just kind of take that for granted."

An older school also has a culture and a sense of spirit that a new school must work to achieve, Thomas said. Conversely, an older school sometimes finds itself playing catch-up technologically, and the story is no different at Wilde Lake. The staff is busy writing grants and visiting colleges to acquire new computers and equipment, Thomas said.

"I don't know if one is any better than the other," Thomas said. "I think they're different experiences."

Pub Date: 10/14/99

A picture caption in yesterday's Howard County edition of The Sun incorrectly referred to Susan Grotz as a teacher at Thunder Hill Elementary School. She's a volunteer at the school.The Sun regrets the error.
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