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Parents want focus schools to shake low scores, stigma; They ask officials to do more to help improve performance

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Recent discussion among school, community and political leaders about inequities between older and newer county schools calls attention to the struggles of so-called focus schools and their advocates' demands for more attention from the Howard County Board of Education.

Some parents and students at the schools, which are mainly in Columbia, say the board needs to do more to help principals not only bring up standardized test scores but also shake a stigma.

"I think we've been identified as a certain way and [School Superintendent Michael E.] Hickey continues to say that it's not derogatory or a pejorative, but it comes out that way," said Michelle Williams, PTA first vice president at Jeffers Hill Elementary School in Columbia. "When people move here and choose where to live, it does make a difference. We do have a negative image."

Focus schools generally are identified as those with the poorest scores in Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests. The county has 14 focus schools, and 10 are in Columbia. Nine are elementary schools and four are middle schools. Wilde Lake is the only county high school designated a focus school.

Beginning in the 1994-1995 school year, focus schools were entitled to extra resources, including extended-day kindergarten, a full-time guidance counselor, two additional teaching positions, an alternative program for disruptive youths, an intense and costly Reading Recovery program and a preschool program for at-risk children.

Since the program's inception, some schools have improved test scores and been dropped from the list. Others have been added. Wilde Lake High Principal Roger Plunkett said his school is on its way to shedding the focus school label because of improvements made over the past couple of years.

But not all focus schools are doing as well, and some parents and students think the school district is partly to blame.

"At Guilford Elementary, it feels like the parents and teachers and community churches are doing more to further the education of our future leaders than the school board," PTA President Kari Ebeling said at a County Council meeting this month.

'Lack of consistency'

Not all focus schools have the same programs and resources. And they're not all implemented the same way. That's one of the problems, said Margaret Hunt, PTA president at Jeffers Hill Elementary.

"There's some lack of consistency about how focus schools are treated," Hunt said.

Jeffers Hill, for example, does not have a preschool program for at-risk children or an alternative program for disruptive youth. Guilford Elementary has Reading Recovery for first-graders, but the program's teachers have to hold class in a closet off the school's media center, Ebeling said.

Pupils at Owen Brown Middle have complained that their school is lacking the most basic resources, such as adequate audiovisual equipment and computers with Internet access.

"Our media center lacks sufficient books. Our library is currently understocked by 5,000 books," said Shayla Adams, 13, an eighth-grader at Owen Brown. "How are we supposed to further our education if we don't have the right tools?"

Hunt of Jeffers Hill said, "You've given us this label, you want us to turn around our scores. But then you throw these impediments in our way."

Patience urged

Hickey said the perception that the district isn't keeping up its end is untrue.

"I feel like they're getting a tremendous amount of attention and a tremendous amount of resources," Hickey said. "They've been getting a major part of our budget increases each year."

If there's a stigma, Hickey said, it comes from low test scores, not from the label of focus school.

"You can call it a petunia if you wanted to," Hickey said. "It has the stigma because anyone who can read can see the standardized test scores."

Hickey said parents need to show patience.

"It's difficult to show progress right away, although some focus schools have shown progress," he said.

'It was an opportunity'

Plunkett said being designated a focus school helped turn Wilde Lake around.

"I felt it was an opportunity to get needed resources, and I think we had to look at it that way," Plunkett said.

Plunkett used the added positions to reduce class sizes in math and also to add a much-needed social worker.

"That helped tremendously," he said. "She helps me do a lot of community outreach. Because to reach parents in some of these communities, you have to invite them to become involved."

Williams said more is needed to reach elementary school pupils, especially the youngest ones.

School system figures show a sharp drop in white enrollment in some older Columbia elementary schools over the past decade, as the number of African-American students has grown. This change -- in sharp contrast to increasing white enrollment outside Columbia -- has concentrated nearly half the county's black students in Columbia schools, which also have higher numbers of children from lower-income and immigrant families. Many of those schools are focus schools.

"There should be an organized program, a base to begin with that all the schools have," Williams said. "They should all have all-day kindergarten and they should have a before-school program for at-risk students."

Jeffers Hill Principal Steve Zagami said his school doesn't have the preschool program for at-risk children because funding ran out.

Hickey said insufficient funding often prevents full implementation of some focus school programs. But he said all focus schools have the two additional teaching positions and a full-time guidance counselor.

The board does not tell principals how to use the extra resources, Hickey said, which may contribute to the appearance of inconsistency.

At Jeffers Hill, Zagami said, there is no alternative program for disruptive youths because he, his staff and his school improvement team made changes in the school's discipline policies, which significantly cut disruption.

"We respect the judgment of those principals," Hickey said. Hickey said principals of Columbia focus schools asked for more flexibility when they met with him last week.

Seeking solutions

Hickey acknowledged that more needs to be done. Despite a five-year emphasis on the focus schools, test scores have risen in small increments, and parents, teachers and administrators are becoming frustrated.

Hickey has proposed one solution for the next school year. New principals would be appointed for focus schools, and they would have the opportunity to pick their staff. He has also proposed appointing a second assistant principal for middle schools and extending the school day and academic year for selected students.

At last week's meeting with principals, other ideas were proposed, such as having a longer school day and school year for teachers, and making the assistant principal a year-round position.

Hickey, the school board and the County Council also announced Thursday the creation of a 23-member Leadership Committee on School Equity that will make recommendations on how to fix problems in older county schools, including focus schools.

Against redistricting

If she were asked to serve, Williams said she'd make it a point to discourage talk of redistricting students into Columbia's focus schools. The schools are struggling to catch up with the students they have, she said.

"If we are unable to produce satisfactory MSPAP scores for our current student population, how can we yet further be expected to take on an increased population and successfully educate them?" Williams said.

Focus schools

ELEMENTARY

Dasher Green, Columbia

Elkridge, Elkridge

Guilford, Columbia

Jeffers Hill, Columbia

Laurel Woods, North Laurel

Phelps Luck, Columbia

Running Brook, Columbia

Swansfield, Columbia

Talbott Springs, Columbia

MIDDLE

Owen Brown, Columbia

Wilde Lake, Columbia

Mayfield Woods, Elkridge

Patuxent Valley. Jessup

HIGH

Wilde Lake, Columbia

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