Howard County's new committee on school equity met for the first time yesterday to try to break down the problem before them: why some schools have lagging student performance, older or inferior resources and poor images in the community.
But the problem seemed larger as the members of the Leadership Committee on School Equity identified 45 issues -- all education-related but not necessarily about school equity.
The 24 committee members agreed at the close of the two-hour meeting that their first goal should be to focus their efforts.
"I think that there are so many issues that need to be addressed, that one of the things the committee's going to have to do is prioritize," said member Mary Kay Sigaty, a parent and former teacher. "I think the time frame we have will limit what we can do effectively."
Among the issues committee members said they would like to tackle: The population dynamics in the county, including transience of students;
Disparities in student test scores;
Factors influencing concentrations of county poverty;
Training substitute teachers;
Physical resources and human resources;
Course offerings and placement of students in courses;
Shortages of teachers and principals;
How to evaluate schools, the school system, parents and children;
Staffing formulas for students with special needs;
How to get parents involved;
How to serve children not going to college;
Balancing school funding in times of rapid growth;
Having schools share resources.
Panel to seek answers
The committee was created by County Executive James N. Robey and Superintendent Michael E. Hickey to find answers to public concerns about inequities among the county's older and newer schools. Many of the county's older schools are struggling to raise student test scores.
The group also is charged with finding why some older county schools have lost large numbers of white students, leaving them with concentrations of minority students, and with higher numbers of children from poor families than newer schools.
The committee -- representing a cross-section of community, school and business leadership -- will present findings and recommendations to the school board and county officials by March 1.
At the group's next meeting Dec. 9, co-chairs Mary Ellen Duncan and William Benton will help divide the committee into three to five issue-oriented subcommittees. "So we will have to have some focus; do some sifting," said Duncan, president of Howard Community College. Duncan said committee members would be expected to research and read extensively.
Equity vs. equality
Hickey said he hoped the members understood the difference between equity and equality and that their work would help the community understand that.
"It simply is not possible to treat everybody the same," Hickey said.
Rather, Hickey said, he would like the committee to assess the district's standards and determine if they are being applied "in an equitable manner across the school system."
"If the standards are no longer appropriate; if they're too low; if they need to be changed in some way, we need to know that," Hickey said.
Robey cautioned the committee not to fall prey to rumors that surround school district issues, even as members solicit input from their communities and peers.
"We cannot make decisions based upon perceptions, feelings of inadequacies, rumors, etc." Robey said.
"You're here to take a good look at the Howard County school system and tell us what's right and what's wrong with it."
The committee's job, he said, is "to deal with all the perceptions and, hopefully, make them go away, and, more importantly, to make the best school district in the state even better."
"Ultimately, we're concerned about the academic success of students," said member Natalie Woodson, who chairs an education committee of the county chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "Anything we do would be geared to them being able to achieve. All these other things just factor into that."
Sun Staff writer Jamie Smith Hopkins contributed to this article.