Minority task force makes gains, but questions arise; Achievement: A group created to help Balto. County's black students boost test scores faces uncertainty with a new superintendent and inquiries into its allocation of funds.


A task force set up by Anthony G. Marchione, superintendent of the Baltimore County schools, more than a year ago to help improve the math and reading scores of black students has made progress, but its future role is in doubt.

Members of the Minority Achievement Task Force, made up of residents and school administrators, say they have used $500,000 in county money to set up tutoring programs in math and reading at a number of elementary and middle schools. Money also has been used to tutor high school students in preparation for SAT exams.

Some community members are waiting to see exactly where the task force spent money and students' test scores before they celebrate. They argue that programs to help boost minority achievement should be expanded beyond tutoring.

LaWanda G. Burwell, the school system's assessment supervisor and chairwoman of the task force, said, "I do feel good about what was accomplished in the first year. It was an accomplishment just to get $500,000 targeted to this. It was an accomplishment to set up a quarterly reporting system."

About 700 elementary students at 20 schools participated in reading and math intervention programs this year under task force initiatives. Tenth- and 11th-graders were transported to the places where they took the PSAT, a precursor to the college-entrance SAT.

Test scores to measure the results of the math and reading tutorials have yet to be processed or reviewed. Residents, some of whom have attended task force meetings, doubt whether the group will be able to carry out Marchione's mandate unless there is a system-wide change in classroom attitudes and practices.

"If you aren't going to change the way you do things, you will end up doing things the same way," said Ella White Campbell, chairwoman of the county's African-American Advisory Committee, which has worked with school system officials to close the performance gap between white and black students.

A year ago, the group presented the school system with a list of recommendations on how to improve minority achievement. Instead of acting on those ideas, the task force developed new initiatives.

"People could never understand that," said Campbell, who is waiting to see how the $500,000 was spent. "We were saying, 'Wait, this is not what we proposed.' "

Inside and outside the school system, many are waiting for direction on what the task force should do next.

Marchione is to retire in about a month. His replacement, Joe Hairston, has hired a transition team to survey the school system and intends to study the management structure of the system. It's unclear what will happen to the Minority Achievement Task Force after the assessment.

Hairston is adamant that student achievement will be his top priority.

"The focus is on academic achievement across the board, and so the focus has to be on ensuring that all elements of the educational community are at the level where they are performing well," said Hairston. "If they are not, that's when you see the gap. If there's a weak link, then that's where the focus has to be."

Hairston said Friday that he plans to have a better handle on the needs of the school system by the end of the summer. By then, he will know better what to do next with the task force.

Some in the school system and in the black community have asked whether the committee's task force's work might be done better by the school system's Office of Minority Achievement and Multicultural Education, which was reorganized recently.

Many departments deal with aspects of minority achievement, but there is no clearinghouse for information or data.

The County Council recently approved $500,000 for task force activities in the 2000-2001 school year, and the group met to discuss initiatives. Those recommendations were presented to the superintendent's staff in February and were endorsed, said Burwell.

They include plans to develop strategies to reduce teacher turnover, provide pay incentives to teachers to work as tutors, reduce class sizes in schools with high minority enrollment, and expand a program that allows math teachers to get advanced mathematics certificates.

"No one would say that we're happy with where we are with minority achievement. There's still a lot to be done, and we'll do it with Dr. Hairston," said William Lawrence, a task force member and director of secondary schools for the northeast area.

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