Listening closely in Howard County


REVISIONS WILL be made soon to the school board's formal process of receiving complaints, criticisms, kvetches, catcalls and the occasional "hurrah!"

The board does listen, of course, but the trappings obscure its effort.

The board sits somewhat officiously in front of the people. The chairs of the members are several feet higher than the chairs of the people, who must stand in line like supplicants to offer their views. Controls are necessary, to be sure. The board sits on and on, soldiering toward midnight.

But a somewhat dispiriting reality must be recognized: Public servants offer themselves up for abuse. It's part of the territory. Abuse is usually not the objective, but it occurs and cannot be avoided without damage to the public discourse.

The need to vent raw emotion may never be entirely met, but the volume and frequency can be moderated if the board responds -- as it is responding, finally -- to the criticism that it has grown a bit remote.

Is it possible the answer is simple? Make sure comments are handled quickly. And no canned, saccharine sweetness, please. No patronizing. No dissembling.

And put a jargon filter on every utterance. The commentator may not speak education.

The board and its staff have the capacity to address this issue -- to demand of and for itself serious reform. In a sense, it needs to show how much listening it's already doing.

One can assert some confidence based on last Thursday's meeting during which the board declared itself pleased school department officials who provide "alternative" schooling for students who are suspended for their classroom crimes and misdemeanors.

Particularly telling was a discussion of sanctions: nothing corporal, of course. Suspension seemed the punishment of choice for serious infractions, one that can lead the student into a set of evening classes established two years ago. Turns out some kids blossom there. Grade point averages go up. Attendance goes up. Acting out goes down.

"Smaller class sizes," murmured one board member.

It's all a bit new so, conclusions were properly hedged.

But one of the program's findings: Not every kid responds to punishment. Some would rather do (figurative) pushups than repent and reform. It's probably called adolescence or growing up or testing or maturing or defiance or fill in the blank.

Board members smiled. One in every family, one of them said.

These, said the administrator, are children with a talent and taste for "challenging behaviors." At the same time, he said, "Our knowledge base is growing." The program attempts to teach teachers various "competencies," he said. Often this is done in "small-structure settings."

Apparently, he and his staff are learning more about what to do with kids who behave badly.

The board liked his report. But worried about part of it. Some elementary school kids present challenges which can't be met in the "home-based" school and may need attention in special, regional centers. They and their mentors would get a brief respite.

In this way, teachers will have better luck when they actually try to teach. A single kid, said one board member, can definitely disrupt an entire class, shattering what the alternatives director called "the instructional piece." No decisions have been made about the elementary piece, he said, but more needs to be done to facilitate a miscreant's "replacement behaviors."

At about this point, the board's chair, Sandra French, began thinking about a broad-scale listening post known as the newspaper. When parents and others read the school department is thinking about regional centers for encouraging "replacement behaviors" in little kids, the phones will signal a new charge of the parental light brigade.

"It bothers me that we're not able to deal with an elementary school child in elementary school," she said. Had the alternatives man run his ideas past parents and others?

"We have not approached this with anything but caution," he said. But, no, he had not held community meetings. Not yet. Only 10 or 15 kids out of the system's thousands would require this sort of special attention, he said.

Another administrator cautioned the board later to recognize that sometimes special centers and special classes end up looking like "holding pens for African-American, low-income students." The board had been worrying about that very prospect earlier in the evening.

So plenty of listening and hearing and worrying goes on. A little better way of showing it would help everyone. The best news: Kids usually don't have to repeat their stints in the evening class. And, the alternative system's population seems to be dropping.

"This is one program I don't mind seeing the numbers dwindle on," one board member said.

C. Fraser Smith writes editorials for The Sun from Howard County.

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