School plan's future a concern


Thus far, the Howard County Board of Education's only criterion for its next superintendent is a commitment to the school system's 2-year-old education blueprint that seeks to close academic achievement gaps among poor and minority students.

But many in the community fear that no one can implement the plan as well as its author: ousted Superintendent John R. O'Rourke, who will leave at the end of the month.

"[The board has] undercut everything many of us have been working for, that's exactly what they've done," said Ken Jennings, a vice president with the African American Coalition of Howard County, who denounced the board's decision not to renew O'Rourke's contract when it expires June 30.

While Howard County continues to outscore other districts in assessment tests, some groups still lag behind, and the plan was largely designed to help them. The plan promises to have 70 percent of students meeting state standards in reading and math by next year and have 70 percent of all student groups -- broken into racial, economic, English-speaking ability and special education categories -- meet the standards by 2007.

"O'Rourke is the first person who has come in here and established a comprehensive system for addressing this," Jennings said.

Over the past two years, O'Rourke's plan has become something of a symbol in the county, representing an academic embrace of every student regardless of race, economic status, or country of origin.

Representatives of minority groups, special education advisers and non-native English speakers have stepped forward since the board's decision to praise the plan and its components -- community outreach, program expansion, ambitious goals -- and stress the importance of its continuation.

It is what O'Rourke did, and the possibility of losing those kinds of actions, that has some worried.

"He attended most of our events," said Simon Murray, president of the Howard County Hispanic organization, Conexiones. O'Rourke celebrated diversity, said Eric Huang, a member of the school system's Equity Council. The superintendent was willing to learn, said Colette Roberts, chairwoman of a gay-rights organization.

But in refusing to renew O'Rourke's contract, the school board said the superintendent's collaboration and communication were lacking, and many have agreed, lauding the decision to look for a replacement. Letters of praise have poured in to school board headquarters.

Some say that praise occasionally comes from people opposed to the education blueprint.

"The establishment of the comprehensive plan as a blueprint for improvement has been accepted by most people. It was the implementation of the plan that generated opposition," said Natalie Woodson, education committee chairwoman for the Howard County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Putting the plan into action meant giving extra resources to lower-performing schools, which caused some resentment, and adjusting assessment processes, which led to more work for staff.

"Therein lies the problem," Woodson told the school board this month.

Joe Staub, president of the Howard County Education Association, said teachers have always embraced the plan.

"Even in the discussion about workload concerns, it's been very clear across the system that teachers are committed to the goals of eliminating the achievement gaps," Staub said. "What's going on in the classroom has gone on despite all these issues and allegations of controversy."

But in an interview last week, O'Rourke suggested that the climate, at least at the top, has changed.

"There's no mystery" to the plan, he said. "It all begins with asking questions." And he is famous for three, which he used to design his plan: What do we want for our children? How might we provide it? How will we know that we've done it well?

"I have to interpret the operational questions today as opposed to the ones I came in with and have been asking right up until January," O'Rourke said.

And though board promises imply otherwise, there is still -- for many -- cause for concern.

"Because who knows?" asked Debbie Espitia, coordinator of a county program that teaches English to foreign-born students. "We don't know who this next superintendent will be and what direction they will take. I have to have confidence that we have people on the board who will make a good decision."

The next superintendent will have a rough road to navigate. The state's top-ranked school system has been rocked by scandal recently, leaving officials fielding allegations of corruption, lawbreaking and racism. Resources are lacking, funding is minimal and adequate space for the growing number of students is scarce.

Add to that the prerequisite that the new superintendent espouse a program that he or she did not create.

Sydney L. Cousin, a former 16-year Howard County employee who also had a hand in developing the improvement plan, has been named interim superintendent until a replacement is found. But that is small comfort to people such as Jennings, who questions the temporary nature of the appointment and what he sees as opposition to raising the success level of certain students.

"Sydney is great, Sydney is a good choice," Jennings said. "But the point is you've got to work the plan. If [Cousin] gets the kind of resistance that John got, we still got a problem."

The school board has said repeatedly that it is committed to the plan, as evidenced by its criterion, which will be added to others gleaned from the community, education staff and students during the superintendent search.

"The main goal is to not lose the momentum of the comprehensive plan for student achievement," said Courtney Watson, chairman of the school board. "That's our main academic goal."

But Jennings still said he is skeptical.

"Words are nice," he said. "But it's what you do that counts."

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