A learning experience for lieutenant governor

THE BALTIMORE SUN

While they had the undivided attention of the state's second-highest elected official, nearly two dozen pupils at Manchester Elementary gave Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele an earful on a range of issues including late-day lunches, lack of access to the computer lab, and having to attend classes in portables.

As chairman of the 31-member Governor's Commission on Quality Education, Steele came to the school in northeastern Carroll County to hear from students, school officials and area residents about what is working - and not working - at the school.

"We want to make sure we are providing you with the best we can," Steele told the pupils. "I want to give all of you a chance to share with me your thoughts. ... I want to see your education through your eyes, how you see it."

Steele told the pupils it was important that he hear their opinions. Among other things, he wanted to know about the condition of their school, their books, and how they like their teachers.

His only ground rule for the discussion, he said, was that they be honest.

"Whatever you say won't get you sent to the principal's office," he promised.

He first asked them to tell him something nice about the school.

"We have a wonderful staff and a wonderful group of teachers," said second-grader Steven Priester, 7, of Manchester.

When Steele asked the group to define what makes a good teacher, they responded quickly.

"It's someone who will push you, but not push you too far," said fourth-grader Teddy Priester, 10, Steven's brother.

Several other pupils agreed: A good teacher is someone who will challenge you but make sure you're having fun while you're learning.

They said that learning games - such as a version of Jeopardy! used in one social studies class - are one way that teachers help make class time fun. Others mentioned the school's computer lab as a useful supplement to classroom instruction.

But Steven lamented that many pupils, including him, don't get to use the lab since the school lost its funding for the instructor who staffed it.

"Most classes don't have computer lab," he told the lieutenant governor.

The school's principal, Robert Mitchell, later said that when the school system introduced a health course to the curriculum - and a full-time health instructor at each school - money that Mitchell had used to hire a parent to run the computer lab was no longer available.

Some teachers, especially those in the upper grades, take their classes to the lab on a sign-up basis, Mitchell said. For example, some fifth-graders are learning how to make PowerPoint presentations.

But other pupils, such as Steven, are not taking classes that require use of the computer lab, Mitchell said.

Pupils also expressed concerns about late lunch periods. The first classes of the day begin at 8:45 a.m. One pupil - who said she finds it difficult to focus in her writing class just before her 1:05 p.m. lunchtime because she's hungry - suggested scheduling a snack time in the late morning, perhaps about 11 a.m.

Steele, who offered the grown-up's perspective of how difficult it is to rotate so many pupils in and out of the cafeteria, encouraged her to see the bright side of her predicament: Not long after lunch, she's heading home, because school ends at 3:15 p.m.

When the topic turned to portable classrooms, most of the pupils agreed they don't like them.

"When it rains, it's noisy" and hard to concentrate, one pupil said.

Manchester Elementary, which has nearly 800 students in kindergarten through fifth grade, has three portable buildings housing eight classrooms. Throughout the county, there are 199 portables being used to ease crowded conditions.

Steele offered his own disdain for what school officials politely call "relocatables."

"They're trailers," he said. "I don't think kids should be going to school in trailers. They should be in classrooms" in the building.

Steele said in an interview later that one of the commission's goals is to find out what school systems such as Carroll's are doing to maintain high academic performance despite obstacles.

"In some systems where there are problems, kids suffer. In other systems, there may be problems, but kids don't suffer," he said. "What are they doing in schools where they are challenged by classroom sizes, and yet those kids still perform well?"

In addition to his meeting with the pupils, the lieutenant governor - along with a contingent that included Del. Tanya Thornton Shewell and Superintendent Charles I. Ecker - toured the school building and met with community leaders, parents and teachers in a session closed to the media.

Steele plans to visit at least one school in each of the state's 24 districts by May.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. signed an executive order in September creating the commission to examine four main areas: teacher and principal accountability and growth, schools and community linkages, best practices in education, and school readiness and early childhood programs. The commission is expected to deliver its report to the governor by Sept. 1.

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