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Schools get mixed reviews in survey


Seventh- and 11th-graders in Anne Arundel County say they feel less safe than did students in those grades last year, but more parents say the schools are communicating their policies well, according to an annual survey conducted by the school district.

The school system uses the questions about the perception of school safety and communication to measure progress on goals to create a safe learning environment and establish community partnerships, which they hope to meet by June 2007. Staff will analyze the data, released Wednesday, to identify problems and ways to improve, said Superintendent Eric J. Smith.

"We're going to certainly look for places where we're showing the progress we want and ... places we want to have growth," he said.

More than 80 percent of the 16,904 fifth-, seventh- and 11th-graders who were surveyed responded online in April, as did more than half of the 8,533 school employees and about a third of the 1,239 district headquarters staff. Only 38 percent of parents of fifth-, seventh- and 11th-graders, who were given paper surveys, filled out and returned them.

The survey, the second during Smith's tenure, was conducted by an independent research firm and paid for by the 21st Century Foundation, a nonprofit education organization that supports the school system.

Among those responding, more than 70 percent of students, their parents and all staff members were satisfied with the school system, it found. More than half of parents were happy with the school board and Smith, a slight increase from last year. Almost a third of school employees and about half of headquarters staff also indicated more support for the superintendent.

When asked about safety, however, 83 percent of students said they felt safe in their classrooms, down from 89 percent last year. The difference was most evident among 11th-graders. Only 74 percent reported feeling safe, compared with 82 last year.

The number of middle- and high-schoolers who reported that alcohol and drug use in schools has increased rose to 56 percent from 50 percent among seventh- and 11th-graders. Perceptions of the problem of fighting are also up 4 percentage points, to 69 percent.

Staff members and law enforcement officials will examine the survey data by school along with other information, such as the number of suspensions, expulsions and arrests, to determine ways "to come back aggressively," Smith said.

The county school board, for example, pulled reviewing proposed revisions to the student Code of Conduct from its Wednesday agenda to give the division of student support services more time to consider further changes, given the survey results.

More than half of middle and high school students reported increased racial tension, up 7 percentage points from last year, although nearly half said the district is addressing those issues.

"We need to lead the solution to this issue, the adults helping kids work through these issues," Smith said.

Debbie Ritchie, president of the Anne Arundel County Council of PTAs, wondered whether recent incidents influenced the responses.

This spring, several students were found carrying weapons at North County High School, and the trial began in the death of Northeast High School student Noah Jamahl Jones, which some say was racially motivated.

Smith agreed such incidents could affect perceptions. "It's critical that we try to separate out the noise from the things we can try and manage," he said.

However, "we've got to continually be vigilant on this issue," Smith said.

He says the safety question can be more revealing than the number of suspensions and expulsions. The state department of education uses such disciplinary information to designate schools as safe under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Some schools may have few suspensions because they fail to enforce rules, causing students to feel insecure in their environment, Smith said.

Nearly half of parents reported using the school district's Web site to gain information, compared to about a third last year, although their primary source continued to be school newsletters - 87 percent of parents, up from 84 percent last year, say they almost always read them. Overall, 85 percent of parents reported that their school and principal communicated well, up from 73 percent last year.

Ritchie added that the school system is working through its parent involvement charter to improve communication.

"I think they're making steps, but I think that they still have a way to go," she said.

An article in Friday's Anne Arundel section incorrectly reported the percentage of school employees and school system headquarters staff members who rated Superintendent Eric J. Smith favorably in a recent survey. According to the poll by the 21st Century Foundation, 74 percent of school employees who responded rated Smith excellent/very good or satisfactory, up from 62 percent last year. For headquarters staff, 87 percent of respondents rated him excellent/very good or satisfactory, up from 77 percent last year.The Sun regrets the error.
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