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Budget forces schools to prioritize

The Baltimore Sun

Adispute over the building of a northeast-area high school has highlighted the challenges facing a school system that has crowded facilities in some areas and other schools that need updating.

With plans for a long-sought fine arts addition at South Carroll High, and growing student populations in elementary and middle schools in the same region, Carroll schools and county officials have to contend with how to set priorities for construction projects amid budget constraints.

Despite the challenge of juggling those projects and student enrollment - an elementary and a middle school for South Carroll are in a proposed facilities master plan - school officials say they continue to keep a sharp eye on what happens inside the classroom.

"I want to improve student achievement for all students," Superintendent Charles I. Ecker said. "We need to close the achievement gap between various subgroups of students we have."

The 2006-2007 school year has seen the approval of an ambitious reading improvement plan, which would involve more frequent assessments of children and ease the transition from one part of the educational pipeline to the next.

Lorraine Fulton, assistant superintendent of instruction, said she has also initiated reviews of the math and writing curricula.

Fulton described the reading plan as a means of raising the bar for students who don't reach proficient or advanced levels of achievement.

The plan should also allow the school system to provide "a more consistent delivery of instruction from pre-K all the way through high school," said Margaret Pfaff, director of curriculum, instruction and staff development.

Despite school officials' recognition of shortcomings in some areas of instruction, the district typically ranks high among the state's 24 school systems.

Carroll students tend to score above state averages on the Maryland School Assessment. In 2006, nearly 75 percent of high school students in Carroll scored "proficient" or "advanced," compared with 60 percent for the state as a whole.

About 85 percent of fifth-graders and more than 85 percent of third-graders were identified as proficient or advanced in math.

In reading, more than 75 percent of eighth-graders, more than 85 percent of fifth-graders and about 80 percent of third-graders were rated proficient or advanced.

"Quite often we look at averages, we look at percentages," Pfaff said. "But no matter how good our numbers look, there are always students who are not included in those numbers," Pfaff said. "We need to do everything we can possibly do to make sure every student succeeds."

Ecker's 2007-2008 budget includes a 7 percent salary increase for school system contract employees, bringing the starting teacher salary to $40,000.

The budget also allots about $2 million for the final phasing-in of full-day kindergarten at six elementary schools.

Carroll County schools serve more than 28,000 students. Although the district remains predominantly white, the numbers of minorities - particularly Hispanic students - are steadily growing.

As of September 2006, the district's 41 schools taught about 1,013 African-American students, almost double the 1996 figure, and 633 Hispanic students, more than three times the number served a decade ago, according to the Maryland State Department of Education. About 500 Asian students were counted.

A recent school system report on work-force diversity indicated staff diversity is lagging behind the student trends, with only 105 minority employees out of a total 3,690 in January, compared to 78 minority workers five years earlier.

About 50 of nearly 2,250 Carroll teachers are minorities in a district with 22 elementary, nine middle, seven high and three specialized schools.

Two schools are expected to join the district's roster: Ebb Valley Elementary in the Manchester area, which is under construction, and the as yet unnamed northeast-area high school.

Besides his goals for student achievement, Ecker added that he would like to see more parent involvement.

"Parents need to be involved in their students' school life, in their homework and in what their children do outside of school," Ecker said. "The school system can do a lot, we're doing more ... but we can't do it all."

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