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Schools officials not completely on board with plan to buy buses

The Baltimore Sun

Howard County is considering the formation of its own mini-fleet of school buses.

The buses would be used to fill in when private contractors have trouble providing all the buses needed each day to cover the system's routes.

The plan is for the school system to purchase two buses and hire three drivers during the 2008-2009 school year. If officials are pleased with the results, they would increase the substitute fleet to 10 buses and hire more drivers during the 2010-2011 school year.

Each school day, 40,000 students ride 450 buses in Howard County. The school system uses a bid system to hire private contractors to provide bus service.

If the system decides to expand the program to 10 substitute buses, it also would have to build a bus depot.

Board member Sandra H. French expressed concern when the plan was unveiled at Thursday's board meeting.

"I didn't think we were in the business of funding a bus depot," she said.

She appeared irritated when she was told that the cost to implement the plan had not yet been calculated.

"I can't give you a ballpark figure," said David Drown, the system's director of pupil transportation.

"Is it $10 million, $15 million?" French asked.

"We're in the process of looking up those numbers," said Raymond Brown, the school system's chief operating officer.

"I really have reservations," French later said. "I have other priorities."

Howard County - like many school systems nationwide - has had its share of woes caused by a lack of bus drivers.

Last school year, Howard County had a shortage of 20 bus drivers. This year, that number was down to eight.

More foreign students

As the news spreads of Howard County's top-ranked schools, the population of international students has also increased.

During the first week of school, Howard County officials registered students from 350 families who came here from other countries and have limited English skills. This number is up 60 from last year, and up 150 from the year before. During the first week of school, system employees walked parents through the registration process and helped them complete numerous forms such as emergency contact information.

"I'm still getting [new] parents," said Young-chan Han, a specialist with the system's International Student and Family Outreach Office.

System officials worked at 26 schools and at the North Laurel-Savage Multiservice Center to help the families, Han said.

"It is quite a massive effort for our office to contact the parents, make appointments with the parents and to give them the individual attention they need," Han said.

At Guilford Elementary, system employees worked with 16 families to register 22 children and fill out 114 forms.

Han's office used the registration period as an opportunity to track families to offer them additional assistance.

For example, at Deep Run Elementary School one of the parents mentioned that a 16-year-old neighbor was not attending classes because she was recently married and thought that she was ineligible for school.

"Without this initial contact in the beginning of the year, we would not be aware of these issues," Han said.

Parents program

Once international parents successfully enroll their children in the school system, Han hopes that they will begin to take an active role in their education. The International Parent Leadership Program is one avenue to help prepare parents.

Han is currently accepting applicants for the program, which begins Oct. 2. The class is open to about 20 parents.

Last year, 57 people completed the program. About two-thirds of them have gotten involved in leadership roles in the school system, according to Han.

"I think having international parents become knowledgeable and empowered means that we are diversifying the leadership pool in all areas of education," Han said. "That is what we want. We value parental input."

Han said the leadership program helps international parents feel like true stakeholders.

Howard the Lion

It has been quite a journey to get Howard the Lion to stand guard at Howard High School.

It started two years ago with a chance meeting in California between Principal Regina Massella and sculptor Bruce Caty of Sloughhouse, Calif.

The two struck a deal that resulted in the school receiving the 6-foot-tall, 6-foot-long, 1,110- pound beast made of yellowish stone.

Caty shipped Howard the Lion to the school. School funds paid for the $5,000 work of art.

Massella said that she thinks Howard the Lion "is noble, and he serves as an inspiration for our athletes and staff." The sculpture "captured the expression that we wanted."

Although Howard has been on display since May, the school scheduled a dedication of the sculpture Friday evening. The sculpture is located between the school and the football field.

'I was in shock'

Patricia Boateng, a 15-year-old sophomore at Wilde Lake High School, did a lot of praying last week in anticipation of her assignment Thursday to introduce the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson to more than 700 who heard the civil rights leader speak at the school.

"I felt so honored that they chose me," Boateng said. "I felt so nervous. He is this huge political person."

Boateng was asked two days before Jackson's arrival to deliver the speech. She said she practiced breathing exercises she learned in drama classes to prepare.

After her two-minute speech, Jackson kissed her on the forehead. "I knew I could do it," she beamed afterward. "I was in disbelief; I was in shock."

Boateng said her parents were excited for her.

"My father had this look in his eye that showed me he was proud of me," she said. "He wanted to come and see me, but it was last minute and he couldn't get off work."

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