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Schools Hear Really Great News, And Some Expected Bad News

John W. Ashbury

August 26, 2003

For some inexplicable reason, even when our county public schools are closed for the holidays, controversy rears its head just enough for potshots to be taken. This has been particularly true for the past couple of weeks.

First, the state came out with its list of failing schools across Maryland. To absolutely no one's surprise, Hillcrest and South Frederick elementary schools are the only ones in Frederick County appearing on the list.

Both schools have large minority populations. Both also have a transient population, meaning that the turnover in students during the school year is more than just a few students.

Carol Young, who was principal of Hillcrest of more than 15 years, told me a couple of years ago, that in September of that year she had approximately 725 students. Of those, less than 300 remained for the entire year although the total number of students actually rose during the year.

With such a huge turnover, how can Frederick County Public Schools, or the State Department of Education, expect test scores to meet state requirements? Children who enrolled at Hillcrest in March and April, and took the state tests in May, were expected to score well enough to keep the school for failing state standards. (Wouldn't you like to see the scores for the students who started and finished at Hillcrest that year?)

And, on top of this, many of the students transferring into Hillcrest speak little English. They must be taught in another language while they are learning English. But the tests are only in English.

Perhaps the learning curve for state officials, who slap Hillcrest as a failing school, is too great to overcome. They should come in and try to improve on Hillcrest's situation without being given any additional resources - just like the situation Hillcrest faces today. Now that would be fair, but the state won't let fairness interfere with their objective.

Then, just last week, the State Department of Education released the results of the Maryland School Assessment tests given last spring as part of the No Child Left Behind federal education act. Remember that the MSPAP tests had to be scrapped and new ones devised to meet new federal requirements.

(Every school district in the state met the standards overall for reading and math in the four grades tested. However, special education, poor, and non-English speaking students failed miserably across the state. African-American students met the standard, but, for the most part, scored lower than white and Asian students statewide)

By any standard you want to apply, Frederick County came out of the fray with flying colors. And yet we hear so often that we aren't spending enough money to achieve great results. These scores belie those accusations.

Looking at the results published in The Sun, we find that in third grade reading, FCPS students placed eighth in the state with a 66.5 percent score. In third grade math, the students finished ninth in the state with a score of 72.7 percent.

In fifth grade reading, FCPS students improved to sixth in the state (75.7%) and tied for second in math (69.2%).

In eighth grade reading, FCPS students are ranked fourth in the state (71.6%), and fourth in math as well (51.6%).

And finally, in tenth grade reading, FCPS students ranked sixth in the state (72.2%) and fifth in math (54.6%). The 10th grade results are from the High School Assessment program's geometry exams.)

So what is Dr. Jack Dale hollering about when he complains, bitterly some times, that Frederick County ranks 23rd or 24th in per pupil spending? Seems the county commissioners know from whereof they speak. And FCPS staff deserves kudos for academic excellence.

We so often hear complaints from the leadership of the Frederick County Teachers Association about how much better our surrounding counties are doing when compared to Frederick. Seems their membership is doing a pretty good job of it.

So let's compare some numbers here. Montgomery County, which has the highest per pupil spending in the state, did not fare as well as Frederick County in fifth grade math, eighth grade reading, eighth grade math, or tenth grade math. Folks, that's half of the areas tested.

Howard County, which also spends a good deal more per pupil than Frederick County, beat FCPS in every category, and by a substantial margin in almost all of them.

Carroll County, our neighbor to the east, is below Frederick County in fifth grade math, but lead FCPS students in the other seven tested areas.

Washington County, our neighbor to the west whose superintendent is a former associate superintendent here, beat FCPS pupils in tenth grade math, but fell below us in the other seven categories.

Harford County, which mirrors Frederick County demographically the closest of the other counties, ranked overall among the best in the state, but lost out to our students in fifth, eighth and tenth grade math, and by healthy margins.

These, of course, are layman's observations and opinions. But is surely appears that FCPS is doing a pretty good job academically despite the haranguing from the superintendent and his minions, and several members of the Board of Education, to say nothing of the skewered "facts" we get from the FCTA all too often.

Now we come to the latest flap between the commissioners and the superintendent. Dr. Dale says that of the $4 million in one time expenses funded by the commissioners in the current school year, he will accept that $2.2 million not be included when calculating the maintenance of effort monies the commissioners must fund next year.

State law and rules and regulations demand that the superintendent and commissioners agree on what total amount is spent per pupil this year. Next year the money allocated to FCPS on a per pupil basis this year will have to be matched next year. This is critical because we expect to have a few hundred more students next year than we have this year.

Dr. Dale will likely win this engagement because the state has the final say in such a dispute. But one wonders if he is fully cognizant of just to whom he must approach next spring with his hand out? It's the commissioners. And these five people have pretty good memories.

It is easy to recall that the commissioners dipped into $16 million in unexpected (and unaudited) one-time revenues last spring to fund a goodly portion of the BOE budget request that was going to fall by the wayside. That money won't be there next spring. But Dr. Dale will still be pleading for more money than this board of commissioners will be willing to give.

And when crunch time arrives, look out. Civility will again fly out the window and the budget worksessions will again become angry, ill-tempered, and display an ever-increasing distrust.

That's no way to run a railroad, much less a school system, which, from recently available statistics, isn't all that bad when compared to the rest of the schools across Maryland.

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