Md. school snapshots in a quick minute: Oct. 20

Welcome to our evening summary of school news in Maryland, a feature we are starting today. In these posts, Voxitatis will briefly summarize snapshots of Maryland schools and the activities going on, without going into great depth. Think of these posts like a TV newscast version of our deeper research-based coverage. These are like the USA Today news briefs from the 50 states: a word or two about each story and a link for more extended coverage from other news media.

Accessibility and accountability will expand, maybe

  1. After a successful pilot, the Bring Your Own Technology program is expanding to all 10 high schools in Harford County Public Schools. “We want to transition our students from learning from technology, where they’re a consumer of technology, to where they become the learner with the technology, where they’re producing content and creating,” The Aegis quoted Martha Barwick, coordinator of instructional technology for HCPS, as saying. “I think BYOT provides us with that opportunity.” For their part, students also seem more comfortable with the devices they’re accustomed to using outside of school, and the school district is spared the expense of having to provide devices with Internet access for all students.
  2. Various community-based organizations are partnering with school systems to create activities more accessible to students with disabilities, including autism, the Baltimore Sun reports. Activities include movies, during which kids can talk as much as they want, should their attention spans fail; the Maryland Science Center; the Michael Phelps Swim School; the Walters Art Museum; etc. Howard County, in particular, has a high concentration of students with an autism diagnosis: 16 percent, compared to a state average of 9.8 percent. A new resource about autism was launched in Howard County through the Howard County Autism Society, and they have a website. “This site was not intended for families solely with autism. We looked for [data] that could apply for any family dealing with special education,” said Elizabeth Benevides, an associate director at the Hussman Foundation, which provided partial funding.
  3. An October 13 report for the Montgomery County Public Schools says the district follows the letter of the law but needs to go further in order to meet the needs of special education students in the high-performing district, the Washington Post reports.
  4. “Some parents described some very difficult experiences,” the report says. “Overall, parents seem to want a better understanding of the special education process and more accountability from their schools.” A Silver Spring resident says her experiences with the district in terms of special education for students in her family has been bad: “MCPS has a fox in the chicken coop in the form of legal tactics that scare, bully, and financially overwhelm parents, most of whom have no means to fight back,” writes Mary Greene.
  5. Board members blasted the report. “We have studied the report and we are appalled,” said a statement from five board members. “Rather than recognize our efforts or provide useful suggestions, the report suggests we embark down a path that no other school district in Maryland follows and ignores efforts already under way to address our achievement gaps.”

Testing wars

  1. The Maryland State Department of Education plans to release preliminary data October 27 on the scores of high school students who took the PARCC tests in math and English language arts for the first time last spring, the Frederick News Post reports. Scores in third through eighth grade will follow shortly thereafter. Frederick County Schools Superintendent Terry Alban said he expects low scores on this first round, partially because PARCC is a new test, partially because it’s more difficult.
  2. The Maryland State Education Association, the union that represents teachers in the state, wants the state to define opt-out rules, the Frederick News-Post reports. At the state level, no policy exists regarding opt-outs, so even though some schools, like those in Frederick County, allows students to refuse a test without punishment, another district—or even another school within Frederick County—might handle the issue differently. The MSEA would like something like this: “If the county or school has a policy regarding opt out or refusal, educators should not face disciplinary action for sharing this information.” California parents, who filed a lawsuit based on a school’s failure to inform them of their opt-out rights, will likely prevail.
  3. Worcester County Public Schools Superintendent Jerry Wilson had a conversation with Bryan Russo of the Maryland Coast Dispatch. He said he expects scores on the PARCC tests to require some adjustments over time: “What we’ve learned over time is that when we instruct what it is we measure, then our kids naturally do better over time. We will adjust instruction, and we already are, to these new standards, controversial as they are, but we are making these adjustments. Our teachers are doing a fantastic job teaching these new standards. They’ve made some of the adjustments but more adjustments need to be made,” he said.

In the ‘Student Danger’ category

  1. An 18-year-old special ed student from a private high school allegedly broke into Seneca Valley High School in Germantown, once on September 16 and again on September 22. He got away the first time, fleeing on foot after disrupting about five classrooms. The second time, he was caught and charged with one count of disrupting school activities and one count of molesting or threatening bodily harm to a student, employee, administrator, agent, or other individual lawfully on school grounds. The school has an open-lunch policy on campus that allows students to come and go during the day, but students know they’re not supposed to allow non-students access to the building through locked doors, the Germantown Pulse reports.
  2. Students at Linton Springs Elementary School in Sykesville practiced the art of stop, drop, and roll as part of the Winfield Community Volunteer Fire Department’s Fire Prevention Week outreach program. Volunteers from the fire department also held programs and drills at South Carroll and Century high schools and at Winfield Elementary School on October 12. “If there’s a fire, I learned how I should stop, drop, and roll. It’s fun to practice,” the Carroll County Times quoted a second grader at Linton as saying.
  3. A lawsuit over an Allegany County teacher’s sex abuse of a student was settled out of court, WBAL-TV (NBC affiliate) reports. Former Mountain Ridge High School math teacher Bart Mazer pleaded guilty to two counts of fourth-degree sex offense and was sentenced to a year in jail. One of the girls he molested sued the school because, she said, the principal failed to take any meaningful action to stop the abuse until she contacted police herself. Both parties in the lawsuit are under court orders not to discuss the terms of the settlement.
  4. A Cumberland Times-News editorial entitled “What’s the hurry? When the school bus is stopped, you must stop, too” calls injuries to students from motorists who pass school buses with the stop arms extended a “senseless tragedy.” Maryland drivers face a $570 fine and three points on their license if they are found guilty of passing a school bus stopped to pick up or drop off kids with its red lights flashing and its stop arm extended. Mark Morral, assistant supervisor of transportation for the Allegany County Board of Education, said on a single day earlier this month, a bus driver reported being passed illegally by two vehicles.
  5. A thoughtful and thought-provoking editorial in the Frederick News-Post recounts the story of a Montgomery County student who was suspended for making a “homicidal threat” against a fellow 8-year-old student at the school. The “case illustrates the difficulty of ensuring public safety while also protecting the rights and future of a young child. His father wants the suspension and homicidal threat evaluation cleared from the boy’s record, saying, I think we need to distinguish between a credible threat and the childish thoughts of an 8-year-old. He’s never had a weapon in school. He’s never had access to a gun. It’s 8-year-old talk.” But what should we do? Distinguishing between a credible threat and the kid-speak of 8-year-olds can be difficult for most adults. How do you think the kids feel?
  6. The Washington County Board of Education last month revised its child-abuse prevention policy and encouraged every employee of the school system, not just teachers and administrators (who are required by state law to report suspected abuse), to immediately report anything that could possibly be a sign of child abuse. For example, a bus driver might see something outside the home that concerns him, such as a parent’s rough treatment of a child, the Hagerstown Herald-Mail writes in an editorial.
  7. Worcester County took a step forward with Showell Elementary, which has been found to be overcrowded and in need of repairs and upgrades, but county commissioners only provided the district with about half the amount of money needed, WMDT (ABC affiliate) reports. “Our facilities team will go ahead and examine what it is we’ve been provided and then we’ll go back and talk to the board of education about this and see what next steps we’ll have,” Superintendent Jerry Wilson said. A plan for moving forward was expected today.

Charter school debate in Baltimore City

  1. Primary coverage of a lawsuit filed on behalf of charter school operators against Baltimore City Public Schools can be found in the Baltimore Sun (more) and the City Paper. The district has also released a statement about the lawsuit, which is over a new and controversial funding formula the district has come up with that charter operators say gets in the way.
  2. Rachel Cohen wrote an article in the City Paper earlier this month, asking some questions for the parties to the lawsuit. Among the questions she has: How exactly does the district calculate funding for charters? Unlike in other cities, Baltimore charters work closely with the district, have unionized teachers, and are mostly run by former local educators or parents. Yet the charter operators involved in the lawsuit also backed Gov Hogan’s bill, which carried the potential to greatly alter those dynamics. Are you looking for a way to improve and sustain the existing system, or would you like to see Baltimore’s charter sector more closely resemble other urban districts? Good questions, Rachel.
  3. NPR covered a story in which two Baltimore parents gave their take on the whole charter school debate in Baltimore City. “The second day of school, I pull up to drop them off in front of the school building, and they both have groups of friends waiting for them to get out the car,” one parent said about her kids’ enrollment at a Baltimore City charter school. “None of the other schools have anyone to embrace them that way.”
  4. An op-ed in the Baltimore Sun by a principal at a Baltimore City public school proposes a two-year charter school funding plan. “We are one community and must find a way to talk about charter funding without threatening to close or hamstring our great traditional and charter schools. Choice is here to stay. The fight over funding destabilizes the public’s already fragile view of city schools and further discourages thousands of families on charter school waiting lists,” writes Matt Hornbeck.

Kids can be used to make (or steal) money

  1. Brian Frosh, Maryland’s attorney general, warns parents that, in addition to the trials and tribulations of parenting, they also have to worry that their children could become victims of identity theft, the Associated Press reports. If children’s identity is stolen and credit accounts are opened in their name, the crime can destroy their credit scores before they’ve even learned to count. Maryland hospitals and elected officials say a proactive freeze on a child’s credit report that prevents any new credit accounts from being opened is one solution.
  2. For their pre-K kids, many parents want more than a babysitting service, the Baltimore Sun reports. But some child education centers can forget to let kids be kids. Not so at any of Kiddie Academy’s 142 franchise locations in 23 states. Teachers turn everyday events and activities into learning opportunities and still have time for play and naps. Gregory Helwig, the company’s president, said the industry evolved since KA’s first site opened in Randallstown in 1992 because parents sought “to give their children the earliest of head starts on college and careers.” Annual revenue for the company is in the neighborhood of $165 million, and about 14,000 kids are enrolled, putting brain research to good use.

Integrating arts education in classrooms

  1. Donald Hicken, 70, an acclaimed director, award-winning educator, and beloved mentor to such actors as Tracie Thoms, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Shalita Grant, will retire in June after 36 years at the Baltimore School for the Arts, the Baltimore Sun reports. Ms Grant, who won a Tony Award for her role in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, nominated Mr Hicken for the first-ever Tony Award for Excellence in Theater Education. “Where would I be if Donald had said no?” she wrote in her nomination letter about the role she won by audition her freshman year. “It breaks my heart when I think about how my life would have turned out. I’m certain I wouldn’t have attended Juilliard.”
  2. Richard McCready, a guitar and music technology teacher at River Hill High School in Clarksville, is one of 25 semifinalists for the GRAMMY Music Educator Award. He has multiple talents—voice, tuba, piano, organ, guitar—but his most remarkable characteristic is his love for passing on these abilities, the Howard County Times reports. “It is rare to find someone who is so unbelievably gifted and whose greatest joy is sharing it with other people,” said a colleague at the high school. “That’s the thing about Richard.”
  3. Students in Prince George’s County are writing song lyrics instead of taking tests to show how well they have mastered content in other academic subjects, including the history of ancient Chinese dynasties, the Washington Post reports. The article says “studies show that employing the arts in academic classrooms is associated with improvement in test scores in math and English. In particular, students living in poverty benefit from the integrated approach.” Wait a minute! The first sentence, which asserts merely a correlation, is fine, but to say kids “benefit” from inclusion of arts is too much of a leap in that it implies causation. This is another Washington Post article that starts out sweetly but ends up on the trash heap because of its blatant misconceptions about what this body of research represents. But, the arts “also do so much more,” said Sandra Ruppert, director of the Arts Education Partnership, a network of more than 100 arts, education, and cultural organizations. The arts “engage kids in school, motivate them to learn, develop critical thinking, equip them to be creative.”

Role models and mentors

  1. About 17 schools in Prince George’s County hosted Men Make a Difference Day, during which fathers, grandfathers, older brothers, and other male leaders from the community spent the day in their child’s school, the Sentinel reports. County Executive Rushern Baker spent the day at Maya Angelou French Immersion School in Temple Hills and spoke to a group of men about the importance of male role models. “It does make a difference in the children’s lives,” he said. “Not just in our children, but for other children.” One father said he used the day to become more involved in his son’s life at school and to swap stories with other fathers. “We want to make certain [our son] is nurtured and taken care of, and it’s nice to allow myself to be among other strong, positive men who also want the things that I do,” said Troy Wilson, the father of a 5-year-old student at Maya Angelou. “We can feed off of each other, collect data from one another, and understand the different situations and issues that impact our day-to-day lives.”
  2. WBAL-TV (NBC affiliate) has a similar story out of Baltimore County. Men from the Michael Carter Men Reading in Schools Program visited several elementary schools with hopes of teaching and inspiring area youth and encouraging them to become good readers. They dropped by the schools and read a few pages to students. “When you look at our PTA meetings, you look at our school meetings, our community meetings, most of those are filled with basically women,” said Marvin Cheatham, the program’s founder. “We’re just saying, ‘Guys, it’s time for us to get a little more actively involved in the education of our children.'”
  3. Don’t text while driving, Orioles catcher Caleb Joseph told students at Western School of Technology and Environmental Science on October 16 during a visit to the Baltimore school. I hope this wasn’t the first time they heard that message, but hearing the message from a Major League catcher may make it more memorable. Mr Joseph’s visit was part of AT&T’s “It Can Wait” campaign, the Baltimore Sun reports. Country music star Tim McGraw has also taken part in the campaign, which was launched in 2010.

Policy and district-level movement

  1. An editorial in the Capital Gazette, based in Annapolis, points out the likelihood that school districts and teachers’ unions in Maryland, who negotiate for programs that benefit teachers and students, might have their efforts wiped out by a county executive and administration, outside the school district, who have total control over the checkbook. For example, teachers in Anne Arundel County were understandably upset last year when the school board and teachers agreed on a contract that included a 2-percent raise, at a total cost of $14 million. The board passed the agreement as part of its larger budget to County Executive Steve Schuh, who promptly cut the raises to $5.9 million. The County Council pushed it back up to $7.25 million, a compromise of sorts that wasn’t what teachers had negotiated or what the county executive had wanted. Things are most often harmonious between school boards and county executives, but the rule that the school board approves programs and teachers’ contracts but a completely separate authority actually pays the bills is not a recipe for continued harmony.
  2. Changes in the enrollment projections in Caroline County mean the district will probably be able to address overcrowding issues at Greensboro Elementary School by expanding the existing facilities, instead of building a new intermediate school, the school board told county commissioners on October 5. “The new intermediate school falls off the list (of capital projects) for now,” said Milton Nagel, assistant superintendent for administrative services. “We still have a problem,” the Easton Star-Democrat quoted board of education President Tolbert Rowe as saying. “But we may have a cheaper way to address it from an operating standpoint. Maybe not from a capital standpoint, though, since school renovations are still expensive.”
  3. Carroll County may have to close some schools and make changes to school boundaries, the Carroll County Times reports. In fact, a tax hike may be necessary in order to avoid school closures. Any likely tax hike, though, perhaps on the order of 1 or 2 cents, can’t turn the current trend of decreasing enrollment around. “It would be irresponsible to raise taxes to support a school system with declining enrollment,” said county Commissioner Richard Rothschild, a Republican.
  4. Unlike Carroll County, enrollments hit new highs in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, the Washington Post reports. “It’s another remarkable year of enrollment increases,” said Bruce Crispell, director of long-range planning for Montgomery County Public Schools just outside Washington. “We’re still in a strong growth trend,” he said, referring to the eighth year in a row for the fast-growing district to see burgeoning growth. Enrollment increases are also projected in Howard, Anne Arundel, and Baltimore counties. One Montgomery County high school, Wheaton, is being rebuilt to accommodate the growth and is expected to be open for the second semester of this school year.
  5. Body cameras are being tested in Montgomery County Schools, NBC-4 reports. The three Montgomery County police officers assigned to Walt Whitman, Northwest, and Seneca Valley high schools began participating in the county police department’s body camera pilot program last week, according to a story in the Bethesda Beat. Federal law exempts surveillance video at most public high schools from public records requests, but police body camera footage is sometimes subject to Freedom of Information Act requests. The police plan to resist such requests and guide the people who request the recordings through a lawsuit process. “The only exception we make to that is if parents request a copy,” said Brian Acken, the police department’s custodian of records.

Empathy, values, privilege, and Baltimore

  1. A homeless woman and her 27-year-old son shared their story with sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade students as part of a Change Matters kickoff at Ellicott Mills Middle School in Howard County on October 12, the Howard County Times reports. The event was part of a fundraising campaign for the Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center in Columbia. “We wanted kids to see beyond the stereotypes of the homeless,” said Cathy Smith, a coordinator for Change Matters. “This county is so affluent that kids are living in a bubble, which can be a good thing. But we also need to teach them certain values, like empathy and understanding for those who are less fortunate.”
  2. Finally tonight, The Atlantic has the story of a young black man from Baltimore who has high hopes that he will be able to pick himself up every time he’s put down and escape the confinements imposed on him by the city he calls home. “If I fall, I need to get right back up because I don’t want to become the embodiment of what’s happening in my city,” says Baltimore teen Scott Thompson II, who shared his dreams of going to UCLA and becoming an actor, director, or playwright. “If I make it as a big actor, people will know where I came from and will know I’m a black boy from Baltimore. I know what’s wrong with my city, but it’s still [mine]. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.