Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Still world class?

As loyal readers to this page know, I've become more involved in the educational system and the sausage-making of our Howard County school budget. And it IS sausage-making. Ugly.

Today, the Board of Education, a group I'm increasingly disenchanted with, voted to ignore the voices of the Howard County community and cut more than 60 paraeducator positions. They would say they're being "reallocated," but that's coded language. And for those of you who say, Hey KC, there was an election in November - I don't remember any candidate saying they wanted to cut dozens of jobs for a growing school district. Maybe I was focused on other things, but that doesn't ring a bell. Secondly, part of the Board was not up for election in November.

These cuts affect ALL children. If kindergarten has 4 teachers for 80 kids, 1 paraeducator makes the ratio fall from 20:1 to 16:1. That's a major difference, loyal readers! In high school, cutting the media service staff will prevent kids from getting research help in an everchanging environment. There are new tools and resources every year and trying to find the right one is frustrating. '

What can you do?

Thank heavens that the Board is NOT the final say on the budget. Or thank the county's previous legislators. The budget CAN be changed before it's implemented!

Send emails to County Executive Allan Kittleman, find your County Council member here, and contact them.

Interested in learning more? And having pizza too??? Here's some information from the dedicated team of the HCEA:

"Please join HCEA for an open community meeting on Tuesday, March 3rd, 5PM in the Centennial HS cafeteria.  We will clarify the impact of the cuts and develop strategy for the next part of the process.  RSVP here to give us an idea of how much pizza we need!"

If you want to sustain, at the very least, the impressive school system we have, please find a way to advocate for our kids. Even if you don't have kids, your opinion can still make a difference.

Thanks for listening!

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

World Class Whatsits

The Howard County Public School System touts its desire to be a world-class educational system. My daughter goes to a "World Class Elementary Education Pilot School." When I Googled "world class HCPSS," I got more than five pages of results.

I do not question that our American educational system pales in comparison to other developed countries. Some people disregard these tests and metrics, but I believe them, because I feel them in many areas as I interact with people. Try asking your friends how they would feel if Russia invaded Georgia and see what the result is.

A large part of the problem is the vast amount of school districts the US has - more than 13,000 in 2002. The lack of uniformity amongst those districts - size, taxing authority, curriculum, etc. - does not help matters. Which is one reason I'm generally in favor of Common Core - college freshmen should have a similar preparation regardless of state. (And for the record, I think the Department of Education is not quite constitutional.) Teachers in HCPSS have told me before that a kid coming from Texas is more than a year behind their cohort here. That's sad.

So, on the face of it, I agree - we should aim for an education that is competitive with other developed, wealthy countries.

But I don't always see that as part of our reason for having that as a goal.

Call me cynical. But I wonder if it's something else. More in the Gordon Gekko "Greed is Good" vein.

Is the purpose of HCPSS to educate our kids or to increase our property values?

We've all heard stories of people who move in with family members, crowding into townhomes and apartments, in order to get a Howard County education.

Ducketts Lane Elementary is a brand new school - not even two years old. Have you driven the Route 1 corridor of Elkridge lately? Do so before spring comes. Because you can see the explosion of housing over there without the leaves on the trees. Ducketts is forecast to be one-third over capacity next year, which has led the county to end the RECC program there to make space.

Given these increased student forecasts, but no analogous staffing increase, how do we continue to make our schools world-class?

Our property values may be high now, based on our historically school system performance. But sustaining them? Call me a pessimist on that one. And educating ALL of our kids to make it in the "real world"? Call me Eeyore:

"It's snowing still," said Eeyore gloomily.
"So it is."
"And freezing."
"Is it?"
"Yes," said Eeyore. "However," he said, brightening up a little, "we haven't had an earthquake lately."
The House at Pooh Corner

(Full disclosure: I am a part of the Citizens Operating Budget Review Committee for the FY2016 Howard County Public School System. You can find more information here. My views here are my own.)

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Paraeducators are awesome!

Dear Board members,

My daughter has been a student at Running Brook Elementary for almost six years and will attend Wilde Lake Middle School this fall.

The proposed budget reallocates Para-Educators positions next year, in addition to increasing class sizes. I am troubled to find out that a core part of her great experience at Running Brook is being diminished.  When she entered kindergarten, she had the benefit of two college-educated parents who were able to supplement her wonderful preschool experience. Having volunteered in her kindergarten class, I know that not every student comes to kindergarten with those advantages. As I volunteered over the past few years, I saw firsthand how each grade needs its individual paraeducators. Kindergarten and first grade are the foundations of the rest of public education. Paraeducators are not a want, they are a need for this population.

Despite not being certified in education, they are well-educated people, many with bachelor’s degrees, and assist teachers in so many ways. These team members facilitate smaller groups and more individualized instruction for those who need extra help. They are the unsung heroes of every classroom team, although I believe Running Brook does do a great job of recognizing our amazing paraeducators.

People of my parents’ generation often say to me “We had 40 kids in our classes when we were young.” But that was a different classroom without inclusion of multiple cognitive levels and the emotional and socioeconomic factors we encounter today. Paraeducators are able to contribute amongst three or four classrooms in the same grade without disruption to the room. Positions should not be reduced from current levels. This proposal is not a spreading of resources; rather, it is a stretching of already tight resources.

Another concern that has become clear over the past few years is the lack of respect for teachers in our system. The adversarial system is supposed to operate in our legal system, not our educational system. These one-year contracts, programs like the Elementary School Model and disrespect for fine arts teachers and paraeducators are driving teachers away, whether to other counties or other professions.  

Please consider that our current status as a great school system is rooted in decisions made several years ago. Those policies have been working. Adding additional proven programs is fine, but not at the expense of ones that have a proven track record.