An occasional series of informal reports and observations from meetings of the Harford County Board of Education.
The last school board meeting of the summer of 2010 was about as quiet as you would expect for a Monday evening in August (August 9th to be exact). But there were some notable moments nonetheless: hopeful signs for public engagement; the departure of Board Member John Smilko; and the first presentation by Bill Lawrence, Superintendent Robert Tomback’s new top administrator in charge of all curriculum, instruction and assessment.
The public comment period was an opportunity for the new group of leaders who have taken the reins at the Harford County Council PTA to remind the school board of the value of local PTAs and to outline plans for the coming school year, which will include a candidates’ forum for prospective school board members. (see related story).
Board President Mark Wolkow has taken to scanning the audience for school board candidates in the upcoming elections, three of whom posted Monday night – Bob Frisch, a candidate in District A (Edgewood/Joppa) and a Baltimore County teacher who seems to be everywhere this summer; comedian Tom Myers, running in District B (Fallston/Abingdon); and businessman Joe Hau, a co-founder of Chesapeake Environmental Management who is running in District D (North Harford). Let’s hope the other 11 candidates were planning to watch the proceedings on Harford Cable Network.
Board Member John Smilko bid farewell to HCPS, even though Governor Martin O’Malley has yet to make an appointment to fill his seat. Smilko will officially vacate on August 31, meaning that the board may be one member short for the start of the 2010-11 school year. Smilko’s seat will eventually be filled by a candidate elected in November, but Smilko’s early departure (actually, his decision not to serve an extension to his term created by the blended school board legislation) will leave a gap until July 1, 2011, when the elected members take office. Rather than make an awkward, temporary appointment, the Gov should appoint one of the candidates elected by the people to serve out the rest of Smilko’s term.
Board Attorney Pat Spicer has been proposing updates to a series of board policies that mainly amount to housecleaning. But the newly revised policy on charter schools was noted by Board President Wolkow as an effort to help charter applicants be more successful, after what he called a “checkered existence” statewide. Wolkow blamed the nature of the Maryland charter school law and Spicer said that the changes were made as a result of past experience with charters in Harford County and input from the Maryland State Department of Education. The revised and approved HCPS policy is more structured, spelling out the process for applicants; outlining the conditions for revoking or terminating a charter agreement, and requiring financial, compliance and programmatic audits.
The swan song of every board meeting is a report from the superintendent, which was a surprise this time in that it included a presentation by senior staff on the MSA (Maryland School Assessment) in Harford County.
Bill Lawrence, who was hired from Baltimore County Public Schools in June, spoke publicly to the school board for the first time, saying the report contained “very good news – scores are stable and in most cases are improving” in grades three through eight.
Dr. Lawrence said the achievement gap was narrowing for sub-groups of students (minority, special ed, and students living in poverty) and pointed to Edgewood Elementary and Edgewood Middle as success stories for making Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP.) But he also noted that two Title I schools, Magnolia Elementary and William Paca/Old Post Road, which did not make AYP, were designated by the state for “school improvement” and therefore had to offer students the option of transferring into another (more successful) Harford County public school.
Carolyn Wood, supervisor of assessment accountability, noted that AYP is a moving target, increasing at an accelerating pace toward the goal of 100% of students performing at proficient levels by 2014. The requirement is a provision of the federal law known as No Child Left Behind. For 2010, schools in Maryland were deemed to have met AYP if around 80% of students in all subgroups were proficient on state tests (the percentage varies by grade level and by subject matter) As Dr. Wood explained, “Standing still is not good enough.”
Educators nationwide have worried about achieving the seemingly impossible goal of 100% proficiency, even if the definition of proficiency is set fairly low by most states. As the specter of failure for large numbers of public schools approaches, several potential game-changers are on the horizon. The adoption of national standards and the creation of new tests, driven in part by the contest for federal dollars known as Race to the Top, will naturally recalibrate the measuring stick. The anticipated reauthorization of No Child Left Behind may also end up pushing the re-set button on some of the law’s original requirements.
Against this backdrop of unknowns, Harford County is using data, and lots of it, to drive school improvement, which Dr. Lawrence described in some detail. Dr. Wood added that the use of data will help HCPS ease the transition to the new tests. Superintendent Tomback noted that the stakes will be higher in the future, but he said HCPS is well positioned.
Shortly thereafter the gavel fell and all in attendance were free to enjoy the remainder of an August evening and the dwindling days of summer. The first day of school for students is August 30 (pre-K starts September 1), and the next school board meeting is scheduled for September 13, 2010.