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Two parents debated the value of "raising the bar" for academic progress.

A local government official warned that a majority of those who graduate from Harford County schools might not stay in the county.

A business owner said schools now focus less on responsibility and more on individualism.

And, a number of participants said ending turf battles among various constituencies should be goal in improving the quality of education in the county.

A six-hour education summit held Friday at Harford Community College touched on these and other concerns, bringing together parents, local employers, school officials and interested residents in an effort to piece together a vision for Harford County Public Schools.

The summit drew about 125 people to HCC's Edgewood Hall. It was organized by the Harford Business Roundtable for Education, a coalition of employers that supports education reform and improving student achievement.

The event was co-sponsored by the county's Chamber of Commerce and included a panel presentation with County Executive David Craig, county council president Billy Boniface, State Sen. Barry Glassman, Del. J.B. Jennings, School Superintendent Robert Tomback and Board of Education President Mark Wolkow.

Attendees spent about two hours in groups where they answered questions of how to make funding decisions in light of uncertain revenues and enrollment numbers, and how the community should be considered in the school system's planning process.

The summit coincided with the school system's broader project of redefining its vision and planning for the future, Wolkow said.

Timing precipitous

"The timing of this day is perfect because, as many of you probably know, we have undertaken a strategic planning effort," he said, explaining that the school system started requesting community input online a couple of months ago. "Everything that's been said here will go directly to the strategic planning process, so the timing couldn't have been better."

Those in attendance paid $25 to attend, which included breakfast and a box lunch. Bill Seccurro, president of the Chamber of Commerce, said any money taken in above expenses will be used by the chamber.

Betsy Campion, chairwoman of the business roundtable and a former chamber president, said the group held a similar summit five years ago, but it was much smaller and did not have lasting results.

This time, many participants said they hoped it would be the first in a series of collaborations between parents, residents, business members, government officials and the school system.

The groups were led by business roundtable members Craig Ward of Frederick Ward Associates, Richard Bock of Huntington Learning Center, Kim Wagner of Tritronics, Inc. and Warren Hamilton of J. Vinton Schafer & Sons Inc., a contractor.

Many priorities

Participants said their priorities for the school system include identifying all stakeholders in the process, emphasizing cross-discipline partnerships, holding both teachers and students accountable, building consensus that creates flexibility, offering early intervention programs, energizing staff and faculty, encouraging meaningful participation from stakeholders and being sensitive to the needs of individual communities.

Items they said are negotiable included "the latest and greatest" resources, school boundary lines and benefit packages.

Those they identified as non-negotiable included the openness and consistency of relationships between the community and stakeholders, the need to consider all possibilities, having government and schools working closely together and commitment to following through with such proposals.

Sitting in 'silos'

Some challenges, according to the groups, include "silos" in which organizations or proposals are isolated from each other and turf wars between stakeholders.

School and government officials thanked participants for their input, but warned that some of those proposals may be complicated to implement.

Craig said that while everyone gives lip service to putting schools and education first, there are many competing needs in the county of equal importance he has to address when making funding decisions.

"The reality is, we are all sitting in a silo right now," he said. "The frustration I have is I have to see all these people come in and they all bring little silos into my office, and we have to work through them."

He said it would be nice for the various boards and departments to hear each other's visions and suggested future county executives have internal meetings where all groups can come together.

"I think this is a great meeting," he said about the summit. "I think this is something that needs to be done on a regular basis."

High expectations

Tomback and County Councilman Dick Slutzky addressed the high expectations, both academic and social, that community members put on the school system.

"Let's understand that the expectation placed on our schools is perfection, which is a very difficult thing to reach," Tomback said. "Your expectation in schools is 100 percent."

Slutzky, a former teacher and wrestling coach, noted that the sports concept of "raising the bar" does not make sense when it is applied to increasing academic standards.

"We raise the bar in athletics only to eliminate those who cannot go any higher," he said, explaining that raising the bar means expecting more failure. "You cannot continually have higher expectations unless you are willing to accept those who fail at some point."

Tomback also said that the expectation that schools teach "soft skills," such as character development, is also complicated.

"Soft skills can be societal; soft skills can be cultural," he said. For example, "If I ask a student to look me in the eye, that could be a cultural issue. As Harford County becomes more and more diverse, we have to be sensitive to other cultures. We have to know the others at the table, and we have to know those not at the table."

Protecting investment

Jennings also said the maintenance of school buildings also has to be addressed.

While buildings are generally fine now, "we need to look 20 or 30 years down the road," he said.

Wolkow said the school system has made tough funding decisions before. He gave an example in which, several years ago, the board grappled with getting buses to schools on time in light of increasing traffic around the county.

Many people wanted to buy more school buses, he said as an example, but the board decided instead to simply start school 15 minutes earlier.

"It was a one-time expense of $1 million to buy new school buses, plus maintenance. What did everybody want to do? Write a check," Wolkow continued. "We didn't have the money, so we made a (different) choice. Those are the tough kinds of tradeoffs, and we did get community input on that."

Those involved in the summit seemed to find it positive and generally left with hope for future collaborations.

"I think we came here more so to understand what the right question is," Tomback told the audience. "I think we have taken several significant steps in asking the right questions. We need to know what you are thinking. We need to know, again, what are you willing to give up. You expect perfection and we aim to deliver that, but we cannot do it without your experience."

user comments (2)

user mikemike0221 says...

What Harford County needs is a Gateway School for "trouble students" in the county, so that those students that want to learn are not hindered or influenced by those that have no interest. Carroll County has had a Gateway School for years and its been very effective.

user nicks says...

They do its the Alternative Education at the center for educational opportunity. I've heard its been rather successful, but its not easy to qualify. Today children get too many chances. I wish the school system was allowed to work like that movie "Lean on Me"




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