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Parents Search for Answers on Violations Brown Principal, Test Focus of PTO Meeting

Ohanian Comment: I'm struck by the Krispy Kreme donut fundraiser. And then pizza and food from McDonald's offered "as incentives" to children who had to take the tests a second time. AGHHH. I guess all the publicity about childhood obesity (never mind adult obesity) hasn't reached Charles County.

And then, Dorothy Hatch, a concerned mom, reveals where the focus should be:

"Can't we put less stress on the children? My 10-year-old daughter was almost worried sick she was going to get her teacher fired if she didn't do well on the test."--Dorothy Hatch

The teachers' answer to this, grossly inadequate, reveals the root cause of the problem.

By William Wan

Crowded into a corner of the children's library, parents and teachers met with Charles County public schools administrators at Dr. Gustavus Brown Elementary School last week, seeking details about testing violations that led to the school's principal being placed on leave.

But the meeting yielded little new information about what specific missteps may have occurred during the Maryland School Assessment tests administered last month, or why 45 fourth- and fifth-graders at the school had to retake the math portion of the tests.

Some parents expressed frustration after the gathering, during which officials spoke in vague terms about the incident and said they might never disclose some of the details.

School administrators announced March 17 that they had placed Principal Linda Jones on administrative leave after others at the school said she had violated testing procedures during the state-mandated exams.

The discussion Tuesday night at Brown Elementary School was part of a regular monthly Parent Teacher Organization meeting. Some in the group noted wryly as the meeting began that attendance was unusually high and included high-ranking school officials from the central office.

After spending nearly an hour on routine business -- a planned Krispy Kreme doughnut fundraiser, replacing the school's broken laminator, a luau for fifth-graders -- PTO leaders turned to the issue that had drawn the crowd.

Acting principal Lisa Peters asked if there were any questions about the recent testing.

Dorothy Hatch, 32, whose daughter is in fourth grade, had several.

"What happened? What was tampered with?" she asked.

"I can assure you it was nothing the children did," Peters said.

"Okay, I get the idea that it wasn't anything the children did, but you can't tell us what happened?" Hatch responded.

"I don't know myself what the allegations were, and when we start talking about these things -- " Peters said, stopping without mentioning any specifics.

Katie O'Malley-Simpson, communications director for Charles public schools, took over for Peters, listing several examples of testing procedures the state requires. But when asked, O'Malley-Simpson declined to say which ones may have been violated.

The investigation is not complete, she said. The incident also is a personnel issue and therefore confidential. Some of the details of the incident as well as any disciplinary action taken against the principal might never be disclosed to parents, she said.

Peters said the school tried to ease the burden on the 45 children who had to take the tests a second time by offering them pizza and food from McDonald's "as incentives, so that they wouldn't have it so bad."

One educator, who did not give her name before speaking at the meeting, said that in the absence of any information, children at the school were confused.

"I've heard them talking in the halls: 'So-and-so cheated. So-and-so's fired. Some kids got rewarded with pizza,' " the teacher said.

Peters said school officials did not consider it a reward, but rather a way to create a positive mood for the children.

More than half of those who attended the PTO meeting were teachers, but the tough questions came from parents.

Cynthia Sanders, whose fourth-grade son had to retake the test, asked why the school did not meet with parents after the incident to explain what was going on and why their children had to be retested.

Clifford Eichel, the school system's director of research and assessment, said that officials were scrambling to conduct retesting by March 28. "There was a certain window for retesting. We had to meet it," he said.

After the meeting, Sanders said she believed that school officials could have met with parents if they had really wanted to.

"They said there wasn't time. Well, make time," she said. "Look at all of us tonight coming to school at 6:30 p.m. on a Tuesday night. You know they could have done that.

"You also notice they didn't exactly answer any of the real questions in there," she added. "My whole impression is that they don't want to talk about it."

Parents and teachers at the meeting also discussed the pressures of high-stakes testing and the impact on educators and students.

At Brown Elementary, teachers and administrators had spent months preparing the students to take the tests. The school's March newsletter included a tip sheet for last-minute preparations, requests for parents to encourage their children to do well and a plea from Jones to "talk each day with your child about what they are doing in class that day, and encourage them to do their best each day."

"Can't we put less stress on the children?" asked Hatch. "My 10-year-old daughter was almost worried sick she was going to get her teacher fired if she didn't do well on the test."

Peters and some of the teachers responded by explaining the importance of the test and how it was a result of the federal No Child Left Behind initiative.

After the meeting, Hatch's husband, Cary, said "It bothers me that they're saying they may never tell us what actually happened."

His wife agreed. "I don't want to know the disciplinary action, the personnel stuff they say is confidential," she said. "But I think I deserve to know what happened in my child's school."

— William Wan
Washington Post


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