Eye On Annapolis: I know you have long terms goals and successes planned for our county students. Looking more to the short term as we begin a new year in an economically challenged environment, what are your top three goals for the 2011 school year?
Kevin M. Maxwell: First and foremost, we must do what it takes to raise student achievement – for all of our students—and meet the state’s Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) targets at all of our schools. As I have said publicly before, I was disappointed at the performance of our elementary and middle schools on the MSA exams last year and with the resulting number of schools that did not make AYP. Nearly eight out of every 10 of our elementary and middle schools are meeting state targets. And in both reading and math at the elementary and middle school levels, our percentage of students scoring proficient or advanced is greater than the statewide percentage.
But the fact remains that we must get better. We must find new ways, infuse new energies, and cultivate new methods to help our diverse group of students. And we must not stop when those students reach the bar. That, after all, is the floor of our success. We must not stop until our children reach the ceiling. Equally daunting in this economy, we’re going to have to do it without more resources.
We must pore over the data, direct the appropriate resources, and implement the necessary interventions for each individual student to fit the needs of that student. We must raise the achievement level of our lowest performing students and focus on the schools now below the bar, but we can never lose sight of our higher performing students and schools, either.
Inherent in raising student achievement is closing the achievement gaps that exist for some of our student groups. We have had success in some areas at several schools, but we must move faster as a system so that all of our children can achieve their full potential.
Closing the achievement gap, as well as our success in other areas, will take more than just those of us in the school system. As I have said before, no school system can be great by itself. We need our parents and our community and business partners to join with us in whatever ways they can to help us help our students. I am very proud of the relationships we have created with these groups throughout our county. It is a great strength, and we must continue to increase that strength to help even more children.
EOA: As I became more and more civically involved in the community, the number of homeless children in our school system shocked me. That number is only increasing with the economy which appears to be stagnated close to the bottom. What can parents, students, and citizens of the County do to help alleviate this problem. What resources do the schools have of which we may not be aware? What local non-profits (if any) are working with the school district on this problem?
KMM: There is no question that the number of students eligible for free and reduced-price meals has gone up dramatically in recent years. In the last two years, the jump has been more than 20 percent. Last year, more than 19,300 students – 25.9 percent of our student population – were eligible for free and reduced-price meals. Those numbers are startling, but they only tell part of the story because they don’t reflect students whose families don’t earn enough to make ends meet yet earn too much to qualify for free and reduced-price meals.
We receive, of course, federal grant money to help feed youngsters who qualify, but that is not enough. Some of our schools with higher percentages of needy students take part in a state program that provides breakfast in the classroom. We must face the reality that for some of our children, what they eat at school may well be all they have to eat all day.
Our work with local agencies is critical to our mission. There is no question that a student who worries about where his or her next meal is coming from can’t very well be expected to concentrate on the academic tasks at hand. Our schools work closely with community and business groups as well as faith-based organizations to assist in this regard. Some schools get gift cards from local churches to be dispensed to needy families. Others work with nonprofit groups to collect food that is dispensed to families.
Our most public – and biggest – effort is in conjunction with the Anne Arundel County Food Bank, which simply does an incredible job that cannot be aptly described in words. Through programs like Harvest for the Hungry – Kids Helping Kids and other initiatives, the food bank provides the means to free children from those worries and allows them to concentrate on academics. In a very real sense, they provide a means for children to build a better future for themselves, and in the process begin to end the cycle of poverty and social dependence that sometimes grips families for generations.
We need all of our families and our community partners to help us assist our neediest children. When we raise the level of education we provide to all of our students, we raise the quality of life in our county as a whole.
EOA: Earlier this summer, schools across the state got their report card and we did not fare too well. All of the elementary schools on the list are feeding into middle schools also on the list. On the surface it seems like the middle schools have a tough road ahead of them. On the other hand, 12 of the listed middle schools are being fed by elementary schools that appear to be doing fine. What is it about middle school? What can parents do to help the situation? What tool do you feel is available at your disposal to combat the problem and get these schools off the watch list?
KMM: The middle school years are difficult for students in general. Their bodies – like their outlooks and mindsets – are changing rapidly. I believe the new six-period schedule we put in place last year is the right thing for students. What we will be doing in the early portion of this school year is looking very closely at how our middle schools are using advisory periods built into the school schedule to maximize opportunities to increase student achievement.
We don’t have the luxury of time – the standards rise each year – and we don’t have the luxury of money. So we’re simply going to have to dig a little deeper, think creatively, and put the measures in place to reach the targets that are set. Nothing is off limits.
EOA: On a related topic, Annapolis High School has been a resounding success since your decision to zero-base the school and require the staff and administration to reapply for their positions. Congratulations! Since Annapolis is being fed by Bates and Annapolis middle schools, is their inclusion on the list putting the high school at risk of taking a step back?
KMM: There is no question that middle school success has a bearing on a student’s achievement at the next level. That said, I have great faith in both middle schools in the Annapolis cluster and in the high school program under the leadership of Principal Don Lilley. It is important to understand that each situation is unique and therefore there is no one correct approach for every school. Our plans at Annapolis and Bates middle schools are, I believe, the right ones for those situations.
EOA: Undeniably, we are in the worst economic times any of us have ever seen. Budgets have been slashed from boardroom to kitchen table. Coupons are now being clipped when they never were before. Your budget took a hit. Your teachers took a hit as well. Across the nation, political leaders have declined or returned salary increases as a show of support and to share in the pain. Many of the Annapolis Aldermen have even agreed to take a cut in their $12,000 stipend. You have taken a lot of criticism for your increase this year. I am pretty sure no one denies that you earned it; but have you given some thought to refusing it or perhaps redirecting it in a show of solidarity?
KMM: I wouldn’t agree that I have “taken a lot of criticism.” Almost all that I have received has been orchestrated by our teachers’ union leadership, notwithstanding that the percentage increase in my salary over my four years was far less than what teachers received during the same time period. In any event, I don’t believe it is for me to recast a mutual contract so recently negotiated with our Board.
EOA: How’s your lobster doing?
KMM: Sadly, Larry is no longer with us. He passed away a couple of years ago. I still have two fish tanks in my office.
EOA: We have almost 1300 people from Anne Arundel County reading this newsletter. Right now you have their ear. The floor is yours ….
KMM: I believe we have a very good school system in Anne Arundel County. We are consistently mentioned as one of the top jurisdictions in the state of Maryland. I am not content with simply being in that discussion, however. I want us to be the best system in the state and one of the best in the nation. I want us to be one of those systems that others point to and say, “Look at how they’re getting it done in Anne Arundel County.” I have said from the day I arrived that I believe in my heart that we are capable of achieving that goal. I still firmly believe it today, and with the help of our parents and other community partners, I believe we will get where we want to be. The road ahead is tough, with rising standards and a tough economy right in front of us. But together, we can get the job done.