Olszewski’s education workgroup sets sights on supporting the ‘whole child,’ improving school facilities
Posted by Ann Costantino on 15th December 2018
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—– By: Ann Costantino —–

Johnny Olszewski, Jr., Baltimore County Executive. Photo Credit: Candidate Social Media Page

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski, Jr’s. education workgroup met at Towson University on Friday to discuss how to move education forward under a new Baltimore County administration that Olszewski is aiming to improve.

Group co-chair, Diana Morris, said that one of the county executive’s goals is to “improve public confidence in the school district” through potentially “asking for regular reports on achievement, operational issues, school climate issues and known areas of improvement.”

The Olszewski administration is looking to the workgroup, along with other transition committees, to provide recommendations that will inform policy priorities and improve government services under the new administration.

To help realize that goal, the administration tapped Ed Gilliss, Esq. as co-chair of the education workgroup.  Mr. Gilliss is a former member and immediate past chairman of Baltimore County’s school board.  His co-chair, Ms. Morris, is the director of the Open Society Institute, a Baltimore-based philanthropic organization, founded by billionaire philanthropist George Soros.

The other workgroup members include Marisol Johnson, a former BCPS school board member who resigned from the position in 2017; Sean McComb, 2014 National Teacher of the Year who now works as a BCPS assistant principal; Abby Beytin, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County (TABCO); and Yara Cheikh, longtime education advocate, education committee member of the League of Women Voters and winner of the 2018 BCPS outstanding volunteer award.

The full roster of roughly one dozen education team members can be viewed here.

Although the group’s first meeting was not publicized when it occurred earlier this month, members reviewed and expanded upon several recommendations they are considering.  Those topics include:

  • Hiring and retention of teachers and principals.
  • Nutrition for low income and homeless youth.
  • Summer learning programs, supportive of working families, that include enrichment and remedial opportunities for students.
  • School discipline recommendations that include advocating for positive school climates to meet the social and emotional needs of all children, as well as suggestions for restorative practices aimed at reducing suspensions and expulsions.
  • Improvements in school transportation and additional bus drivers.
  • A community school model that is used with fidelity, and replicated.
  • Health, eye and dental services for students in need.
  • Providing early child (pre-k) education.
  • Expansion of opportunities for high school students, who are not on a college-track, to include certifications that allow graduates to enter the workforce at a living wage.
  • Teaching parents good practices. (“Parents don’t know what they don’t know.”)
  • Better supports for bilingual and undocumented students.
  • Improvements and suggestions for more funding for BCPS’s Gifted and Talented (GT) programs.
  • School construction and the development of a long-term facilities plan that includes buildings able to incorporate the changes of future technology and pedagogy. (Technology will be different 20 years from now.)
  • Using an “equity lens” when making school-wide decisions so that schools and students get what they need, based on their specific areas of need.
  • Increasing staff members, not just salaries, at high poverty schools in order to serve students better.

Overall, the workgroup aimed to discuss recommendations for Mr. Olzsewski that are supportive of the whole child — from pre-k to graduation, while improving school climate and facilities.

TABCO President Abby Beytin said the ideas were “things that have to be looked at,” but cannot be all “implemented immediately,” she said.  “We’re putting down the things that we are encouraging to happen,” Ms. Beytin said.

Another member stated, “School districts should not be put in a position to pit new schools and new school construction against general operation needs.”

Yara Cheikh agreed. “It shouldn’t be one or the other. He (Olszewski) should be out there saying ‘we need both,’” Ms. Cheikh said. “The question should never come up, ‘Do you choose poor construction or poor instruction?’ You just don’t choose,” she said. “We have crap facilities but good instruction? It should not be a question that we ask.”

Details about the workgroup’s recommendations will be published by the administration in January after members have had a chance to finalize and agree upon how to articulate them.

Co-chair Morris said the purpose of the education workgroup is to “… articulate some specific policy recommendations… and say… to Johnny (Olszewski) what things ‘we want you to support.’”

Ms. Morris also said that County Executive Olszewski wants to help BCPS “be fiscally accountable” and to find “how to identify cost savings.”

But her co-chair, Ed Gilliss, discouraged discussion about how to fund the workgroup’s ideas. Mr. Gilliss said it was more important for the group to “identify what we believe to be important issues…and not get caught up on whether these issues are financially or fiscally feasible or not.”

TABCO’s Ms. Beyton understood, but disagreed. “I understand the feasible part.  But when we talk about what can be done by the county executive, as opposed to what is (under) the school system’s purview, the money is definitely coming under the county executive,” Ms. Beytin said. “So, I don’t disagree that we cannot say ‘we’re not going to try for this’ if we think it’s too expensive.  That’s different than addressing the money issue,” she said.

Although Friday’s meeting was the second and final session scheduled for the workgroup, members  said an additional session may be added to provide more time for  members to discuss the recommendations before they are presented to the county executive in January.

On the campaign trail, Mr. Olszewksi said he would create a position in his administration which will act as a liaison between county government and the school board.  The administration has not yet announced who Mr. Olszewski plans to appoint to the position.  The workgroup did not address the new position in its meeting.

annc@thebaltimorepost.com