ANNAPOLIS — Worcester County elementary and middle school students learned last week that they scored highest in the state — paralleling the district’s high school students’ recent scores — on a new standardized state exam that aligns with the Common Core curriculum.
County schools superintendent Jerry Wilson said the high performance was expected, because Worcester public schools, historically, have performed above the state’s average and that of surrounding counties on previous standardized exams like the High School Assessments and Maryland State Assessments. This year, Worcester County schools also had some of the highest scores on the other standardized state exams, with nearly 98 percent of high school students passing the Algebra HSA assessment and 94.1 percent passing the English HSA assessment.
But, Wilson said, it is more than the numbers that tell why students from Worcester County are proving to be some of the most successful students on state standardized assessments.
As the only oceanfront county in the state, Worcester County Public Schools have an ever-changing population with an influx of people in the summer that leaves fewer than 6,700 students in the county for the school year.
The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers test, or PARCC, was administered in 11 states and the District of Columbia to elementary, middle and high school students, for the first time this past spring.
“We certainly knew that the PARCC assessment was far different from (previous) state assessments,” Wilson said of the county, which also ranked highest in the state for both the English 10 and Algebra I PARCC exams.
“But we have, for many years, done well on state assessments,” he said. “We had higher expectations.”
On PARCC scores released in late October, approximately 58.5 percent of Worcester County high school students passed the English 10 with a Level 4 or Level 5 score, which is high above the average state’s high school passing rate at 39.7 percent. Around 56.6 percent of Worcester students scored on Level 4 and Level 5 on Algebra I, which is also above Maryland high school’s passing rate at 31.2 percent.
Elementary and middle school students in grades three through eight in Worcester County also scored much higher than the state’s average in PARCC assessment scores released in early December. Around 54 percent of elementary and middle school students reached on-grade level reading, compared to a statewide average of just 39 percent of Maryland students who reached the same standard. And approximately 43 percent of Worcester County elementary and middle school students passed the PARCC math assessment in comparison to just 29 percent of students who passed statewide.
The county was the only jurisdiction that did not administer the PARCC Algebra II exam because the district is in the midst of a transitional period for math courses to better comply with the PARCC, said Carrie Sterrs, public relations officer for Worcester County Public Schools.
“We used to be one of the fastest-growing county school systems in the state (by population), according to percentages,” said former Superintendent Jon Andes.
During his 16-year tenure as superintendent, from 1996 to 2012, Andes began to build the county’s school system up by implementing early childhood development programs that ensured students would be reading at grade-level by third grade, he said.
He also expanded on afterschool programs to provide extra educational support, proper transportation and sometimes dinner for the kids who stayed. And the school system began developing community partnerships, with people “who deeply cared about the children,” said Andes, who now works as the executive director of Eastern Shore of Maryland Educational Consortium.
Despite the low population density across the mostly rural county, people truly come together because of the schools, Andes said.
“For example, there’s the Pocomoke community where there’s an elementary, middle and high school,” he said. “Most kids start in Pre-K with the same group of kids they walk across the stage to get their diploma with and that creates great pride in the school system.”
In short, according to community members, Worcester County’s public schools are a bit of a family affair.
Teachers, parents and administrators are constantly collaborating to bring students to the next level, said Delegate Mary Beth Carozza, R-Worcester and Wicomico
Carozza, who has had seven nieces and nephews graduate from Worcester County schools, took part in presenting laptops to every ninth-grader at all three of the county’s high schools in early September as a part of an initiative to have a 1:1 ratio of technology to students. The laptops will stay with the students during their four years in high school, with plans to recycle them to new incoming students later.
However, not even the county fronted the bill for the laptops. Rather a newly formed private organization, The Worcester County Education Foundation, picked up the bill for it, Carozza said.
“When they presented the laptops to the students, it was a major event because the students understood that the community leaders were making an investment in them,” Carozza said.
The foundation, chaired by Todd Ferrante, owner of Park Place Jewelers along the Ocean City boardwalk, focuses on improving technology in the county’s public schools and provides grants for teachers through its private funds base. Following a $100,000 donation last year from Taylor Bank, headquartered in in Berlin, Maryland, the community group immediately launched into increasing the technology available to students with an end goal of 1:1 ratio of technology to students, Ferrante said.
“We created this so that if the government falls short in funding, we can help fund some of the areas,” Ferrante said. “That way it can be accelerated by an outside source of money and we can help to make a difference.”
Most, if not, all of the 15 board members have had kids go through the school system in Worcester County, Ferrante said.
Ferrante, himself, has a daughter in third grade.
“The private funds we raise from the community add to our community in the end, and can help give our students a world class education,” Ferrante said. “The PARCC scores are just an example of our hard work toward improving education.”
Ferrante said their next goal is to buy laptops for next year’s incoming ninth graders and to find a way to provide access to Wifi for every student in the county.
More than just contributing resources to schools, said state Sen. Jim Mathias, D-Somerset, Wicomico and Worcester counties, the collaboration among teachers, parents and administrators is obvious at every school in the district. He’s seen it first hand, he said, because he makes it a priority to visit area schools and attend awards events that celebrate students around the county.
“For years I have gone around to the schools and see the parents and grandparents in the classroom having conversations with the teachers,” Mathias said. “We have tremendous families here that are integrated into the school system.”
Mathias is one of the many county leaders who are involved in expanding educational opportunities for students, and visiting the county’s 14 schools.
“At the end of the day, when we show publicly that there’s opportunity here for the next generation, that’s the compelling piece that drives folks to get involved, the county commissioners and the state delegation,” Mathias said. “Creating opportunities for the next generation takes money, but that’s when you have the return on investment with the performance in Worcester County.”
Other local initiatives include Carozza’s efforts to put together a recent expo that introduced soon-to-be high school graduates to trade schools and options beyond a college education, she said.
“It’s important that students realize there are other options out there, like construction, for example, is a booming business,” Carozza said.
Local construction businesses gathered together and showed off their latest technologies like drones and scanners that Carozza, a graduate of Worcester’s Stephen Decatur High School, hopes will draw students into the field.
“The point being is when we talk about the community in general, these expos are real examples where you have, not only the financial investment, but you also have the time commitment,” Carozza said. “It’s a roll up your sleeves approach to working with the teachers, administrators, students and parents.”
This approach could be explained by the smaller, more intimate settings of classrooms in Worcester County, which has the smallest student-teacher ratio in the state at 11:1. Smaller class sizes, Andes said, make a difference when it comes to individualized attention. While Worcester County schools have made small classes a priority since Andes took office in 1996, a majority of other Maryland school districts have between 14 and 16 students per teacher.
But smaller classroom sizes equate to higher costs per student.
According to Maryland’s school funding formula, Worcester receives very little state funding because it is ranked as one of the wealthiest counties in the state. The 24 jurisdictions spend an average of $13,400 per pupil, with around $6,000 of that coming from state funding, according to the Maryland State Department of Education Fact Book.
While the county’s public schools do spend the most per pupil in comparison to the rest of the state, the county fronts around three-quarters of that bill. In 2013, each Worcester County Public Schools student cost around $16,220, with the county paying a little over $11,000 of that, according to the fact book.
“Worcester County, compared to others, is not receiving that much tax money, so what you have to use is the time, energy and get involvement of county commissioners, members of the board of education and teachers being on site in the schools,” said Carozza. “It raises the level of expectations for the students.”
Nearby Wicomico and Somerset counties, which both performed below the state average on a majority of the levels of the PARCC assessments, also receive much more than Worcester County — around three-quarters of their public school funding comes from the state.
Besides the community resources, the county also dedicated slightly more than half of its entire operating budget to public education.
“(The involvement) shows that you don’t have to have a reliance on state money and the county has made that a priority when there are competing demands for those county tax dollars,” Carozza said. “No. 1, you cannot take the county or state funds for granted and No. 2, you have to show accountability for those dollars.”