County Public, Private Schools Eye New Year

OCEAN CITY — As area youths get their pencils sharpened and place their classroom supplies into their brand new backpacks, both public and local private schools are getting ready for students’ arrival and for the first bell ringing in the 2009 school year.

Worcester County public schools rode a wave of recognition and achievements throughout the summer as they ranked first in the state for both reading and math scores for grades 3, 6, and 8, while being recognized as one of only 10 school systems to score a High School Assessment Standard, partially thanks to the fact that Worcester County has the highest graduation rate in Maryland.

Although some funding cuts were made at the school system level last spring, Worcester County Schools Public Relations Coordinator Barbara Witherow said that the organization has been proactive in making sure things are better this year, rather than just the same.

“We were very aggressive in seeking grants for this year, and we got a STEM [Science Technology Engineering and Math] Grant as well as a AYP [Adequate Yearly Progress] grant to purchase the popular math program Digi-blocks at Buckingham Elementary,” said Witherow. “In addition, we also used some of the federal stimulus money to improve our computer and technology labs, and got new SMART boards (interactive plasma display panels) for our Title 1 schools.”

Witherow noted that the county’s budget allotted $200,000 for technology, and she said that money would have only maintained the existing technology equipment that the school system already has.

Private schools, on the other hand, might assumedly have lost some students this year due to the poor economy and record unemployment rate.  However, at least on a local level, that assumption is in some cases, the exact opposite.

Valerie Sharp, admissions coordinator at Most Blessed Sacrament Catholic School near Ocean Pines, said enrollment has jumped by more than 80 students for this year, and she says parents are reevaluating their focus for education because of the times, rather than in spite of them.

“In Worcester County, we were riding the wave of good economic times for awhile there and now that things have unfortunately hit rock bottom for some people, many are simplifying their lives and reverting back to prayer and faith,” said Sharp. “Many people were living beyond their means and when things went south, they wanted to get their kids back to church and to a faith-based private school type of atmosphere. And when they saw what we had to offer for the price that we offer it, they started coming here.”

MBS seems to be the exception of area schools seeing large increases or decreases in enrollment. Witherow said that the number of students enrolled this year in Worcester County public schools is slightly up from last year, but estimated the number of new students to be less than 40.

Dr. Barry Tull, headmaster of Worcester Preparatory School, said that his enrollment numbers of almost 600 students has held true despite the tough economic times.

“We are as concerned with the economy as everyone else, and we are looking at ways to cut costs without cutting programs, but we are so pleased that the parents of our students have made the commitment to our programs and hopefully our reputation, and we hope to continue to make it rewarding and worthwhile for them to send their children here,” Tull said.

Tull said that Worcester Prep has completed an energy audit of sorts, in efforts to drive down utility costs.  As a result, there will be occupancy sensors in the rooms and efficient lighting throughout the school, which is projected to provide substantial savings.

With so many people out of work, daycare programs could assumedly be struggling as more parents may be home with their children because they are out of work.  At least on a local level, once again, the opposite holds true.

“We’ve had a waiting list for a long time, and our overall numbers are still the same,” said Little Lambs Day Care Director Jocelyn Snelsire. “We haven’t had to sacrifice the quality of our program or what we provide to the kids, although we did have to raise some tuition rates a little bit this year.”

Both public and private schools seem to be ahead of the curve in another area as well: the arts.

As some counties and states are cutting enrichment, arts and music programs nationwide, Worcester county public and private schools have actually tried to expand the programs, by way of either after-school or expanded in-school programs.

“The arts has always kind of been what we sell here at Worcester Prep,” said Tull.

Witherow said that the public school system is trying to expand the arts and music programs while paying mind to offering top-notch technology equipment for the students.

“Some parents were very concerned about the threat of budget cuts or alleged cuts to enrichment programs or art and music, but our programs in those areas continue to grow in leaps and bounds,” said Sharp at MBS. “That’s one of the first things new families have been asking us when they come here.”