Once while walking through a Montgomery County high school, Barrie Ciliberti had to pick his way through students sitting on a hallway floor playing banjos while other teen-agers sat in classrooms studying mathematics or reading Shakespeare.
Ciliberti said he felt dreadful when he saw those students whiling away precious educational time. He thought there was something intrinsically wrong with a system and school board that would condone such lax standards and discipline at a time in the late 1970s when high school test scores were slipping.
Ciliberti's reaction was to run for the Montgomery County school board. His platform for the approaching September primary election is what he calls simple common sense. His more liberal opponents call Ciliberti's stance little better than a copy of the current board majority's conservatism.
Ciliberti is seeking one of four school board seats up for election. A Sept. 14 primary will narrow the field of candidates to eight, and voters will choose four in the at-large nonpartisan Nov. 2 election. The four seats to be vacated are now occupied by Joseph Barse, Carol Wallace, Eleanor Zappone and Richard L. Claypoole.
What Ciliberti stands for is a school system that has classroom performance as its number one priority, he says. He backs many of the actions of the present conservative majority on the board. He favors putting more emphasis on discipline in the schools and on academic achievement, and supports the still-unresolved question of standardized, countywide final exams.
"I will debate on any issue my point of view that common sense in education requires a good grasp of educational philosophy," Ciliberti said. "The fact is that we just can't get away from the truism of keeping a strong curriculum; it will just come back to haunt us. Learning requires hard work and application and we need more of that in the schools."
As a 45-year-old former high school teacher, now an education professor at Bowie State College and father of three boys, Ciliberti says he has witnessed firsthand a great decline in educational standards. It is a trend he says he has watched with a mixture of horror and frustration and now hopes to help reverse in Montgomery County.
"I've been on both sides of the desk," he said, "and one of the biggest threats I've seen is that solid achievement by students has been forgotten. For a while in the mid- to late-1970s, education was devastated by the self-styled liberal approach to 'do your own thing' with an education of a student. I think that is wrong and serves as a real step backward for the educational system."
Ciliberti says his idea of an ideal school system goes beyond stern schoolmarm tactics.
"Really what I would like to see done in the schools is nothing more than what has been historically regarded as liberal in education," he said, "and that is an emphasis on performance, an emphasis on discipline and an emphasis on a challenging and complete curriculum. The classroom is the first line of defense against ignorance and good learning programs should be supported no matter what."
Ciliberti strongly opposes promoting students because of age rather than achievement.
"If we continue social promotions we would see the schools going back to the trend of students who cannot read getting diplomas," Ciliberti said. "What we would end up getting then is functional illiterates who are not dumb, but just haven't been taught how to read. I think the current board majority has done a good job about lessening that problem. I would just like to help to make sure that direction can be continued."
Ciliberti comes into the campaign with a broad background of educational and past political involvement. In 1968 he unsuccessfully ran for the Maryland House of Delegates from his home district in Rockville. In 1978 he was narrowly defeated in a bid for a seat on the Montgomery County Council.
In addition to his job as a college professor, Ciliberti runs a preschool in Montgomery County.
Ciliberti has not always been closely involved with the county schools. When his oldest son was in junior high school in 1978, Ciliberti had the youth transferred to a private, church-run school because he disapproved of the way Montgomery County schools were being run.
"The greatest things a parent can give to his children are love and a good education," Ciliberti said. "When I saw my sons not getting the education they needed I put them in schools where they could learn to their potential.
"Back when my eldest son went into eighth grade in Montgomery County schools he entered with a ninth-grade reading level, but when he left eighth grade for ninth he only had an eighth-grade reading level. Not only that, but by then he had learned to identify different types of marijuana by their odor. To me the discipline and education were too lax and with that we took our kids out of the school district."
Ciliberti's eldest son, Christopher, 18, now attends Loyola College in Baltimore. Steven, 15, is going to St. John's College High and Eric, 10, is attending Grace Episcopal Academy, both private schools.
Ciliberti said he thinks he can do something now to show concerned parents how to improve their county's schools. He said he believes education and discipline have been improved greatly, and he hopes to see that progress continue.