They basically earn B's and C's. They're smart, but not bright enough to be labeled "gifted and talented." Sometimes they participate in class. Sometimes they don't.
They are what Susan J. Cook, Howard County's newly elected school board member, calls "average" children. And they are a cluster of students who are largely overlooked, the 42-year-old Columbia resident says.
"We're meeting their needs, but we're not helping them to excel," Cook said in an interview last week, "and those are two very different things. There's nothing really to stimulate them, to excite them."
Cook, a part-time secretary at Patuxent Valley Middle School, edged out Sandra French for the school board slot on Nov. 6, winning by 740 votes. She will be sworn in Dec. 6.
Cook pitched herself as the "voice of students and teachers," attacking waste in the school system, urging that teachers be paid for after-school staff development training, pressing for better treatment of disabled students and promising not to forget the average child.
Cook, who has two children in Howard County schools, also emphasized her involvement with the school system for the last 14 years, during which she has been president of three Columbia PTAs.
"I think people knew that I had an idea of what was going on in the schools," Cook said.
She said her longtime involvement is what has fed her passion for average students. She noticed that the county was doing "wonderful things" for its gifted and talented youths and for its remedial students, but hadn't created many programs for all the students in between.
Cook would like to see changes in curriculum, as well as projects that will "truly interest and inspire them. And it doesn't have to be all academic . . . . I'm not just pushing for the children to raise their grades. If you can get them interested, they'll want to do better."
Her concern for average students spreads into almost every issue, including her support for the seven-period day. Cook said the extra period should be used to offer extra music and art classes as well as academic courses, to accommodate all students.
"It's not fair to all the kids to make everyone take academics," she said. "While we can't neglect some, we can't overwhelm others."
Cook also endorses more programs for students with disabilities, another group she feels that the county hasn't served well enough. She said the county sends a few students with disabilities to Montgomery County, at the cost of $20,000 per pupil, a practice that disturbs her.
Her primary concern is to see more of these students mainstreamed in the most effective, sensitive manner. "This is a top priority of mine," she said. "I feel they have been neglected an awful long time. I don't know if we are doing all we can do for them."
Another of Cook's passions is ending wasteful spending. Cook has said that as a secretary at Patuxent Valley Middle School, she has gotten "an eyeful" of how wasteful the system can be. She recalls, for instance, that once the school needed a refrigerator for one of its conference rooms. Under the bidding system, it cost $300. Cook said its retail value was about $125.
Although Cook said she thinks there are "many ways we could trim costs," she advocates an examination of the system's procurement procedure, in which contracts for projects are bid upon by various companies.
But Cook said that, if she has her way, no student programs will be cut. "I simply refuse to cut programs," she said. "And I refuse to cut anything that will affect our kids."