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Q&A: Baltimore Educator Offers School-Eye View of Reform

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What have teachers learned from their experiences with school reform? To find out, members of the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and the Coalition of Essential Schools held a daylong symposium recently in Washington, D.C., to share their observations.

Marian Finney, the curriculum coordinator at Walbrook High School in Baltimore, was one of the teachers representing the coalition.

Walbrook, a charter member of the coalition, serves 1,350 students, 99 percent of whom are African-American. The school's "essential school" activities began in 1985 with the 9th grade, and were expanded schoolwide this year.

Ms. Finney elaborated on her remarks at the symposium in a discussion with Assistant Editor Ann Bradley.

Q. You mentioned at the symposium that the "lounge talk" at your school has changed since the project began. How?

A. Prior to the entire school becoming involved in restructuring, many times [The talk] would be about personal tidbits or about what's happening with a student ... that they felt should be shared. Sometimes, it was more "I can't," as opposed to "I can," or "What can we do?" Now, it's more "we" and directed toward our stated mission, toward goals that are central and essential to the school, as opposed to individual interests.

Q.. What makes you optimistic that your efforts to improve schooling can succeed? How are the students and their parents reacting, for example?

A. This year, the Baltimore public school system has undertaken a citywide restructuring project with 14 schools. We are part of that. Not only do staff members buy into us replicating the pilot, but that also gears us for additional support from other schools in the community and from the administration.

We had a real "shopping mall" high school. There were certain core subjects that the system required. Only a special group [of students] would do four years of math, four years of science, four years of social studies or community service. We have now identified a core curriculum in which all of our students complete four years of math [and] four years of science, graduate by exhibition of mastery, and participate in community service and extracurricular clubs.

We've got parental support like you cannot believe in developing this model.

The students have bought into it. Our math starts at Algebra 1. We do have students who need pre-algebra skill building, but we have moved away from applied-type math, and our parents supported us in that effort.

All of our seniors must complete 75 hours of community service. We haven't had any students balk--they've enjoyed it ....

Q. Your school has achieved remarkable results in boosting attendance and lowering the dropout rate. How did you do that?

A. With the same kinds of things. We have very strict instructional teams in the 9th and 10th grade. Kids only go to these four teachers and an elective teacher. We check [on students] throughout the day .... If there is an absence, we call their homes. The teams meet and have non-threatening conferences to allow the kids to express what their concerns are and talk about whatever may be on their minds. We know their parents, and we interact with them more than in just the teacher-student relationship.

Q. What makes you pessimistic? Is it just too much work?

A. It is a lot of work. One of the things that definitely must be continued is funding for staff development and other things necessary for this kind of program to continue to grow and be successful.

I guess the danger in funding sources being dried up makes me a little bit pessimistic, and the fact that we've had a lot of things in education that preceded this and have not enjoyed continuous support--they have been sort of faddish. If this ever gets fad status ....

There is a push right now from the President's office on down to look at education and revamp it. If that level of intensity wavers ....

Q. How did it make you feel when some participants at the conference said they think school reform is still tinkering around the edges and has not addressed the kinds of systemic changes that will make the efforts last? Do you agree with them?

A. I don't agree with them. Some of those folks saying that, I don't think they're in school every day. In order for you to get the feeling that it's going to last, you have to realize it has to grow.

If we had, in this building, 20 additional staff people and could each day be doing staff development to move this along quickly, and if it were all in place, and we still weren't making progress, then I would say there is validity in what they're saying.

The community has to support the academic climate of schools. We need parents in other institutions to become movers, {to help motivate] our kids to be successful.

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