In Baltimore, A New Team Takes Charge

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Five months into a city-state partnership to manage this city's flagging public schools, the unique arrangement has brought both a sense of optimism and real change to the 110,000-student district.

A new chief executive officer has cleaned house at the district headquarters and several troubled schools, and a $30 million infusion of state aid has brought a slew of new reforms.

Most children in grades 1-3 are in smaller classes, and some are using fresh instructional materials. Retired teachers have signed on to help students at schools that are staying open as long as three hours after the final bell.

"It's almost like a fountain of youth has come to Baltimore," said Bernice E. Whelchel, the principal of City Springs Elementary School. "I hope it will mean academic success and excellence."

But despite the positive outlook, few here expect the deep-rooted problems and abysmal test scores that have plagued the district for years to disappear any time soon.

"People are watching closely to see if this is one more grand effort that falls flat, or whether we're serious about holding people accountable and delivering improvement," said district CEO Robert E. Schiller, who is serving on an interim basis. "It is a system in crisis with many components in need of repair."

Joint Control

While state governments have intervened in several other low-achieving districts nationwide, the city-state partnership governing the Baltimore schools in many ways marks an evolution in such efforts. Instead of a wholesale state takeover, the new law recognized the importance of local involvement by allowing Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke to share in the appointment of a fresh school board.

And the law requires the district to make academic strides before it can reap additional state money. ("Plan Tying Increased Aid, State Control of Baltimore Schools Backed," April 16, 1997.)

Charged with putting this new system in place, and with making it work, is the 50-year-old Mr. Schiller, a former state superintendent in Michigan. Since coming here in June, he has emphasized that his appointment is an interim one--a status that he says gives him the freedom to make tough decisions.

One of those decisions, that he would not discuss salary increases until the Baltimore Teachers' Union came up with a new evaluation system tied to student achievement, brought a quick and angry response. On Sept. 4, the union, an American Federation of Teachers affiliate whose members have not seen a raise in three years, asked teachers to decline any work that falls outside the strict confines of their contract--such as the new after-school programs.

Emphasis on Early Years

At the school level, many of the reform efforts focus on grades 1-3. Mr. Schiller hopes that emphasis will create a solid foundation on which the whole district will flourish.

Visits to several elementary schools and interviews with educators during the first few weeks of the school year revealed many of these policies and extra resources at work:

  • At Medfield Heights Elementary School, parents leading their little ones to class were pleased to hear that a popular kindergarten teacher has been coaxed out of a year's retirement to work part time with 1st graders who need extra help. The district has recruited about 150 retired educators, who will be paid an hourly wage.
  • At City Springs Elementary, a brick-faced bulwark in a rough neighborhood, the after-school program will keep the building open until 6:30 p.m. three nights a week. Children will learn math and science through activities such as rowing in the city's Inner Harbor. The school, like many others in the district with similar programs, will receive about $35,000 to pay for it.
  • At Robert W. Coleman Elementary School three new teachers have enabled classes to shrink from an average of 30 to 18 students in grades 1-3. One teacher told Principal Addie E. Johnson that the new arrangement is "sheer heaven." The district has hired more than 200 new teachers so far to reduce class sizes.
  • And at elementary schools throughout the city, students in grades 1-5 took new standardized tests in reading and math this month. Unlike the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, these exams will provide results for individual students and serve as the benchmarks for measuring their progress.

"If children don't build a strong foundation of literacy, that's the root cause for later failures," Mr. Schiller said. "My entire premise is to invest downstream to get results upstream."

Free To Be Unpopular

The school board has liked Mr. Schiller's approach so much that it has extended his contract from October to December.

That his office looks like a hotel room, with no diplomas on the wall or business cards on the desk, reinforces his statement that he is not a candidate for the permanent job.

Mr. Schiller views his temporary status as an advantage that allows him to make unpopular decisions and frees him from courting political allies.

He has dismissed several top administrators, as well as principals at 10 of the 50 Baltimore schools that the state has deemed eligible for serious state intervention because of extremely low test scores. Though the state is monitoring those schools, it has not yet taken control of any of them.

Mr. Schiller left open the possibility that he may recommend more severe intervention in such schools, which would almost certainly rile the teachers' union.

Soon after his arrival, Mr. Schiller provoked the ire of the 8,000-member union by demanding that it come up with an evaluation process that satisfies the school board and state officials before negotiating wage increases.

Marcia Brown, the union's president, said she has already submitted an evaluation proposal and is eager to make it official. But she said its development should not preclude salary talks. The union is also balking at the administration's demand that student test scores be one of the criteria used to evaluate teachers.

'Honeymoon Period'

After three years without a raise, Ms. Brown said, the union was shocked that the school board did not set aside any of this year's $30 million in extra state money for salary hikes. She said its members are declining to participate in voluntary after-school programs to send a message.

"This doesn't mean teachers don't support the reforms, but the system has to address salaries," Ms. Brown said. "When Baltimore salaries can't compete with surrounding counties, you get into a vicious cycle of hiring inexperienced teachers and then blaming them for not doing well."

Aside from her dismay over the salary and teacher-evaluation issues, Ms. Brown praised Mr. Schiller and the school board for their zeal and dedication.

The board intends to hire a permanent schools chief by December. It has hired a Chicago-based consulting firm to assist with the search.

"We're in a kind of a honeymoon period with high expectations," said state Delegate Howard P. Rawlings, who helped create the city-state partnership. "But the school district was leaderless for months, and to turn the system around will require a great deal of investment, time, and energy."

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