Sharing the stage last week with international philanthropist George Soros, Baltimore schools chief Carmen V. Russo offered her first public outline of a plan to restructure the city’s nine neighborhood high schools in coming years.
Meanwhile, Mr. Soros announced that the Baltimore office of his Open Society Institute was awarding the district $229,000 to help draw up the restructuring plans. Mr. Soros’ network of philanthropies worldwide gives away some $500 million a year to support various social causes.
Speaking to a crowd of school officials, students, and reporters in the library of Southern High School here on April 23, Ms. Russo said that three of Baltimore’s high schools would be converted into smaller schools with specific academic themes by the fall of 2002.
“High school reform is my top priority here in Baltimore and has been my passion throughout my career,” said Ms. Russo, who came to the 106,000-student district 10 months ago and previously supervised New York City’s high schools. “Large, impersonal high schools must be broken up.”
Three more high schools will be converted in each of the two following years, the superintendent added. Enrollment in the city’s high schools now ranges from 900 to about 2,500 students.
Students here seemed to welcome the news that their own Southern High, which enrolls nearly 1,500 students, will be converted to a technology high school that draws students from across Baltimore.
While the district has seen improvements in the performance of its elementary school pupils, its high school record has been another matter. In some of the schools targeted for change, more than half the students drop out between the 9th and 12th grades.
“We’re poised as a school system to deliver results,” Ms. Russo said.
Although many details must still be worked out, the superintendent said the Open Society grant would help the district meet an estimated $2 million price tag to write individual plans for each high school, as well as to train teachers for new roles. More money will be needed, though, to upgrade facilities, she added.
Without formally committing more money to the project, Mr. Soros, who has made a fortune in international finance, hinted that future financial support from his foundation was possible.
“We are working to create a syndicate, if you like, or cooperative to help the school system,” said Mr. Soros, 70, who was born in Hungary and now lives outside New York City. “We are working on an ongoing relationship.”
The money from the Open Society Institute, which is three years into a five-year effort to address pressing social needs in Baltimore, could do more than help pay for the high school conversions.
The grant also gives a much-needed vote of confidence to the district, which has had its share of problems in recent years. In 1997, state officials in Maryland intervened in the academically troubled system to assume greater leadership in its day-to-day operations through a partnership with the city. (“Plan Tying Increased Aid, State Control of Baltimore Schools Backed,” April 16, 1997.)
“This [school] administration is reaching out to people who have been asleep for a long time,” said Diana Morris, the executive director of the Open Society Institute-Baltimore. “This is the kind of political leadership and talent that’s needed.”
Mr. Soros agreed Baltimore is on the upswing. “When I was first here, there was a lot of philanthropic action, but all that it did was keep it from sinking faster than it was sinking,” he told a group of reporters after the press briefing. “Recently, I’ve had the feeling that things are moving forward.”
Since establishing his first foundation in 1979—the Open Society Fund—Mr. Soros has gone on to establish a network of foundations around the world that seek to promote democracy through educational, social, and legal reform.
In Baltimore, Open Society helped create the Baltimore Urban Debate League—a school-based youth- debate program—and has contributed $6 million to help expand after-school options for local children.
Elsewhere, Open Society’s national office in New York City has spent $100 million over the past five years to help set up and promote after-school programs there.
“The main thrust of the after-school programs is to bring in what is lacking from school curriculum, like art,” Mr. Soros said. “After-school programs are to broaden the experience of schoolchildren.”
A version of this article appeared in the May 02, 2001 edition of Education Week as Baltimore Chief Unveils Plan For Revamped High Schools