Bonnie S. Copeland, the chief executive officer of the Baltimore school system, announced on June 19 that she will step down on July 1, cutting short a tenure that was supposed to last through 2008.
Ms. Copeland, who has held her position since July 2003, will depart following a series of difficult events for the 85,000-student district, including a move this spring by state education officials to take control of failing schools under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The intervention, which would have brought new management to four high schools and seven middle schools, was blocked by the Maryland legislature. (“Baltimore Takeovers Prevented,” April 19, 2006.)
Ms. Copeland spoke with Education Week Staff Writer Lesli A. Maxwell on June 20, just before Baltimore school board members announced that Charlene Cooper-Boston, a former teacher and administrator in the district, will serve as interim schools chief.
Q: Monday’s announcement that you are leaving came as a surprise to some. Why are you leaving now?
A: I began in this position three years ago with the goal of improving student achievement and increasing graduation rates. Just today, in one of the wonderful press conferences we had, we were able to show significant improvements on the Maryland School Assessments. In grades 3 and 7, we outpaced the average gains of our state counterparts in reading and in math. And in grades 4 and 5, we are outpacing the state average gains for math. That comes on the heels of learning that our 1st and 2nd graders performed above the national average on the Stanford Achievement Test.
Last year, we increased our graduation rate by 5 percentage points and this year, we are poised to exceed that. So it seemed like the best time to go. When we started three years ago, we had a significant [budget] deficit. Mercifully, we’ve been able to retire that and pay back the loan [from the city]. The things that I set out to accomplish with our wonderful team, we’ve done so.
Q: There’s a great deal of speculation that there were political pressures brought to bear to make you resign. Were you pressured to go, especially in light of what happened last spring with the state board?
A: Unequivocally, I was not pressured. It was a mutual decision of mine and the school commissioners. The board and I had many conversations, so this is very much an amicable graduation for me.
Q: Certainly, though, the political situation in Baltimore has been complicated. How have the politics unique to Baltimore affected your ability to do the hard work that is required to improve student achievement?
A: Baltimore does have a unique governance structure; unlike any other system in the country, I think. Our board of school commissioners is jointly appointed by the mayor and the governor. There are certain things that we do in partnership with the state that are different from any other system. We have a number of oversight bodies. As part of our loan from the city, we’ve had a financial oversight committee. We are required to report monthly to the state board of education in terms of our performance on corrective actions as well as our fiscal progress. We have interactions that are part of policy and practice to report to the City Council for certain initiatives and regularly before the state legislature. It was particularly heightened during our financial crisis.
Q: But how did this tangled web of oversight and the politics at City Hall, the governor’s office, and the state board of education impact your ability to focus on and make strides in raising student achievement?
A: The true joy that came to me in my time here was the opportunity to interact with students, teachers, principals, parents, and families. I do regret that a lot of this prevented me from spending more time in our schools.
Q: Yes, but how have you dealt with the politics surrounding the school system, especially how it’s become such a key issue in the governor’s race? [Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, is running for re-election, while Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley is campaigning for the Democratic nomination.]
A: I have said this over and over again. I don’t do politics. I’m an educator, and an educator at heart. My focus has been on teaching and learning. I am proud of our team in what we’ve accomplished in terms of student performance gains and increases in graduation rates. As much as I could, I stayed focused on teaching and learning.
Q: What do you view as being the chief accomplishments during your tenure in the district?
A: We had begun elementary school reform several years ago now. As a result of those initiatives, we’ve reduced class sizes, brought in new and robust curriculum, and added academic coaches, and have since consistently seen student achievement increase in grades 1 through 5.
We have also turned our attention to high school reform. We garnered $21 million from the [Bill & Melinda] Gates Foundation and nine local foundations. As a result of that effort, we have seen significant increases in graduation rates. And now we are beginning to turn our attention to middle school reform. We found that students in grades 6, 7, and 8 did well in K-8 schools, so we have increased the number of K-8 schools and will continue to do so over the next three years.
One happy outcome is that we’ve been able to attract national partners and people who have invested in the Baltimore city schools. We have a nice grant from the Ford Foundation to increase arts and culture in our curriculum. We have support from the Stupski Foundation, the Gates Foundation, the [Annie E.] Casey Foundation and the Open Society Institute, as well as nine local foundations. We became one of the only expansion sites for New Leaders for New Schools [which prepares people to become principals].
We have increased the number of choices for students and families. We now have 12 charter schools that parents can choose from, more than any other district in Maryland. We’ve opened up schoolwide choice at the high school level, so that over 85 percent of 8th graders made a choice where they wanted to go to high school.
Q: Given your experience, what lessons can Baltimore offer to other urban districts and what do you believe are the most important qualities that leaders need to run urban districts?
A: Whoever is leading the school system, urban or not, has to believe deeply in the students that he or she is serving and have the highest expectations that those students can and will achieve high standards. The true belief in children has to be inherent in any urban school system. The knowledge, and this seems trite, that school systems cannot produce these achievements alone. It does take a village, it does take wonderful relationships with parents and families, wonderful relationships with business and community partners. It’s about providing services to students that aren’t just academic and how we coordinate with police, housing, business and engaging the whole community to have these high expectations for our students and to provide opportunities beyond academics to help them succeed.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: I don’t have a fully defined next step. It will certainly be in support of children and youth in Baltimore City or in some other urban environment.