School & District Management

Velvet Glove, Steel Hand

By John Gehring — January 14, 2004 9 min read
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In a small room on the third floor of Baltimore’s public school headquarters, a facilities manager is on the hot seat. It’s a week before Christmas break, but faces are stern. The mood is far from holiday cheer.

Bonnie Copeland seems mild-mannered, but she's determined to shake up the troubled Baltimore city schools.

On a large screen are pictures of clogged toilets, vandalized restrooms, and broken soap dispensers. The images from middle and high schools around the district make everyone frown. A few people squirm in their seats. Bonnie Copeland, the new chief executive officer charged with cleaning up the Baltimore schools, wants answers.

“This is a grave concern to many people,” she says, looking up at the pictures. “Who is responsible for that bathroom? Northwestern looks exactly the same as it did two weeks ago. Nothing has been done.”

The manager standing at the front of the room does his best to assure Copeland that people are working on it. An awkward silence passes. A few school administrators around the table go back and forth discussing how things could get so bad.

“If my kid had to go into that bathroom, I would find out who was accountable, and that person would be fired,” says the district’s chief of staff, Jeffery Grotsky, his voice rising. “None of our kids should have to be in a bathroom like that.”

Copeland sits at the head of the table and listens. “So what are we going to do?” she asks. “Is it possible during the holiday to do a blitz cleanup?”

The facilities manager and his staff quickly agree that can be done. The meeting moves on to the next item.

Bonnie Copeland the chief executive officer of the 90,000-student Baltimore schools, listens during a meeting as members of her administration give updates on their departments.

Bonnie Copeland, left, the chief executive officer of the 90,000-student Baltimore schools, listens during a meeting as members of her administration give updates on their departments.
—Photograph by Allison Shelley/Education Week

Leaders of the 90,000-student Baltimore school district hope the meeting is indicative of a new era of accountability and improved performance for an urban district that has had four superintendents in the past six years. Change is the buzzword of the hour in Baltimore. The day after she was hired, Copeland announced the most radical restructuring in the system’s history, including the firing of up to 1,000 of the district’s 12,000 employees, to address a $58 million deficit in its $914 million budget.

The bad news hit Thanksgiving week—just a day after the school board halted a national search for a CEO and named Copeland, who had been the interim schools chief, to the permanent position. The next morning,TheSun newspaper of Baltimore ran a banner headline announcing the layoffs. To date, 710 people, most of them at district headquarters, have been let go. More pink slips are in the works.

The move came after a former state lawmaker advising the school system on its financial condition told district officials that if they didn’t drastically downsize, the schools would soon be bankrupt. Copeland had the support of the school board, the state superintendent, and the mayor when she announced the news.

Along with cleaning up the system’s finances, Copeland and her staff are working to change what they say has been a culture of complacency. At “SchoolStat” meetings, which Copeland instituted, managers are expected to report and face tough probing on matters ranging from the minutiae of work- order backlogs to dips in student test scores. The meetings are modeled after “CityStat,” the program Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley imported from the New York City police department. By taking a focused look at data and grilling leaders about results, the philosophy goes, a sense of urgency will bring change.

Along with cleaning up the system's finances, Copeland and her staff are working to change what they say has been a culture of complacency.

That’s the kind of mentality Bonnie Copeland wants to instill in Baltimore.

“People were not being held accountable in the past,” says the 54- year-old CEO, who had served as the district’s interim leader since July. “There haven’t been consequences for misbehavior in the past.”

Those who have worked with Copeland, an Ohio native who has put down deep roots in Baltimore, say they have confidence that the soft-spoken leader can steer the district out of difficult waters.

“She’s a consensus builder,” says Nancy S. Grasmick, Maryland’s state schools superintendent, who worked with Copeland in the early 1990s, when Copeland spent four years as the deputy state superintendent of schools. “Baltimore needs stability. I’m hoping she is the person to provide that level of stability.”

Clementine Carr lost her job as the director of high school curriculum and instruction.

Clementine Carr, a 35-year veteran of the Baltimore district who lost her job as the director of high school curriculum and instruction, unpacks boxes from her office in her Catonsville, Md., home.
—Photograph by James W. Prichard/Education Week

Copeland started her career in education as a 21-year-old teaching 4th grade in Ohio and has lived in Baltimore for the past two decades. Before being named interim schools CEO, she was the executive director of the Fund for Educational Excellence, a local education fund that works closely with the Baltimore schools to improve academic performance. Copeland also played an important role in restructuring Baltimore’s neighborhood high schools by helping to attract some $20 million in grants from foundations to break up large high schools into smaller learning communities.

High school reform remains one of her top priorities. Next September, Baltimore will open a high school based on a model crafted by the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University here. The idea is to create small, innovative learning environments and pay particular attention to 9th graders.

Patricia Welch, the president of the Baltimore school board and the dean of the school of education and urban studies at Morgan State University here, says Copeland’s experience is just one of many strengths. Welch stresses that the schools chief’s quiet personality should not be mistaken for a lack of leadership.

‘She [Copeland] has a smooth toughness. She wears a velvet glove, but there is a steel hand underneath it. She can make the tough decisions.’

“Bonnie has a kind of meekness about her, that if you didn’t know her, you would say she is too nice to be in that kind of situation,” Welch says. “She has a smooth toughness. She wears a velvet glove, but there is a steel hand underneath it. She can make the tough decisions.”

Welch acknowledges that the school board took the risk of alienating some community members, particularly African-Americans, by abandoning a national search to hire Copeland.

“Some members of the black community were up in arms and said, ‘How dare you hire this white woman, when 85 percent of the system is African-American?’” recalls Welch, who is black. “I was attacked personally, and the board was attacked. We braced ourselves. We knew what was coming.”

At an early-morning meeting for administrators last month, Bonnie Copeland stands to welcome educators with a pep talk. “This is a good-news day,” she tells the group. “I’m not here to announce any layoffs.”

There are some scattered, nervous laughs. She acknowledges how hard the past few weeks have been, but wants people to know they are appreciated. “You’re all doing wonderful work,” she says. “I hope you’re feeling a sense of support. We are going to be a better school system.”

The educators give her a warm response. It’s the kind of reception that even Copeland herself admits has surprised her. A day after she announced the job cuts, she met with more than 150 principals to challenge them to do more with less. She steadied herself for an angry response, but received a standing ovation.

“I’m just awed by it, frankly,” she says. “People have thanked me for being honest. It’s been a gut-wrenching time. It is somber. There is a good deal of sadness for the people who have lost their jobs.”

And anger, too. At a Dec. 9 school board meeting, more than 300 community activists and union members stormed school headquarters for a rally to protest the layoffs. A few sat in the seats of board members and declared themselves the new school board before police were called in to haul them off.

“People have really just had it with the school system in Baltimore,” says Mitchell Klein, the chief organizer for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, an influential national grassroots organization whose Baltimore members demonstrated at the board meeting. “The system is in meltdown. It’s like the Baghdad version of putting back together the Baltimore city public schools.”

Klein and others contend that Baltimore’s schools still remain grossly underfunded six years after the district received an infusion of state aid in a 1997 agreement framed as a city-state partnership. In exchange for more money, the district agreed to greater state oversight. A new school board was formed with members jointly appointed by the mayor and the governor. (Copeland sat on the first restructured school board.)

Before the partnership, the school system was a branch of the Baltimore city government; the mayor appointed all board members. The Maryland Department of Education now approves the city schools’ “master plan” and has a much greater say over curriculum and management decisions.

'The system is in meltdown. It's like the Baghdad version of putting back together the Baltimore city public schools.'

Christopher Maher, the director of education for the Baltimore nonprofit group Advocates for Children and Youth, says Copeland has her hands full.

The drastic number of firings would not be necessary, he argues, if the state were providing the system with equitable funding. Even though the state in 1997 agreed to provide an additional $254 million over a five-year period to help low-performing schools, Maher and others argue the system is still being shortchanged. He also hopes Copeland will bring a more inclusive style than that of her predecessor, Carmen Russo, who was hired from New York City and was seen as brash at times.

“Copeland has inherited a laundry list of problems,” Maher says. “Among them are a complete lack of trust that existed between school headquarters and the schools. There was an attempt by Russo to centralize power and be extremely controlling about decisions.”

Russo, a consultant who now lives in Florida, has taken some heat for not addressing the district’s dire financial situation. But she said in a recent interview that most people underestimated the infrastructure Baltimore schools needed as a result of the 1997 partnership, when for the first time, functions such as the schools’ payroll and human resources were not controlled by the city government.

“Replicating the entire finance department that existed in City Hall took more time than people realized,” Russo says. “It wasn’t malfeasance. The structures didn’t exist. Everyone should have been more aggressive.”

Russo says she had a list of 500 names of people whom she recommended be laid off. No action was ever taken, however. “People wanted business as usual,” the former CEO says.

For employees in Baltimore, who had until Dec. 31 to pack up, the layoffs hit hard.

“It’s been like a wake,” says Clementine Carr, 57, the director of high school curriculum and instruction, a 35-year veteran who lost her job. “It was very painful. It’s like our joy has been stolen during the holiday season.”

Copeland acknowledges that these are painful times, but she believes the school system will emerge leaner and more productive.

“As long as I can remember, I’ve had a passion for the Baltimore city schools,” Copeland says before rushing off to another meeting. “I love the city, and I believe the way to make the city great is to have a well-educated citizenry. I don’t want to be superintendent anywhere else.”

Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from the Wallace Foundation.

A version of this article appeared in the January 14, 2004 edition of Education Week as Velvet Glove, Steel Hand


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