City schools: Backward on finances, forward on governance

Mark K. Joseph

October 04, 1991|By Mark K. Joseph

YOU HAVE to understand, there is no school system. At best, what you have in Baltimore is a loose confederation of schools."

So said Richard C. Hunter, former city school superintendent, a few months after his arrival here amid great anticipation that he might lead a dramatic turnaround in Baltimore schools.

Hunter was right, of course. But his feeble response to that loose confederation in large part contributed to his downfall. He tried to tame that undisciplined conglomeration by "reorganizing" the bureaucracy and forcing the schools to fit into a neatly aligned structure. He failed, miserably.

Much has been made of Hunter's decision to unilaterally squelch plans by Barclay Elementary School to adopt the unique curriculum of the private, elite Calvert School. Hunter argued that the Calvert curriculum was antiquated and inappropriate for a public school mostly comprising poor, black inner-city children.

That he might have been right, at least on strict pedagogical terms, was ultimately irrelevant. Hunter had failed to recognize the real strengths of the Barclay School proposal -- Barclay's dynamic principal, its innovative and committed teachers and its energized and politically astute parents.

Given that irresistible combination of strengths, it's not too surprising that the Barclay-Calvert experiment survived the strong opposition of Hunter and the faceless bureaucracy on North Avenue. Indeed, early reports suggest that the Barclay kids are doing quite well with the "elite" Calvert curriculum.

Hunter' successor, Walter G. Amprey, faces a host of problems that could rebuff the most confident educator: a chronic lack of funding, students who reflect all too fully the community's own maladies, too many teachers who probably should be considered "at risk" themselves. At the heart of this "system" is a large, unwieldy, unresponsive, clique-ridden bureaucracy apparently more committed to maintaining itself than to guiding a rebirth of city schools.

As overwhelming as these problems are, however, there are reasons to be hopeful. Dozens of small pilot projects, experiments and school-based activities are flourishing in the schools. In fact, despite the widely held -- and largely accurate -- belief that city schools are failing their basic mission, that same .. system is gaining national recognition for its creative programs. For example:

* "Success for All," an experiment at Abbottston and a few other city elementary schools, shows great promise in meeting the goal that every student performs at or above grade level in math, reading and writing by the third grade.

* The Edna McConnell Clarke middle school initiative, at West Baltimore and Calverton, is redesigning the old junior high school model to provide a true transition for adolescents between their elementary and high school years.

* Spencer Holland's "Project 2000" and other efforts target young black males, who need special academic attention and black male role models.

* Perhaps the most ambitious effort of all is the so-called school restructuring initiative, in which 14 schools are experimenting with school-based management, seeking to shift decision-making from the central office to the principals, teachers and parents of the individual schools.

Some of these projects are pilots designed to test their value if replicated across the city. Others are designed to fit the needs and desires of just one school. Generally, they share characteristics: a cooperative, open and innovative principal; better-than-average teachers most likely recruited by that principal; unusual support from parents and, more often that not, an outside force which offers some additional resources and attention.

To the degree that these experiments are successful, it's often because the people in a school have assumed responsibility for its success, and they have "beat the system." Repeatedly, we read of these small success stories, but rarely do these "models" continue to work when expanded widely. The very size and complexity of this school "system" and the inbred, self-serving culture at North Avenue mitigate against large-scale, system-wide solutions.

This is not to suggest that piecemeal projects are the best we ever can hope for from city schools or that we, as a community, should be willing to settle for successes that improve the chances of only a few children. Rather, it suggests that, instead of attempting to control and stifle innovation, Amprey should seek to create an environment in which individual schools take responsibility for their actions, in which educators who are responsible risk-takers are rewarded and esteemed rather than ostracized, in which schools are encouraged to be entrepreneurial, in which "outsiders" who offer resources and support are welcomed and embraced.

In other words, let a thousand flowers grow. Those flowers need not all be roses and they need not all be lined up in orderliness. Nevertheless, this profusion of ideas should be brought into the context of a larger, overarching plan.

The real challenge facing Amprey is creating an overall set of objectives, some general guidelines applicable to everyone and

a renewed understanding that individual schools -- and the people associated with them -- are both to be supported and held fully accountable for producing results.

Mark K. Joseph, president of Shelter Development/Shelter Properties Corporations, is a former president of the Baltimore Board of School Commissioners.

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