Tesseract off on the wrong foot Reformers meet Harlem Park parents

Judd P. Anderson

July 15, 1992|By Judd P. Anderson

TESSERACT is the name given to the program under which a profit-making Minneapolis firm has contracted to run nine inner-city Baltimore schools. The word, derived from a children's book, refers to the "fifth dimensional corridor for traveling to a destination one could never otherwise reach."

But judging by the company's first exposure last week at Harlem Park Middle School, Tesseract has yet to enter the first and second dimensions.

A group of about 100 parents expressed anger -- not just confusion -- over the plan to turn their school over to Educational Alternatives Inc. for five years.

Why would parents be angry about the prospects of individualized academic programs for their children, two teachers in each classroom, vastly improved technology, hands-on learning experiences and the latest in both instruction and testing? The answer is that with little parental input, children are being given over to a team of outsiders Harlem Park parents know little or nothing about.

For the past two years, in quiet dialogue with school board officials, EAI had been discussing the possibility of doing business in Baltimore. Last December, the city's superintendent, Dr. Walter Amprey, visited one of the Tesseract schools in Arizona and was impressed. Soon after, he took Mayor Schmoke and a group of Department of Education administrators to South Pointe Elementary School in Miami to see another example of a school managed by EAI.

Sold on the effectiveness of the Tesseract model, the school board moved rapidly. Eight elementary schools and Harlem Park Middle, the lowest-scoring middle school in the state, were chosen as the first "Tesseract models."

But coincidentally, on June 9, the day that the superintendent was signing a letter of intent with Educational Alternatives, a group from Harlem Park Middle School was in New York City visiting the highly praised small middle schools in East Harlem that have risen from the bottom of the New York school pack over the last two decades to become exemplary centers of learning.

Members of the "Harlem Park School Improvement Team," comprising parents, teachers and community leaders, were eager to bring back to their Baltimore school the vision of small, thematic, student-centered "schools within schools" that have turned around East Harlem. They had raised their own funds for the New York trip and were hoping to be catalysts for change in a West Baltimore school with desperate needs.

Although Tesseract depends on the collaborative effort of parents in planning and achieving school reform, EAI did not get off to a flying start with the parents last Tuesday night. Clearly, the North Avenue school bureaucracy failed to anticipate that the parents at Harlem Park would greet the company official, Dr. May Gascan, with anger and bitterness, regardless of the merits of the potentially exciting reforms. Either Dr. Amprey and his colleagues underestimated the desire of Harlem Park parents to be a part of school improvement, or perhaps they assumed the parents would not remember the numerous failed efforts at reform in the past.

One eloquent gentleman, recalling Harlem Park's troubled past and North Avenue's failed attempts to reform the school, said, "This is one more program that North Avenue is throwing at us. We care about our children and about this school. We will not let this contract be finalized until we see what it says."

Another woman, who is both a parent and a teacher at the school, angrily suggested that Harlem Park is a guinea pig for the Tesseract model at the middle school level. Other parents railed against the city's actions, eliciting a well-spring of agreement from other parents in the crowd.

Parental involvement, from the outset, makes all the difference in meaningful school reform. Coleman Genn, former principal of Harbor School for Performing Arts, a highly successful middle school in East Harlem, stresses the parental factor. "You must begin with the parents if you want real change to occur. Build trust, invite them into the process, give them a voice."

When Mr. Genn was superintendent of District 23 in New York, he saw parents create change where the administration could not. "The parents wanted uniforms. We could never have brought uniforms to those schools on our own without the leverage and follow-through of parents." Now students at a third of the 24 middle schools in the district wear uniforms.

James P. Comer, of Yale University, has devised one of the most successful school reform programs in the nation. It makes a school the extension of, not cut off from, the community. It brings together parents, churches and community groups in a collaborative effort to foster student achievement.

So it is not surprising that parents at Harlem Park feel ripped off. They have, until now, been cut off from their own destiny. Regardless of the benefits of the Tesseract model (and there are many), the most important step now is to win back the parents. After years of hopelessness, they are alienated now by a feeling that they are an after-thought. The Minneapolis firm, which got nothing but glowing publicity when it announced its entry to Baltimore last month, now must patch together a coalition of support at Harlem Park, filling a void that North Avenue created by leaving out the constituents most affected by change.

Judd P. Anderson teaches English and philosophy at St. Paul's School in Brooklandville.

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