Test begins for Minn. firm and 9 city schools

September 01, 1992|By Mark Bomster | Mark Bomster,Staff Writer

Nine Baltimore schools sail into uncharted waters today as they start the school year under the operation of a private contractor from Minnesota.

But aside from some freshly scrubbed buildings and some extra hands in the classroom, students will see few immediate changes at the nine schools taking part in the "Tesseract" project.

Named for a term from a children's science fiction novel, Tesseract is the most dramatic initiative planned for the 1992-1993 school year, which begins today with some 113,000 Baltimore public school students returning to classes.

But with less than two months to prepare for the school year, Education Alternatives Inc., the Minneapolis contractor, must plan to phase in its program throughout the year.

EAI's educational model calls for computers and two instructors in every classroom, small-group instruction and education plans tailored to each student.

As school begins, however, the most significant changes are the twin instructors for each class and a thorough face lift at each of the buildings.

In the meantime, EAI officials have been working hard to lower the public's expectations of immediate change from their custom-designed program.

"We will not have the Tesseract program opening and operating on the first day," said David A. Bennett, president of EAI.

At this point, he said, EAI officials "are very, very anxious that somebody tell the world out there that in four weeks you do not change an educational program."

"We're concerned here about false expectations," Mr. Bennett said.

His opening-day jitters are understandable. So far, EAI's model has been tested at its own private schools and at a single public school in Dade County, Fla.

But the more-ambitious Baltimore project, which includes one middle school and eight elementary schools, has drawn national attention: tomorrow's visit by U.S. Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander.

Tesseract relies on a mixture of small student-teacher ratios, personalized instruction and high-tech equipment to achieve its results.

Its key elements include:

* At least two instructors in every classroom, including a teacher and an instructional assistant -- in effect, a student teacher.

* Several instructional computers in each classroom.

* A telephone in each classroom that will let teachers confer with parents, and fax and copy machines available for teachers at each school.

* A "personal education plan" designed specially for each child, in consultation with their parents.

* Efficient maintenance provided by Johnson Controls World Services Inc., one of EAI's partners and a specialist in building maintenance and operations.

No less significant are the changes planned in teaching style, with students and instructors working informally in small groups.

At this point, however, Tesseract is more goal than reality in Baltimore, mainly because the contract was only signed in July.

While some equipment will be installed this month and next, the computers will not be in place until after students return from the holiday break in January.

Although they have had several days of training in the Tesseract philosophy, "the teachers have not had the benefit, at this point, of training in the specific techniques," Mr. Bennett said.

That means most teachers will begin the school year following their own usual teaching methods.

And a key facet of the program, the custom-tailored education plan for each student, will not be put into effect until about February.

EAI officials are quick to point out what they have managed to do in a short period of time, including major cleanup and repairs at long-neglected school buildings.

"We've spent in the neighborhood of $300,000, out of our own pocket, to noticeably improve the facilities as you walk in," said John T. Golle, EAI's chairman and chief executive officer.

EAI also has added more than 100 instructional assistants to meet the goal of two instructors in each class, a change designed to slash student-teacher ratios.

None of this comes without cost, however. And, for the most part, the Baltimore school system will foot the bill for Tesseract.

The contract calls for EAI to be paid no more per student than the city's average systemwide cost per pupil.

In the 1992-1993 school year, that comes to $26.7 million, or $5,549 for each of the estimated 4,800 students in the nine Tesseract schools.

"We pledged to Baltimore that, without spending any additional dollars, we will dramatically improve the quality of education for children," Mr. Golle said.

From the beginning, the project has been the subject of lively debate.

Some disgruntled teachers and community leaders have argued that the city rushed into the five-year contract with EAI without proper preparation and with little regard for the disruption to school staffers.

Some critics also have claimed that the Tesseract contract in effect gives those nine schools more money than other schools.

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