19 percent of students absent as school starts Officials 'delighted,' given early start date

September 02, 1992|By Mark Bomster | Mark Bomster,Staff Writer

More than 21,000 students missed the first day of school in Baltimore yesterday.

The city public school opening day attendance of 91,987 amounted to just 81.4 percent of the projected enrollment of 113,000 students.

But that low attendance still represented an improvement over last year, when only about 78 percent of Baltimore students turned out for the first day of school, said Nat Harrington, school department spokesman.

"We're delighted that, given the early starting date . . . we increased attendance over last year's opening day," he said. Last year's was the first pre-Labor Day opening of city schools since 1987.

Mr. Harrington had no explanation for this year's higher percentage except what officials think is a heightened interest in school initiatives and reforms.

He predicted that by the day after Labor Day next week, "we should have much closer to the full attendance."

Officials opted to open school nearly a week before this year's late Labor Day, rather than force students to attend school late into June of next year.

Another factor in the low turnout is that low-income families have not yet received their September public assistance checks and may not have had the money to outfit their children for school, said Mr. Harrington.

"Some people are reluctant to send their children without having bought new clothes, uniforms, the essentials of dress," he said.

Aside from the anticipated attendance problems, top school administrators reported no major snags or incidents as nearly 180 Baltimore public schools opened for the year.

"We're off to a great start," said school Superintendent Walter G. Amprey, who was briefed by his cabinet at school headquarters on North Avenue yesterday afternoon. "We think there's a whole new feeling, and an air that's positive about what's going to happen in our schools."

Those changes are in evidence at the very top.

This year, the school system is divided into six separate regions, each headed by its own assistant superintendent, with an office in each district. The new administrative structure is intended to shift power out of school headquarters and closer to the individual schools -- a goal touted by Dr. Amprey and by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

Also new this year is a special alternative middle school program for disruptive and violent adolescents. That program was sparked by last February's shooting of a school police officer at Roland Park Elementary-Middle School.

Eventually, up to 200 students who have been suspended twice for violent or disruptive behavior could be placed in a variety of settings outside of regular programs, said Lillian Gonzales, deputy superintendent.

Another change this year is Dr. Amprey's vow to hold principals accountable for specific improvements in school safety, attendance and student achievement.

But all of those changes may well be overshadowed by the boldest initiative: the move to privatize nine city schools by turning their operations over to a Minneapolis firm.

The experiment, dubbed "Tesseract" by Education Alternatives Inc., the private contractor, has drawn nationwide attention, including a visit today by U.S. Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander.

The project will be phased in through the course of the year, under a contract signed in July. But it continues to draw fire from the Baltimore Teachers Union, which charges that the contractor is running roughshod over unionized teachers and teachers aides.

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