Baltimore Co. schools ripe for change, says Berger

A TUESDAY INTERVIEW-Q&A

September 08, 1992|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,Staff Writer

When classes start in Baltimore County today, there will be more students, fewer teachers and one more school than last year. Classes will be larger and the budget smaller.

In charge of the 93,000 students and 9,600 employees in the county's 148 schools is a new superintendent, Stuart Berger, who took over in July for Robert Y. Dubell, who retired after 16 years on the job.

Described variously as, "innovative," "intimidating" and "iron-fisted" in previous superintendent posts in Wichita, Kan., and Frederick County, the outspoken 47-year-old educator makes it clear that he wants change. But he says he's not interested in micromanagement or quick fixes. He says he wants schools that meet the needs of their students and teachers and principals who are responsive and responsible.

"When the parent has a baseball bat and he comes into the building, he isn't looking for a committee," Dr. Berger says he tells his principals.

Dr. Berger shared other observations and ideas during an interview last week. Here are some of them:

Q: Now that you've been here for two months and are ready to start the school year, what are your impressions of the Baltimore County schools?

A: I'm very upbeat about the school year. I think this will be a year for encouraging people to come up with ideas. There are very good people here. They are intelligent, for the most part, and child-centered, for the most part.

This is a good school system. But I don't see some of the kind of alternatives that I like.

Q: What are some of those alternatives?

A: Alternatives to expulsion and suspension. Alternatives to the neighborhood school. What if you don't like the neighborhood school? Alternatives to meet individual differences. We need a system that tries to meet the needs of the kid rather than the kid meeting the needs of the system.

L Q.: What's on your short list of goals for this school year?

A: Restructuring the middle schools. They were devised to be child-centered, to provide a transition between elementary and high school. I'm very concerned about making them better. In sixth grade, I'd have the kids with one teacher for the better part of the day.

Also, revising the grading policy. Why do we grade little kids? What the hell is a "D" in first-grade physical education? We demoralize these kids.

And deciding the best use of Sudbrook [Middle School].

Q.: Will students and parents know there are changes being made?

A.: That's a good question. I haven't a clue. My ultimate goal is that the students ultimately will know. I think the parents and students will not see it immediately. But the teachers will know; the principals will know there are differences. Hopefully, they will like them.

Q.: What are some of those differences?

A.: The principals and the buildings will have a lot more power. The principal is in charge of his school. There will be a lot less supervision -- a lot fewer people running around checking on other people. For instance, the curriculum objectives are approved by the [school] board. How they get done is of no interest to me. What is of interest to me is that they get done. I think this will be invigorating to the very best teachers.

I figured something out. If everybody checks out every decision with the person above them, I would be making all the decisions. And I'm not a big hard worker. I have no desire to see how many hours I can work. I'm not interested in little things at all. There are almost 10,000 employees [in the school system]. They don't need me to tell them how to do their jobs.

Q.: You come to Baltimore with a reputation for being controversial in Frederick County and Wichita. How do you think your style and ideas will be received here?

A.: I feel lots of people are ready for significant changes. The internal audience is ready. I'm surprised at how many principals share my philosophy. I don't think I'm not going to meet resistance, but I don't think it's going to be overwhelming.

But the culture is far stronger than Stuart Berger. I know that. I'm not an idiot. That's going to be hard to change. There are people who think there's the county's way and the wrong way.

Q. What alternatives do you suggest for suspension and XTC expulsion?

A. We're going to have five centers, alternative schools rather than expulsion. You may not see any fewer kids removed from the schools, but they are going somewhere -- where the environment is more restrictive -- until they are ready to go back to their schools.

We might assign some kids to these centers [before they get in trouble]. We could solve a lot of our own problems.

Q. What about Sudbrook? What do you intend to do with it?

(Closed for more than 10 years, the Pikesville-area school has housed students from Milford Mill High while that school was being renovated.)

A. We'll use it as a middle school; we need the desks. We're going to put in different programs -- maybe bilingual classes -- not teaching students who don't speak English, but as a place to go to learn another language. I've formed a committee. I'd like most [of the students] to come from the area, but drawing boundaries won't be one of the solutions.

Facts and figures

Elementary, middle and high schools in Baltimore County open today. Enrollment is expected to be up about 3,500 this year, to 93,000.

Two schools will have delayed openings. Sussex Elementary School in Essex, closed last winter because of hazardous asbestos levels in the air, will open tomorrow, and Milford Mill High School will reopen Thursday. Milford Mill has been closed for three years for renovations.

The county schools will have about 5,800 classroom teachers, nearly 100 fewer than last school year. Approximately 530 teachers are new to the school system this year.

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