Takeover upsets Harlem Park parents Information sought on company's plans for city elementary school

September 17, 1992|By Mark Bomster | Mark Bomster,Staff Writer

Frustrated parents at Harlem Park Elementary Schoo yesterday demanded more information about a radical public school reform project that put their school and eight others into the hands of a private company this year.

The meeting illustrated the tensions between about 80 parents at the West Baltimore school and Education Alternatives Inc., the private firm whose "Tesseract" initiative is being phased in throughout the year.

"I think we got some very poor information," said Betty Lynch, who has had children and now grandchildren attend the school. "There has been no real communication with the teachers or parents."

But company officials, who underwent nearly two hours of sometimes-angry questioning at a raucous meeting of the school's PTA, tried to cast the session in a positive light.

"We have a bunch of concerned parents, involved in their kids' education," said John T. Golle, chairman and chief executive officer of the Minneapolis-based company. "That is one of the primary goals we have been trying to achieve."

He chalked up their emotional reaction to frustration at the school's long-standing academic problems.

"They should be angry," he said. "Look at the test results at the school. This is one of the most poorly performing schools in the state of Maryland."

The Tesseract program, named for a term in a children's science fiction novel, gives day-to-day control of nine city public schools to a private company. The five-year project, approved by the city in July, promises two instructors in every classroom, individualized instruction and a wealth of computers and other high-tech equipment for each school.

EAI pioneered the model at its own private schools in Minnesota and Arizona, and at a single public school in Dade County, Fla.

But its Baltimore debut has drawn fire from some parents, teachers and teachers' aides.

They complain that EAI and the school system have rushed the program into place, making dramatic changes without enough preparation or discussion with the community.

"I don't care how they sugar-coat it," said Marlene King, president of the PTA, who presided over yesterday's meeting. "They need to let us know exactly what they plan to do, and how they plan to do it.

"Harlem Park Elementary has a problem, and we need to address it. They're not working with us."

EAI officials responded that the program is still in its initial stages.

"It's going to take about two years," said Mr. Golle. "We've been in this school for seven weeks. The kids have been in this school for two weeks. . . . We've got the pedal right to the metal."

He cited a number of changes that already have taken place at the school, including a major cleanup of the building and its grounds.

Company officials also assured parents of special education students that their children only would be placed in regular education classes if the parents agree. Those parents also have the right to demand separate special education services for their children, the parents were told.

In addition, a company official also said that by Monday, all classes will have an intern or substitute in the classroom to help out the teacher. The company so far has hired about 150 of the 160 interns needed at the nine participating schools.

EAI officials assured parents that yesterday's meeting will not be their last chance to be heard.

"Once we know what the concerns are, we are committed to working along with parents," said Matthew Riley, the school system's main community contact on the program. "We're going to meet as often as necessary."

PARENTS' COMPLAINTS

* Teachers' aides have been pulled out of the classrooms, even though EAI has not yet hired all of the college-educated interns who are supposed to act as the second teachers in each classroom.

* Students with handicaps and learning problems are to be improperly pulled out of separate special education classes and put in regular classrooms.

* Teachers have been given little information about curriculum changes and are being required to teach art, music and other subjects in addition to their regular loads.

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