Is delivering, if at a slow pace


November 15, 1992|By Mark Bomster | Mark Bomster,Staff Writer

In a worn, brick building in Baltimore's industrial southeast corner, the traditional face of public education is being slowly transformed.

Linda Brewster's fifth-graders at Graceland Park-O'Donnell Heights Elementary School cheerfully shake cleanser on well-worn desktops, wiping them down with brown paper towels.

This is their room; they help clean it, decorate it, even have a say in how the desks and work stations are set up. Student involvement is a key element of an experiment that has placed nine city schools and some 5,200 students into the hands of a Minneapolis firm, Education Alternatives Inc.

Dubbed "Tesseract," from a term in a child's science-fiction novel, the program promises computers and two instructors in every classroom, small-group instruction and education plans custom-designed for each student. More efficient maintenance and financial operations are also part of the EAI package.

But, as of its third month running the schools, the company has yet to deliver fully on its promises.

Only this past week, for example, did the company sign a $4 million deal to provide some 1,100 computers and software, which won't be fully operational until January.

Though many schools have begun meeting with parents and preparing "personal education plans" for each student, it will take time for those plans to show improvements in learning. Meanwhile, the company is using Baltimore City's existing curriculum and has yet to bring in rocking chairs, rugs, bean bags and other equipment used in redesigning classrooms.

On the other hand, principals and teachers in the nine Tesseract schools cite a number of concrete changes:

* Dramatic improvements in building maintenance, including new paint, sparkling floors, functional plumbing and landscaping.

* "Morning meetings" at all schools, bringing groups of classes together for special activities, including storytelling and performances.

* A total of 120 instructional interns out of an eventual 166, working in classrooms alongside city teachers.

* Subtle classroom changes, including clusters of desks, instead of rigid rows, and "community meetings" and "feedback time" that give children a change to help plan class activities and talk about the day.

Many of those changes are visible at Graceland Park-O'Donnell Heights. "All in all, I see a change in attitude," says Julia Dozier-Winder, principal. "Teachers are expectant. They're anticipating a lot, they're very anxious, they're eager. Children have just jumped into this; they've been very adaptable."

As of last week, her school had received 10 of its 13 interns. That gave many teachers a welcome hand in the classroom. And teachers are beginning to step out of their traditional roles in the classroom, giving students more say in structuring their education, the principal says.

Other facets of the program are going more slowly. As at other schools, Graceland Park is still waiting for its computers and other high-tech equipment, for example.

Yet the school already has benefited from what the principal calls "cutting the bureaucracy."

One example: She can order books, paper, crayons and other supplies directly from the vendor, rather than go through the system. "That in itself is worth its weight in gold," she says. "I can move faster, I can keep abreast of my instructional program, my teachers' needs."

In general, she says, "I think that things are moving." Graceland Park parents, meanwhile, are waiting to see firm changes at their school.

"We really haven't seen them do anything but bring some new teachers' interns in and get rid of our aides -- I think parents were mad about that," says Linda Corsa, co-president of the school's Parent-Teachers Association.

Still, she says, parents are eager for EAI to bring in the computers and make substantive improvements to the school's program.

"Everyone's got to change with the times," she says. "People accepted it."

Great expectations

School and company officials profess satisfaction over the pace of the Tesseract program overall -- even as they admit that expectations were scaled back just before opening day.

"There were a lot of things that had to be overcome that I don't think a lot of people could foresee," said Walter G. Amprey, school superintendent and the plan's chief booster.

In fact, the program's first few months have been an emotional roller-coaster for teachers, administrators and EAI officials.

Announced with great fanfare in June, Tesseract was formally launched on July 22, when the city's Board of Estimates voted 3-2 to approve a five-year contract worth $26.7 million this year.

EAI was left with only about six weeks to get ready, a timetable that was later to cause it a number of headaches.

By the time school opened in September, the company had skirmished with the Baltimore Teachers Union and wrangled with parents over special education.

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