Tesseract schools draw warm praise from parents

April 18, 1993|By Mark Bomster | Mark Bomster,Staff Writer

Nathaniel Madison, a Baltimore father of four, won't tolerate criticism of the city's nine-school experiment in privatizing education.

"I think it's amazing really," said Mr. Madison, whose 4-year-old .. preschooler is learning to read on a computer at Malcolm X Elementary, one of the nine so-called "Tesseract" schools. "It's all new and exciting, just like being on a rocket ship."

Mr. Madison was among the 375 parents who turned out at Harlem Park Middle School yesterday for a half-day school system conference bringing them together with educators in the program.

The conference followed months of nagging criticism from parents and teachers about the program's personnel practices, a lack of communication, and confusion about its educational philosophy.

But parents at yesterday's event generally praised the Tesseract experiment, which last September put nine city schools in the hands of Minneapolis-based Education Alternatives Inc. (EAI), under a five-year contract with the city.

Hope Allen, mother of two children at Dr. Rayner Brown Elementary, another Tesseract school, was typical of many of the parents in their appreciation of the program.

Skeptical at first, she was won over by Tesseract's technology and by the personal, hands-on instruction she says harks back to the days when she was in school.

"I notice they're a lot calmer, and they look forward to each day, each hour," she said of the children. Though EAI is still phasing in its program, "they might be here to stay -- they might take all the schools," Mrs. Allen said.

Those comments reflect a widespread shift in attitude among parents initially wary about the program, said Robert L. Wilson, president of the 60-school Baltimore City Council of PTAs.

"It's a complete turnaround from the beginning of the year," he said. "They have a completely different view of the program and feel comfortable with it."

Tesseract, named for a term in a children's science fiction novel, stresses imaginative, custom-designed instruction, two adults in each classroom, efficient building maintenance and plenty of computers and other high-tech equipment.

Many of those elements are now in place, including computers and college-educated interns in most classrooms.

But the program, which opened to a flurry of national publicity in September, has been dogged by sporadic protests from parents and teachers.

In recent months, the Baltimore Teachers Union, an early supporter, has intensified its criticism. Last month, the union slammed EAI in an admittedly unscientific "report card."

"A lot of parents feel like this year was a waste of time," said Marlene King, a dissenting parent and PTA activist at Harlem Park Elementary School, which has been the focal point of parent discontent with Tesseract.

But Wyatt Coger, principal of Harlem Park Middle School, said some of that criticism may stem from unrealistic expectations about a program that is still being phased in.

"Most people have the idea that Tesseract is magical program, that you sprinkle it over and everything will be OK," he said. "I know there are no miracles. You have to work with this thing."

Yesterday's event was intended to help strengthen the bonds between parents and the Tesseract schools and administrators, said Mae E. Gaskins, vice president of EAI.

"Here's an opportunity for parents to come out and to network . . . to know that we welcome parents, that we challenge them to be partners with us," she said.

Though company officials met frequently with parents at individual schools earlier this year, Ms. Gaskins rejected the suggestion that yesterday's conference for all nine Tesseract was slow in coming.

"At that time, we did not have in place the technology, we did not have the staff development," she said.

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