Amprey wants to widen firm's role in schools But experimental Tesseract program gets mixed reviews at end of first year

June 17, 1993|By Mark Bomster | Mark Bomster,Staff Writer

Baltimore's bold venture in letting a private firm run nine schools ended its first year with the superintendent in favor of expanding the program, the mayor lukewarm to the idea and parents and staff divided over whether it had been a success.

The high-stakes initiative, which put the city in the vanguard of private-public partnerships in education, did well enough that Superintendent Walter G. Amprey said he favors expansion, perhaps as early as next fall.

"It's hard to find anybody who hasn't seen it as successful," Dr. Amprey said at a news conference held yesterday to describe the job done by Education Alternatives, Inc. "I think it's been successful enough for it to expand."

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, however, is not yet prepared to back an expansion of the so-called "Tesseract" program, which draws its name from a children's science fiction book, said his spokesman, Clinton R. Coleman.

"In the mayor's view, this is too soon to properly evaluate the program, and he would not expect to be ready to move ahead with any expansion plans by September," said Mr. Coleman.

Education Alternatives Inc. is preparing plans to add eight elementary schools, two middle schools and a high school by September, said John T. Golle, the firm's chairman and chief executive officer.

"This will only occur if the staff members and the parents want it to occur," he stressed.

Any move to expand Tesseract will face vehement opposition from the Baltimore Teachers Union, and might well run into trouble with City Council President Mary Pat Clarke, who along with Comptroller Jacqueline McLean opposed the initial contract last summer.

That contract provides Education Alternatives with $5,549 -- the city's per-pupil average -- for each of the 4,800 students enrolled in its schools.

"For us to completely privatize all of Baltimore City Public Schools is ludicrous, it's crazy," said Irene B. Dandridge, co-president of the 8,500-member teachers union.

Mrs. Clarke said she would support expansion only if an equal number of city schools were allowed to launch a parallel project, with the same per-pupil spending and management freedom as the Tesseract schools.

Clarke issues warning

"Unless we want to have Tesseract eventually run the whole school system, we'd better start a challenge program and beat them at their own game," she said.

The Tesseract program, which was phased in throughout the year, promises a wealth of computers and other technology, personalized education plans for all children, two adults in every classroom, spotless facilities, and a hands-on approach to instruction.

But the first year played to mixed reviews among parents and educators.

Some are fiercely loyal, viewing the program as the ticket to cleaner, safer schools and more enthusiastic, higher-achieving students.

Others say it didn't deliver soon enough, and criticize Education Alternatives for treating school staff in a high-handed manner, while profiting on the city's public school students.

School and company officials billed this year as a "transitional" year, saying it was intended to put all elements of the program in place. Full-fledged Tesseract schools are due to open this September, they say.

Even so, certain improvements were obvious at the nine schools involved this year.

Buildings are cleaner

Chief among them is the maintenance of the buildings, performed by a team of custodians from Johnson Controls World Services Inc., Education Alternatives' partner in the project.

Almost without exception, principals and parents describe the schools as clean, graffiti-free and more pleasant for the children.

Education Alternatives also wins high marks for the $7.6 million in capital improvements it made at the nine schools, including more than $6 million in computers, fax machines, telephones and copiers for the classrooms.

Although the equipment wasn't completely installed until late spring, Tesseract provided each school with a computer lab and four computers in each classroom. The computers offer colorful math and reading programs that let students work at their own pace, while giving teachers a detailed tracking report on each student's progress.

"With the coming of the technology, the fact that parents are able to actually come in and see their children using the computers, parents have really changed their attitude," said Myrtle Washington, principal of Malcolm X Elementary School in Northeast Baltimore.

Harder to quantify is how much of a difference -- if any -- the Tesseract program has made on students' academic

achievement.

Test scores not yet in

The school system is still compiling year-end standardized test score data, along with figures on attendance, suspensions and expulsions. Those figures won't be available until later this summer.

But officials from the school system and Education Alternatives cite anecdotal evidence that they say shows Tesseract's mix of technology and personalized instruction is making a difference in student achievement.

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