Balto. Co. school changes provoke wrath at Berger

June 20, 1993|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,Staff Writer

Baltimore County schools danced to a different tune this year. It's called change, and the tempo is quick.

The school board called for change when it hired Stuart Berger a year ago, and the self-professed "change agent" is not disappointing his new bosses.

But as the school year ended Friday, many parents and teachers were trying to stop the music, saying the pace is too swift and Dr. Berger is too abrasive.

There's no question that his style differs wildly from that of his popular predecessor, Robert Y. Dubel. And there's no doubt that Dr. Berger made his mark early.

* He started all-day kindergartens and a school breakfast program.

* He established seven magnet school programs that will accept their first students in the fall.

* He eliminated traditional letter grades for younger children.

* He broached the idea of year-round schools.

* He set up a new management system that will give principals far more power over their schools.

* He moved quickly to shift handicapped students from special education centers into neighborhood schools.

He has also shaken up the administration, alienated teachers and upset many parents who say there hasn't been enough communication.

By Friday, there were enough unhappy voices to persuade County Executive Roger Hayden to step in and arrange a dialogue between Dr. Berger and school board members and angry teachers, parents and community leaders.

"We have to have a cap on the emotions that are running rampant," Mr. Hayden said.

Dr. Berger's style is what trips people up, more than the substance of his changes. He moves fast and talks fast. He always has some place to go. He keeps a grueling schedule. He's called abrasive, intimidating, controlling and vindictive to those who don't share his vision.

"I'm arrogant intellectually, I admit it," Dr. Berger said in an interview last week. "I have trouble with arguments that make no sense to me. You take me on, you take me on at your own intellectual peril."

Praised as educator

He is not without supporters. They say he's honest, brilliant, a fine mentor and a terrific educator devoted to children, especially disadvantaged youngsters.

"I have the highest regard for him," says Steve Walts, who came with Dr. Berger from Wichita, Kan., to become assistant superintendent for the northwest area. "I relocated solely

because I thought I had more to learn from a great kid advocate."

"I like the guy," says planning manager James Kraft, who has worked for the schools for 29 years. "When he put in all-day kindergarten, he won me over."

Dr. Berger started the all-day program in about one-third of the elementary schools soon after he arrived. There was a great uproar: Now the program is considered a success.

Still, there's that style.

"The personal style of the two men [Dr. Berger and Dr. Dubel] can not be more different," says Richard Bavaria, who has worked for both. He puts it this way: Dr. Dubel is a man who thinks and then speaks; Dr. Berger is a man who thinks and speaks at the same time.

"And the personality of the superintendent is very important in a school system," says Dr. Bavaria, who was the school system spokesman and will soon be director of arts and humanities.

Dr. Berger has been willing to take on parents of students at both ends of the academic spectrum.

Parents of disabled children who need special services all but commandeered radio talk shows last week to wail against the accelerated policy of inclusion -- moving handicapped children out of special schools and into neighborhood schools. Baltimore county is far behind the national curve on this issue and under a federal order to move quickly. But parents say Dr. Berger moved too fast.

Earlier in the year Dr. Berger angered parents of the system's top students by appointing a committee to study the highly regarded Gifted and Talented Program. They accused him of trying to water down the program by relaxing admission standards. He eventually won his point, giving principals more power to decide who gets into the accelerated courses.

Issues of marginal importance may have hurt Dr. Berger as much as the major changes he proposed. Parents and teachers alike were outraged when the school board -- without any notice -- approved a calendar that would have opened the 1993-94 school year before Labor Day. The opening date was changed over the superintendent's objections.

They got even angrier when this year's calendar underwent a variety of changes that were almost comic -- except to those who had prepaid plans for spring break, which was shortened to make up for snow closings.

Endorsed by board

When talk of resignation became rampant, school board

President Rosalie Hellman spoke out last week to "put to rest, once and for all, the persistent rumors that intimate that the Board of Education does not support Stuart Berger."

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