Private firm's influence may grow in city schools

September 01, 1993|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,Staff Writer Staff writer JoAnna Daemmrich contributed to this article.

As a new school year begins in Baltimore today, the city is considering expanding the role of a private Minneapolis firm that took over operation of nine faltering public schools last year.

Discussions between city school officials and Education Alternatives Inc. have centered on a handful of schools, including City College, Robert W. Coleman Elementary and William H. Lemmel Middle School.

Leaders from EAI, which has sunk nearly $8 million into its "Tesseract" gambit in Baltimore, met with Superintendent Walter Amprey and other school officials this week about possible expansion.

While EAI and city school officials have yet to determine precisely what the company's role may be, they said yesterday that it could offer a broad spectrum of services and equipment -- such as providing computers, taking control of finances, repairing school buildings and offering intensive teaching tailored to each individual student's needs and progress.

EAI has received nonbinding letters of intent to contract for services from "school improvement teams" -- which include the principal and parents -- at both City and Robert Coleman.

They are among the 24 new "enterprise schools," granted a great deal of autonomy from North Avenue headquarters in deciding how to run their schools and how to spend the money allotted to them.

EAI is running the nine schools under a five-year contract worth an estimated $26.7 million annually. The company promises improved student performance, a custom- designed curriculum and a teacher and intern in every classroom, along with an array of high-tech equipment.

EAI also has begun preliminary talks with state school officials to offer its services to schools that face the possibility of state takeover if they fail to meet standards.

Dr. Amprey praised EAI's work with about 4,800 children during its first year in Baltimore. The company, he said, has turned around some of the city's worst schools, improving their appearance, efficiency and, most important, students' attendance, attitudes and performance.

"We're looking for answers in places where we haven't looked before," he said, "and we now see a composite of what we want to happen for young people in our schools. We want to expand it [EAI's role] as much as we can."

A formal school system evaluation of the Tesseract experiment is due this fall, Dr. Amprey said.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke praised EAI's efforts yesterday but said he prefers to wait for a formal evaluation before any expansion. "I think that it's a matter for careful review by the superintendent," Mr. Schmoke said.

EAI also received qualified support yesterday from an unlikely source, the Baltimore Teachers Union, which had vehemently opposed the privatization experiment a year ago. A survey conducted by Hart Research, an independent firm, found that "despite the negatives, teachers are inclined to view the first year as something of a success."

The survey, based on interviews with a sample of 65 of the estimated 185 Tesseract teachers, showed that more than half were "very or fairly satisfied" with Tesseract, 28 percent were "somewhat satisfied" and 18 percent were dissatisfied.

"Now that EAI has made some of the changes teachers wanted, teachers are ready to work with the curriculum as best they can," said Lorretta Johnson, the union's co-president. North Avenue administrators and EAI have tried to involve teachers and the union much more in planning, she said, adding, "Teachers didn't want any particular curriculum rammed down our throats when we didn't understand what it was."

The union, however, reiterated its opposition to replacing paraprofessionals it represents with non-union interns who work with each Tesseract teacher.

EAI has taken over operation of a two private schools, in Minneapolis and Arizona, as well as a public school in Dade County, Fla. But Baltimore represents its most extensive and ambitious effort -- one closely monitored by school systems desperate for fresh, effective approaches.

The company, whose stock on the NASDAQ exchange has more than doubled in value in the past year, is negotiating with numerous public school systems. They include districts in Arkansas, Milwaukee and California.

EAI's work and other private efforts, including Sylvan Learning Centers tutoring that started recently in six city schools, has put Baltimore at the forefront of educational reform, said Robert C. Embry Jr., state school board president and former head of the city board.

"I think the major question this school year is how Sylvan and EAI do," he said. "It's a major issue in national education. As the country looked to Harborplace as a model for physical development 15, 20 years ago, it's looking to us now for education."

Tesseract and Sylvan's work represent a few of the most visible of many school system changes orchestrated by Dr. Amprey, 48, who begins his third year at the helm of the 110,00-student school system.

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