Reinventing Schools

January 03, 1994|By TIM BAKER

Last fall the superintendent of the Washington, D.C., public schools took a long hard look at his school system. What he saw was urban educational gridlock -- low achievement, high absenteeism, disadvantaged kids, crumbling buildings, inadequate budgets, powerful unions, endless red-tape, entrenched bureaucracy. His examination convinced him of one thing: He couldn't move forward within the existing system. Instead he needed a whole new strategy for running public schools.

Last month he drove over to Baltimore to study one.

Baltimore's school system has started to reinvent public education in America. As the city experiments with decentralization and private contracting programs, more and more school superintendents from around the country are coming here to see what we're up to.

If they carefully review our experience, however, they'll see that no effective school reform can work without one critical ingredient: a tough and determined superintendent.

The reason is simple. There are no easy fixes for big-city schools anymore. All the easy things were done long ago. Today the needed reforms are difficult. They're hard to put in place and hard to run. They all require superintendents with administrative tenacity and political courage.

Baltimore has had one for the last two and a half years. Since he took over in the summer of 1991, Walter G. Amprey has driven this city's school system in promising but difficult new directions.

His most dramatic move has been the highly publicized ''Tesseract'' program. At his insistence, the city has hired Educational Alternatives Inc., a private for-profit company, to run nine city schools without interference from the North Avenue bureaucracy.

The idea is revolutionary. If the program proves itself, Dr. Amprey intends to turn over more and more schools to EAI and other

public and private organizations. They'll each operate individual schools under separate contracts that will define each school's specific mission and stipulate the measures of accountability for educational results.

Dr. Amprey's strategy has just been endorsed in a new RAND Corporation study. It reasserts a proposition he tirelessly emphasizes -- that urban education is not a hopeless task. The fact is that some big-city public schools have provided rigorous instruction and produced successful students despite poverty and social turmoil.

How do they do it? The RAND study concludes that these schools are almost always exempted from the rules and restrictions applied and enforced by a central bureaucracy. That's the key to systematic reform. Individual schools must be freed from the constraints that are uniformly imposed across a city school system by federal, state and local regulations, categorical program requirements, union contracts, parents' demands, school-board mandates and administrative directives.

Easy to say. Hard to do.

Every rule, regulation, requirement and directive has a constituency behind it. Some of these constituencies have real political power. Many of them are vocal. Most of them are deeply entrenched. All of them resist change, especially change that jeopardizes their own precious prerogatives.

The Baltimore Teachers Union has bitterly opposed Tesseract because the contract threatens union bargaining power and EAI cuts costs by hiring lower-paid but better-educated non-union teaching interns. The Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance and Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD) oppose Tesseract because they fear they'll lose political influence over the schools. Administrators and bureaucrats oppose Tesseract because it will ultimately cost many of them their jobs. Some city politicians oppose the program because they pander to these constituencies.

Dr. Amprey has bravely pushed ahead anyway. Last summer, after only one year's experience with Tesseract, he recommended expanding the program. He has allowed another 16 schools to manage their own state challenge grants. An additional 24 schools have been designated as ''enterprise schools,'' which gives them greater authority to make decisions about their own budgets and programs. Next year he plans to give that kind of independence to every school in the city.

To further decentralize the system, he has also contracted with Sylvan Learning Systems, another private for-profit firm, to take over the Chapter 1 tutoring programs for poorly performing students at six city elementary schools. He has started the Ombudsman program for disruptive kids. He's supported the introduction of the Calvert School curriculum at Barclay School.

This man has been genuinely open to any idea which promises something worthwhile to students. He has been willing to fight for his ideas, take the heat from his opponents and push ahead.

His drive seems to come from his own experience growing up in Baltimore and going to city public schools himself. He cares. You can see it in his face when he sits his big 6-foot-4-inch body on a little kindergarten chair and holds a child in his lap. He deeply believes these kids can make it. That belief is as essential as his fortitude.

Mayor Schmoke should be congratulated for selecting Dr. Amprey and for his own political courage and vision in backing his superintendent's controversial ideas. Together these two leaders have made Baltimore an innovative educational center to which other cities increasingly look for guidance and inspiration.

Tim Baker's column appears on alternate Mondays.

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