2 schools targeted for state takeover

January 18, 1994|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,Staff Writer

In an unprecedented effort to revitalize schools beset by years of decline, state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick targeted Baltimore's Frederick Douglass and Patterson high schools yesterday for possible state takeover.

Her announcement marked the state's first step under a new measure that targets "academically bankrupt" schools, based on continuously worsening attendance, dropout rates and standardized test scores. No other Maryland schools will be targeted this year, she said.

The far-reaching measure, approved in November by the state Board of Education, allows the board to force changes in principals or other staff, rewrite curricula, order revisions in teaching methods or turn faltering schools over to private operators or universities.

City school officials have until April 1 to send improvement plans for Douglass and Patterson to Dr. Grasmick. The state could proceed toward a takeover or other changes if she rejects the plans.

Baltimore Superintendent Walter G. Amprey said he hopes that the city school system will devise an improvement plan acceptable to the state. "We have no argument with the state whatsoever. . . . The state's recognition in this way of Patterson and Douglass is something that points out the importance of accountability -- recognizing very clearly that intervention either within the school system or outside needs to take place," he said at a news conference.

Dr. Grasmick said she had met with Dr. Amprey and Phillip Farfel, the city school board president, and that they said they would scrutinize the schools and then make recommendations on ways to improve them. "I am very encouraged that the process started by naming these schools . . . will result in a much improved learning environment at both Patterson and Douglass," she said in a statement.

Once-proud Douglass, the only Baltimore high school that blacks could attend until 1940 and one of only two such schools until 1954, lists among its alumni many distinguished Baltimoreans. Among them: the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, the late civil rights leader Clarence M. Mitchell Jr., state public safety Secretary Bishop L. Robinson, entertainer Cab Calloway, Rep. Kweisi Mfume and former Rep. Parren J. Mitchell.

But state officials said that Douglass, on Gwynns Falls Parkway in West Baltimore, and Patterson, on Kane Street in East Baltimore, have declined steadily during the past several years and probably will not improve without the threat of state &L intervention.

Many schools throughout Maryland fall considerably shy of state standards. But the first potential takeover targets are two that Dr. Grasmick and other state education officials deemed most in need of outside help.

Both schools rank among Maryland's lowest in the proportion of students passing functional reading, math, writing and citizenship tests. Only 52 percent of Douglass students passed all the tests by 11th grade, compared with a statewide average of 93 percent. At Patterson, 77 percent of students passed all the tests.

At Douglass, 38 percent of all students dropped out during the last school year, compared with a statewide average of 5.2 percent. About 16 percent of Patterson's students dropped out.

At both schools, the daily attendance rate is about 70 percent, compared with a statewide average exceeding 90 percent in high schools.

The state has broad powers to attack problem schools. For example, state funds could be withheld from local school systems that refuse to comply with a state takeover order.

And state efforts to revitalize problem schools will expand. The state began its intervention this year with high schools and will broaden the effort to elementary and middle schools next year.

Starting in 1995, the elementary and middle schools will be evaluated on how well students perform on attendance and on standardized tests. The tests, given in third, fifth and eighth grades, are intended to measure the students' use of classroom lessons.

The state will tell local districts which schools are failing each January. Only a small percentage of those schools would face takeover, Dr. Grasmick said.

The measure caps a state school reform effort started three years ago when the board called for measurable performance standards and sanctions, including possible state takeover, for schools that fail to improve.

Approval of the takeover measure came just days after the 44,000-member Maryland State Teachers Association launched a statewide "hands off our schools" radio advertising campaign to defeat it. The statewide union represents teachers and staff at every school district in the state, except Baltimore City.

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