Toward educational bankruptcy?

January 20, 1994

No one should be surprised that the first two schools declared eligible for "reconstitution," a euphemism for state takeover, are Baltimore city "neighborhood" high schools: Douglass to the west, Patterson to the east. Both of these schools have proud histories, particularly Douglass, which lists Thurgood Marshall and Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. among its alumni. But both in recent years have suffered the pathology of urban education: poor academic performance, poor attendance, high dropout rates. And now the state threatens to take them over if they do not engage in serious self-improvement.

Before the state Board of Education approved the takeover measure last November, the Maryland State Teachers Association launched a statewide campaign to defeat it. The MSTA, in a radio ad, implied that state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and other state officials were anxious to take over dozens of schools in a power grab. That, of course, hasn't happened. Only two schools have been designated in 1994, and Dr. Grasmick says only a small percentage of schools will ever be declared educationally bankrupt.

In choosing Douglass and Patterson, state officials used two criteria. One is the schools' distance from statewide standards established for high schools. The other is trends at the schools over the last three years. In the former category, Douglass and Patterson, sadly, aren't far from the Baltimore citywide average. True, Douglass last year had a horrendous dropout rate of almost 39 percent, but Patterson's rate was 16 percent, 2 1/2 percent better than the citywide average. (The statewide rate is 5.4 percent.) And Baltimore high schools failed all but one of the state's academic assessment standards in 1993. Seventy-seven percent of Patterson's students passed all of the tests by the 11th grade, but the citywide average is 79.7 percent. In short, the other schools aren't anything to brag about, either; these two made the dishonor role because their failures are accelerating.

A logical question is: Why hasn't the city already done what the state is now forcing it to do? It's a good question, one that ought to cause a good bit of soul-searching on North Avenue. Apparently it takes an outside agency to force the insiders to accountability.

Now the real work begins. City school officials have until April Fools' Day to send improvement plans for Douglass and Patterson to Dr. Grasmick. If the plans are judged inadequate, she can declare the two schools educationally bankrupt and turn them over to management that's up to the job. In a sense, it's still another strategy borrowed from private industry for Baltimore City public schools.

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