New schools could spearhead urban school reform

February 23, 1994|By Jay Gillen & Alexzine Campbell

WHY won't Baltimore City school Superintendent Walter Amprey issue the following invitation:

"REQUEST FOR PROPOSALS: Baltimore City Public Schools invites teachers and communities to create new, first-rate, very small schools, costing no more per pupil than existing schools and admitting students without regard to their prior academic or behavioral records.

"The schools will govern themselves free from central office interference, provided (1) they meet all appropriate health and safety requirements, (2) they do not contribute to racial segregation and (3) they agree to the strictest accountability in pTC the state: They meet or exceed all state education standards within five years -- or they close.

"Three to five new schools of 200 students each will open in September 1994; five to 10 more in 1995 and 1996.

"To be accepted, proposals must meet very tight criteria of planning and must demonstrate strong community support."

For at least two years, teachers, parents and community leaders have been asking Dr. Amprey to issue such an invitation, believing that it would stimulate genuine bottom-up reform by giving support to the people we say schools need most: risk-taking teachers and involved parents.

We know small schools educate better for the majority of children. We know teachers work harder and smarter when they have genuine control of a school. We know parents and communities get involved in much higher numbers when schools respect community views about what works for their children.

And the Baltimore school system is already committed -- on paper, at least -- to giving schools autonomy over budgets, hiring, curriculum, procurement and training. It's called the "enterprise school" concept.

What could be more entrepreneurial than allowing experienced teachers and communities to establish new, small schools so exciting that parents keep their kids in the public system rather than pulling out, while parents who can't afford to pull out get private school quality by paying in involvement rather than money?

It's being done across the nation already. New York City opened 30 new schools this year. Billionaire Walter Annenberg has given millions to help open new, public "community learning centers" wherever local or state school systems agree to tight contracts that keep the new schools free from bureaucratic interference.

In Baltimore, support for teacher- or community-controlled schools comes from community associations, the teachers union, the City Council and many others who want to let creative teachers and parents loose, rather than turn them away. The Stadium School Project, to take one example, has proposed a new public school in the Memorial Stadium area -- focusing first on the middle school years and eventually expanding to include all grades. This proposal -- prepared by teachers and parents -- has been analyzed by universities, private foundations, the Maryland State Department of Education, as well as Baltimore City Public Schools. They all call it first rate. In December, Mayor Schmoke publicly stated his desire to include the school in his 1994 budget and to join the community in celebrating the school's opening this September.

But Dr. Amprey can't see his way clear to try something new: If proposals don't operate within the administrative framework of the 180 existing schools, they won't get the superintendent's support. And Mayor Schmoke is reluctant to undermine another superintendent, especially one who appears to favor real reform.

The school system says 180 schools are enough to worry about. But the best reason for starting new schools is their effect on system-wide change.

When new school A is meeting state standards, while old school B down the street still fails, those reluctant principals, teachers and bureaucrats who obstruct change may finally start listening to community demands for better instruction. Even more important, Baltimore's new school initiative would attract highly qualified teachers to enter or re-enter the city system.

What prevents Dr. Amprey and Mayor Schmoke from issuing this kind of invitation? They have already invited out-of-state, for-profit firms to come to Baltimore -- with no standard of accountability agreed on in advance. Maybe the Tesseract schools will be good for kids. Maybe not. But regardless of the outcome of privatization, Baltimore's own teachers and parents also deserve the chance to show what they can do.

Two years is long enough for Dr. Amprey to study and consider this initiative.

He should act today.

Jay Gillen and Alexzine Campbell are both involved with the Stadium School project.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.