'Reconstitution' at City Schools

April 23, 1994

A new chapter seems to be written every week in the book about Maryland's bold plan to reconstitute two of its worst schools, Frederick Douglass and Patterson high schools in Baltimore.

The latest is state school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick's rejection of Patterson's radical plan to restaff the entire school, from principal to janitor. Dr. Grasmick did not reject the idea of zero-based school reorganization at Patterson; she merely said the plan "does not have the structure and focus necessary to bring about significant improvement."

Fascinating forces are at work here. Both Douglass and Patterson were told that the state would "reconstitute" them if they didn't get their houses in order. It's a vague threat that could mean any number of consequences. One of them is not likely to be that the State Department of Education would actually operate the two schools, but the threat of a "takeover" is there, and it is real.

The reaction at historically black Douglass was to mobilize its community, including its distinguished alumni, to defend the school while fashioning a plan that calls for sweeping curriculum changes and more parental involvement. Dr. Grasmick approved that plan, though she asked for elaboration by May 18. Some community activists were still not mollified.

Historically white Patterson, by contrast, does not yet have its act together. Its plan is intriguing, but it lacks details and does not say enough about how the restaffed school will be managed on a day-to-day basis. And what of the teachers not competent enough to be returned? Would they, like hundreds of suspended students each year, be recycled to other Baltimore City schools, there to do more damage?

This book is far from closed. The city has still another chance to submit a plan for Patterson. If the state actually does reconstitute the East Baltimore school, the move will be watched with great interest by the nine other zoned schools, most of which are all but indistinguishable from Patterson and Douglass in terms of student performance.

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