'Reconstitution:' State's Goal is Better Schools

April 24, 1994|By NANCY S. GRASMICK

Virtually every state in this nation is now engaged in reforming schools, from the top down and from the bottom up.

While teachers are exploring a variety of strategies to get better results -- cooperative learning, team teaching, integrated services, de-tracking, conflict resolution, site-based management -- educators, politicians and the general public are coming to a consensus about the appropriate roles and responsibilities for schools, school districts and states. In general, states are setting up systems that hold individual schools and school districts responsible for meeting high standards for student performance.

Being able to identify whether or not schools are achieving at satisfactory levels places a new burden on states to intervene where performance is low. A number of states have responded with policies to spur improvement at the district level. In New Jersey, for example, the state department of education has assumed control of two urban school systems to root out waste and ensure that adequate instructional programs are in place.

With the passage in November of the Public School Standards regulation, Maryland joined a small group of states (a total of seven) that have policies to intervene in individual schools whose performance is low and not improving. When I announced in January that Patterson High School and Frederick Douglass High School, both in Baltimore, were eligible for "reconstitution" because of their low and declining test scores and poor attendance and dropout rates, Maryland became one of the first states to take action at this level.

I am concerned that there has been a great deal of confusion and misunderstanding about what reconstitution is and what we are trying to achieve. Let me be absolutely clear. Reconstitution is not immediate state "takeover" or "seizure" of a school. It is a process of identifying a school in need of serious change and determining the appropriate actions for turning that school around. More importantly, it is about rejecting the time-honored myth that some children are incapable of learning and that we should therefore consign them to failing schools.

The two schools identified in January had until April 1 to work with the Baltimore City Public Schools to develop an improvement plan. My staff and I reviewed those plans, along with other Maryland educators and nationally known consultants school reform.

From this review, it was clear that: (a) Frederick Douglass High School's plan was focused on achieveable goals with connected strategies and should be implemented with modifications; and (b) Patterson High School's plan should not be accepted because it lacked the scope and detail necessary to address the serious problems facing that school, despite the inclusion of a powerful proposal to restaff the school.

Upon the rejection of the plan this past week, Patterson became a reconstituted school, leaving the Baltimore City Public Schools with two options: (1) request a hearing before the State Board of Education within ten days to appeal the rejection; or (2) submit a new plan for improving Patterson within thirty days. I hope and trust that the city will continue its promising work in devising a strategy for improving Patterson High School in this time frame. If so, I will approve and monitor the plan without direct state intervention. Only if the plan is insufficient to meet the needs of Patterson's students will the state determine its own reconstitution plan for the school.

I would like to be very clear in expressing that the Maryland State Department of Education does not want to be in the business of operating or contracting out the operation of individual schools. The strength of our public school system lies in the cooperation between the state, local school systems, and individual school communities and altering that relationship is not our desire.

My vision and my intent for Patterson High School and Frederick Douglass High School is that they become healthy, safe places where motivated students and teachers thrive, under the watchful eye of highly involved communities.

Achieving this vision is realistic, but we must be clear and unified in our purpose: making sure that our children get the education they deserve and to which they are constitutionally entitled. Right now, the students of Patterson High School and Frederick Douglass High School are not receiving that education. Even compared to other zoned high schools in Baltimore City, which receive similar funding and resources, these two high schools are distinguishable by their low and declining performance.

Reversing the situation in Patterson and Douglass requires all of us to get past blaming teachers, parents, administrators or the ,, state, and get on with the business of doing whatever it takes to make these schools places of learning. To do any less would be unconscionable.

Nancy Grasmick is Maryland state superintendent of schools.

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