Experimental project that gave 4 schools autonomy is canceled

May 05, 1994|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,Sun Staff Writer

Less than a year into an ambitious, three-year experiment that allowed four city elementaries to chart their own courses with funding help from private foundations, the effort is ending abruptly.

The nonprofit Fund for Educational Excellence is scuttling its $750,000 Transformation Project amid concerns about a lack of focus and doubts about whether the schools' innovations could be applied districtwide.

The decision stunned parents and staff members at the elementary schools -- Mount Washington, James McHenry in Southwest Baltimore, and George G. Kelson and Belmont in West Baltimore.

Each school was to receive $75,000 over three years -- and more control over curriculum, programs and daily management.

The desperately needed money and the schools' increased authority allowed new programs to flourish: foreign languages, a curriculum built around art, classes grouped by progress levels instead of ages. Some traditional methods -- failing grades, traditional report cards, a gifted and talented program, "tracking" students by ability -- were to disappear.

Jerry Baum, the fund's executive director, said members of its governing board concluded that the project likely would fail to achieve its chief goal: creating models of successful "school-based management" that could be applied citywide.

While praising the schools' efforts, Mr. Baum acknowledged "significant problems in the project's design."

Among them: confusion about the project's purpose, unrealistic expectations about what could be accomplished with the time and money available, and an overemphasis on individualized programs rather than examples that could be applied by other schools.

Mr. Baum, who apologized in letters last week to principals and parents, called the fund's decision difficult but necessary.

"These schools were to be used as prototypes for broader application, and the likelihood of that happening was growing slimmer," said Mr. Baum, who has run the fund for 10 years.

"If, three years down the road, we see ourselves ending up far from where we hoped to be, then what is the best course we should take? It is very painful, very unpleasant, but it is the wisest course to pull back."

The fund will provide $25,000 to each school for this school year and up to $10,000 more before discontinuing the project by July 15, Mr. Baum said.

The fund coordinated the project, and the Abell Foundation and the Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Foundation had agreed to split the estimated $750,000 cost. About $300,000 has been spent, including money for a project director and a year's planning. The unused money will be returned to the foundations, Mr. Baum said.

Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation and one of 23 members of the fund's governing board, declined to comment on the reasons for ending the project, saying Mr. Baum should speak for the fund. Mr. Embry said he has told the four schools that Abell would consider financing reform efforts if any of the schools formally apply.

Principals and parents say losing $40,000 at the cash-strapped schools will set back their improvement efforts.

Losing the money before any formal evaluation of the project was especially frustrating, some said, because they had no warning that their efforts had fallen short of expectations.

"I thought we were doing just fine; everyone seemed very pleased that we were following guidelines," said Helen H. Beverly, Belmont's principal. "I got no satisfaction as to why [the fund decided to end the effort], and the staff and parents are just as bewildered as I," she said.

"The money was cut, the program was cut . . . without any documentation from the schools," said Hillary Jacobs, community liaison for the Mount Washington Parent-Teacher Organization. "In a school system so strapped you may not have a librarian or an art teacher or a gym teacher, to suddenly lose $40,000, it just knocks you over."

Ms. Jacobs, who as PTA president last spring helped develop Mount Washington's plan, said the school already struggles to pay the bills and relies on fund-raisers, auctions and grants to pay a part-time librarian and art teacher.

Mr. Baum, a former parent activist who rarely missed a school board meeting, said he empathizes with the parents.

Superintendent Walter G. Amprey, who met with Mr. Baum Tuesday, said the decision to pull the plug on a privately funded project seemed unusually abrupt.

But Dr. Amprey praised the fund, which has overseen numerous school programs in the city for a decade. "The fund's one of our major, major supporters, and this will do nothing to hurt our relationship," he said.

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