School Doors Opening On A New Era

September 08, 1994|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,Sun Staff Writer

Think of them as branch offices scattered all over Baltimore, run largely by governing boards consisting of principals, parents, teachers and their aides, neighborhood residents, merchants, students, community activists.

Their product: education.

Their customers: students, parents, taxpayers.

Think of Baltimore's 182 public schools this way, say school system leaders, to understand enterprise, as in "enterprise schools" -- the city's unprecedented move to transfer decision-making and staff from headquarters to all individual schools.

As a new school year dawns in the city's 113,000-student district this morning, the balance of power shifts to the schools as never before. It's been a long time coming, after years of debate, experiments, recommendations and study from here to Alberta, Canada, to which Superintendent Walter G. Amprey and Baltimore school leaders traveled last year for a close look at a model of school-based management at work.

Now comes the real test.

In theory, school-based management should forever change the power structure of public education in the city and ultimately help quell long-standing criticism directed at top-heavy, top-down -- and ineffective -- management.

The venture is based on the simple premise that those closest to schools know best how to run them. So "stakeholders" of elected school-improvement teams will have more control than ever over budgets, staffing, training, curriculum, academic programs, counseling, truancy prevention, security and maintenance.

"It inverts the pyramid; it puts the schools at the top of the organization chart," says Judson C. Porter, who became enterprise school director this year after serving a decade as finance director.

With the added powers, he says, comes much more accountability for improvements in achievement, attendance and dropout rates, parental involvement and other measures. "Rather than blaming some faceless bureaucracy for why they can do some things and can't do others," Mr. Porter says, "schools will necessarily have to become more accountable."

It's an idea firmly rooted in the modern private enterprise techniques and adapted in the past few years in some form in scores of school systems across the country. The result has been widely varying degrees of success but little documentation yet of improved performance.

Baltimore's school system began the move toward school-based management last school year with 24 "enterprise schools," based on a 1992 management study of the district. But school-based teams actually took on some decision-making authority at 14 of them two years earlier as part of a Baltimore Teachers Union experiment.

Newfound power has led to some dramatic results.

At Liberty Elementary, nobody had to consult North Avenue headquarters before seeking and getting money from the Abell Foundation to add a "fifth quarter," extending the school year by 40 days. Parents decided all kids should get the extra time, if they wanted it, and 125 did this summer. The 17- member school-improvement team agreed and made it happen.

Nor did anybody need approval beyond the school to extend the school day by nearly two hours twice a week or to replace a full-time music teacher with a part-timer, to free money for a new "core curriculum" stressing "cultural literacy."

At George Street Academy of Math and Science, a pilot enterprise school in the Murphy Homes housing project, Principal Barbara A. Hill worked with the school-improvement team to reshuffle the budget and enlist the help of private companies like IBM and Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.

The exercise in democracy paid off. The school pared class sizes to an average of 18 children, much smaller than most. Computer labs rival those of those in the wealthiest suburbs. Parents, now co-managers, showed up more and more often. Now they routinely take on cafeteria duty, assist with classes, patrol hallways and, in some cases, come by for GED classes.

Computer companies now provide training to students and teachers, using software that accompanies Liberty's 80 computers. Colleges train teachers in new ways to reach the children. BG&E has provided materials and done renovations and repairs. The Housing Authority and the tenant council plan to work with the school to forge more community-school efforts, like the new sewing business that residents operate from the school.

At Southeast Middle School, Principal John E. Mohamed saw the enterprise concept up close for the first time this summer. Last week, he needed a hole drilled for the installation of an antenna. "I could make a couple of phone calls, get the job done and pay the man," he says. "In the old days, I would have had to send in a requisition and fill out numerous forms. It would have taken weeks."

Though it has supported shifting money and power to schools from the beginning, the Baltimore Teachers Union questions how well the district has trained principals, teachers and others for their new roles. "People just haven't been trained properly," says Linda Prudente, a union spokeswoman.

Dr. Amprey, who begins his fourth school year today, says he's confident that principals, working with the teams, will produce -- and prove it under a tough new evaluation system. Otherwise, he says, they won't be principals long.

"Our focus this year is: 'No more excuses,' " he says. "Our school system is getting back to what it should do, and that is having instruction be the fuel that drives the engine of educational change. I think in the past, we've just gotten so administrative in our approach, so managerial in our approach, that we've kind of lost touch with what we really ought to be about, and that's instruction."

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