Baltimore's pioneering school-privatization experiment stumbled once again over a statistical assessment of its success yesterday as new figures on how many children show up at nine Tesseract schools each day reveal only modest improvement in attendance.
And on average, attendance gains at the Tesseract schools during the experiment's first two years fall below improvements made citywide.
Release of the results came just eight days after the head of Education Alternatives Inc. (EAI) called attendance a key measure of the experiment's performance and touted dramatic gains. Emerging from a closed City Hall meeting with Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke last week, EAI's John T. Golle said this: "Attendance is up across the board, more so in our schools than any other schools."
The new results said something else.
Since 1991-1992, the year before EAI took over the schools, average attendance for the district's 121 elementary schools rose 2 percentage points, from 92.6 percent to 94.6 percent. Of the eight EAI elementaries, managed by the company as part of the $140 million, five-year Tesseract experiment, only one exceeded the citywide average: Mildred Monroe, which rose 2.7 percentage points to 93.6 percent last school year. The other seven fell below the city average.
Overall average attendance rose 1 percentage point, to 92.8 percent, for the eight EAI elementary schools.
One other Tesseract school, Harlem Park Middle School, exceeded the city average as attendance there rose 5.7 percentage points, from 73.8 percent to 79.5 percent, EAI said. Districtwide middle school attendance rose 3 percentage points during the same period, to 86.4 percent.
Coming just after newly revised test results last week showed that student performance had declined in the past two years at eight EAI-run elementaries while rising districtwide, the latest measure of EAI's work once more drew radically different interpretations.
Critics said the school system results, released by EAI, heightened doubts about EAI's efforts and its promise to improve student performance and attendance.
But the company and the school system pointed out that attendance had not fallen at any EAI-run schools. Further, officials said, it is unrealistic to expect big increases this soon.
The release of attendance measures patterned that of last week's proficiency test results: Each was marred by a clerical error.
Two weeks after the city school district admitted an error, discovered by The Sun, that actually overstated test score gains for the EAI schools last June, EAI released overstated attendance gains to media nationwide Thursday night.
In its incorrect release, EAI reported "dramatic gains as much as 22.2 percent since the 1990-'91 school year." After a Sun reporter inquired about that increase, for one school, the company blamed a clerical error and sent out a revision.
Philip E. Geiger, the EAI divisional president who oversees Maryland, said he was heartened by the gains and not the least bit troubled that the district as a whole had improved more than the Tesseract schools.
Dr. Geiger noted that computers and the company's program were not in place until March of its first year, and that students and parents needed to adjust to a change of such magnitude. He said he was heartened by the attendance gains and confident that the company has laid the groundwork for bigger increases during the remainder of the contract.
"Clearly, the schools are safer, cleaner places to come, and it does affect the kids," Dr. Geiger said. "More and more children are attending school, and we're proud of this accomplishment."
Last night, the city school system said in a statement: "The gains for the system, as well as for the Tesseract schools, are very encouraging." The increases at the EAI-run schools, the statement said, "show they are holding their own."
But EAI's harshest critics stepped up their attacks.
"This is just another disturbing example of EAI's pattern of lying to the public to cover up its deficiencies," the American Federation of Teachers said in a statement, calling the incorrectly reported gains "inaccurate, deceitful and clearly only intended to gain higher stock prices under false premises."
Fourth District Councilwoman Sheila Dixon, too, has become increasingly critical of the venture. "I think it's very evident that most of us feel they are not living up to their 'presentation,' " she said. "Here's another example of them failing in another area in which they claim they would have great successes."
Ms. Dixon, as well as Mayor Schmoke, favors waiting for the results of an independent evaluation of EAI, but said the program should be halted if there were no significant improvement in student performance. The mayor could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Linda Prudente, a spokeswoman for the 8,500-member Baltimore Teachers Union, pointed to the discrepancy in the gains in student attendance districtwide compared with the EAI schools.