Tesseract's Distracting Lessons

November 20, 1994|By TERRIE SNYDER

On Mondays at 7 p.m., the voice of Meldon S. Hollis Jr. wafts over the airwaves of WEAA, Morgan State University's radio station. His talk show, "Middle Passage" -- the name for the voyage African slaves made to the New World -- is a free-wheeling discussion of issues confronting blacks.

Mr. Hollis recently devoted an entire show to the controversy surrounding the Tesseract program -- nine city schools run by Educational Alternatives Inc. Tesseract, the former school board president says flatly, has become a smoke screen hiding other, far more serious issues.

In December 1987, Mr. Hollis became the city's first black school board president when Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke named him to the post. His stormy nine-month stint was punctuated by bickering with other board members, all of whom were holdovers from the administrations of former Mayors William Donald Schaefer and Clarence H. Du Burns.

In September 1988, Mr. Hollis told members of a city political club that he had traced press leaks by feeding false information to board members. The mayor removed him from the leadership position, but he remained on the board for four years and chaired the curriculum committee.

Mr. Hollis, a graduate of Harvard Law School, remains keenly interested in education issues. In September, he was elected chair of the Baltimore Urban League. He voiced concern about the Tesseract program during a recent interview.

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Q: Does the superintendent have too much of his credibility riding on the success or failure of EAI?

A: I think the public perception is clearly that the superintendent has invested to the point where he can't back out of the EAI project. And the problem that makes for EAI is whether or not the public will believe that any evaluation that the school system provides of EAI is objective and independent. That's a problem with the superintendent allying himself so closely when in theory he's supposed to be part of the final group that evaluates the program . . . Even if the information that is provided is legitimate, I believe there will be a cloud of suspicion cast over it. And that's unfortunate. I think we would all have been better served if our people had been more independent and less personally involved.

Q: Have Mr. Amprey's appearances on behalf of EAI in places like Hartford, Conn., been appropriate for a school superintendent?

A: It is appropriate for a school superintendent to commit himself to an idea or a model and to proselytize that view or that model as an educational model within his own school system. I would not presume to tell people in Connecticut what is good for their school system unless that is my job.

The two dangers of being seen as someone who is seen doing the work of a private sector party is: one, there is an immediate suspicion that there is something in it for you, and you will have hell to pay proving that that is not true; and two, you fritter away the credibility of the chief official in a public school system.

I would prefer to be gambling away my credibility on the tough, tough issues of equity for our poorest and neediest children.

Q: Has the superintendent lost so much credibility that he ought to resign?

A: I don't think the superintendent ought to resign over EAI. The public has more than EAI to worry about.

Fundamentally, in a school system, the evaluation of a superintendent -- particularly in an urban school system like this -- is based on whether or not he has retained confidence or made progress in the areas you've identified for improvement.

We have had a terrible problem of math and science education in the city. We're almost off the charts in terms of lack of performance. The other thing is that our youngsters do not have the resources that they need for what can arguably be called a sufficient education, as measured by education available to other citizens in the state of Maryland. The problem of lack of resources has been here so long that there are parents who do not know that in other school systems, youngsters take books home after school to do homework.

There are people in the city who don't know that in school systems around the rest of the state, youngsters have recess -- they're allowed to go outside and play during the school day.

People do not know that in other school systems there are bands with band uniforms and that you can check out an instrument and take it home and practice. They do not know that there are intramural programs where youngsters have physical education. They don't know, because these things are not available to youngsters in the city of Baltimore. They don't know the way a school system is supposed to run.

Q: The superintendent's new contract requires paying him for the next several years, whether he resigns or not, whether he is fired or not. Do you think that's appropriate for any appointed official?

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