City presses state to let it mend its own schools

January 28, 1995|By Jean Thompson | Jean Thompson,Sun Staff Writer Sun staff writers Mike Bowler, Harold Jackson and Eric Siegel contributed to this article.

A behind-the-scenes struggle between state and city school officials -- with control of underachieving city schools in the balance -- has delayed by two weeks the state's annual list of schools to be reformed.

State school officials are expected to identify the schools next week, but with fewer Baltimore schools on the list than they had originally intended.

City school officials have said the reform program is unfair and should be halted, and school board President Phillip H. Farfel said yesterday that, despite the reduction in number, they are ready to continue their challenge.

Dr. Farfel said the city recognizes there is room for improvement in its schools and is working hard with limited resources to solve the problems with its own programs. Complicating the city's task is the fact that it serves many more poor students than do other Maryland school systems -- and there is clearly a relationship between poverty and low test scores. The state demands reorganization of selected schools, he said, but does not specify how or provide money to make change possible.

"We reject the process as a process which is unfair and which seems to us as an unfunded mandate," Dr. Farfel said.

The dispute pits the Maryland school system with the lowest achievement against a state process designed to set and

enforce higher standards for schools.

Christopher T. Cross, president of the state school board, said its orders from the public are to intervene when local public schools report declining achievement.

"I think the urgency of the needs of the children is more important than the needs of the bureaucracy," Mr. Cross said yesterday.

The state is expected next week to order reform at several middle and elementary schools in Baltimore, but fewer than originally considered eligible for the program, as a result of several days of negotiating with city school officials. Sources said nine Baltimore schools were originally on the state's list, but the final number might be as few as three.

State school officials review schools each year, looking at achievement test scores and other factors, such as the dropout rate. Declining schools are identified for reform. If a local school system does not submit a satisfactory plan, the state can take control from school officials and have the school run by a third party, such as a university, community group or private firm.

Both city and state officials say they have learned from the experience of "reconstituting" Douglass and Patterson High schools, selected last year as the first in the reform program. They agree that the program has had some success, more at Douglass than at Patterson, and that more progress is needed. However, they do not agree on the lessons learned.

"Reconstitution would serve to disempower some of our schools and divert our energy away from our initiatives," Dr. Farfel said. He said the city schools believe in putting power in the hands of school improvement teams made up of parents, administrators and teachers, but that this is undermined when the state steps in.

State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said she had learned that the process works but that schools need more time to develop effective plans. She said she asked for funds to provide resources and technical assistance to local school systems as the program went into its second year, but did not get the money. The state does assign monitors to watch the progress of schools implementing reforms, and dedicates staff time to assisting, Dr. Grasmick said.

Schoos Superintendent Walter G. Amprey and the school board believe that this constitutes an unfunded mandate, "and I support their position," Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said through his spokesman, Clinton R. Coleman. "But more importantly, I think Dr. Amprey's approach to school improvement is moving us in the right direction and showing success in improving our schools."

A delegation of city officials including Dr. Amprey and city solicitor Neal M. Janey met privately this week with the state Board of Education to challenge the selection of schools and point out the potential hardship that attempting to reform many at once might cause.

The state is willing to consider "extenuating circumstances" after determining a school's eligibility, and -- as it did in Baltimore's case -- may revise its list, Dr. Grasmick said.

However, the state does not consider the poverty of the students to be such a circumstance, she and Mr. Cross said.

"My feeling is that if you put low income down as a factor, you are then implying that students in low-income schools are not as worthy and aren't to be held to the same standards of achievement as other students," Mr. Cross said.

Others affected by the state's reform plan said there should be other ways to make change stick and to improve schools. If the city school board asks the state to halt the reform program long enough to better evaluate it, "that's one of the smartest things I've heard the city say," said Linda Prudente, spokeswoman for the Baltimore Teachers Union. "It's a tremendous amount of work for teachers to retool a school."

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