Schools planning reforms

April 21, 1995|By Jean Thompson and Suzanne Loudermilk | Jean Thompson and Suzanne Loudermilk,Sun Staff Writers

Baltimore County will take the lead in the fall as Maryland joins in a major expansion of a nationally watched school reform movement.

Nine "break-the-mold" experimental school designs will be offered as models to all 158 county principals, officials said yesterday. Principals who sign up can select a model and get help in giving their schools a makeover.

Kent, Prince George's, Washington and St. Mary's counties also are expected to shop among the "designs," which have been tested in 19 pilot schools around the country. Other districts may join later, officials said.

Yesterday's announcement by Maryland education officials and the nonprofit New American Schools Development Corp. marked major extension of the program, which aims to improve achievement and encourage parents' involvement without major infusions of money.

Each "design" is a combination of organization and educational philosophy that requires teachers, principals, students and parents to change the way the school does business.

For example, one design bases education on businesslike "contracts" signed by teachers and students. Another is based on an Outward Bound model, which challenges students with tasks requiring trust, fitness and imagination.

A third design organizes schools into neighborhood health, education and social service centers, while a fourth eliminates .. traditional grade levels and encourages students to help teach one another.

Each design has been tested for two years in at least one school. Some of the test sites were in Prince George's and St. Mary's counties. To get things going, the New American Schools Development Corp. (NASDC) provided staff training and evaluation -- including reviews of student performance every eight weeks.

The voluntary nature of the program appeals to Baltimore County, officials said, because the reforms are seen as progressive, not punitive.

"We like being on the cutting edge of new programs," said Baltimore County Superintendent of Schools Stuart Berger, whose staff is planning a May 1 design showcase for school officials from around the state. He said he wants schools that volunteer to launch programs in September.

Maryland School Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick first broached the subject to local superintendents a year ago. Baltimore County administrators visited the Maryland model schools and liked what they saw.

"Principals are trying to find strategies that work. Until we feel satisfied that we are reaching all of our kids, I don't think we'll feel that we're finished with reform," said Phyllis Burke, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.

NASDC, founded in July 1991 at the urging of then-President George Bush, selected its nine designs from 700 entries in a nationwide competition. Funded by foundations and corporations -- including $50 million from media mogul Walter Annenberg -- NASDC launched the pilot programs it now hopes to nurture nationwide.

In Baltimore County, the cost of adopting the programs will come from within each school's budget, according to school spokesman Charles Herndon. Teams from the pilot schools will train teachers and monitor progress.

The announcement drew a mixture of praise and concern from a variety of educational groups.

"One of the things that NASDC does is it gives you well-thought-out options," said Karl Pence, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association. "There are a variety of ways to improve education, and if it's done the way this is designed to be, parents and teachers will be the first to examine the options."

Ray Suarez, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, said his main concern involves timing.

"If it could help give teachers more staff development and training, it could be a plus," he said. "My only concern might be, are we rushing into this next year? . . . Could we get training during the summer, or would this be another program that gets dumped [on teachers] without training?"

John R. Allen III, president of the Maryland Parent-Teachers Association, said he wonders what will happen to students when they switch from a school with a new program to a traditional school, or transfer between schools with different designs.

NASDC president John Anderson said the group's goal is to involve at least 30 percent of the schools in participating districts to provide continuity.

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