Back in 1989, the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation decided to invest in a network of middle schools in five urban districts, including Baltimore. The foundation handed over nearly $10 million in hopes the schools would become national models in five years.
Most of them didn't. Five years and $9.7 million later, only a couple of the five public school districts in the Clark network could point to successes, and Calverton and West Baltimore middle schools, the two selected in Baltimore, brought up the rear in the final evaluation of the project. Calverton, in fact, was chosen earlier this year as one of three Maryland schools eligible for state "reconstitution," so dismal has been its academic performance over the past three years.
In effect, the New York foundation's money in Baltimore -- nearly $2 million in direct and indirect payments to the two schools -- went down the educational drain, there to join millions of other dollars misspent in efforts to reform American education.
Several things, according to the official evaluator of the Clark project, respected Maryland writer and school critic Anne C. Lewis, and those directly involved in the experiment.
Ms. Lewis said in an interview that Baltimore's part of the Clark grant suffered consistently from a lack of leadership. During the project's 5 1/2 years in Baltimore (it was extended in its final year), there were two superintendents, Richard C. Hunter, who presided over the launching of the initiative, and Walter G. Amprey, who presided over its termination.
There also were three central office administrators in charge of -- the Clark grant and, at Calverton, three principals.
"Nobody ever took responsibility at any level," said Ms. Lewis. "There was a lack of vision at the central office. You would have thought that everyone involved would have been working toward some goal, something like higher student achievement, but I saw no evidence of that."
Baltimore was not alone in Ms. Lewis' net.
Only one of the 12 principals at the end of the Clark initiative was there in the beginning. The other 11 schools (in Milwaukee, San Diego, Louisville, Oakland, as well as Baltimore) adjusted to 27 principals in five years.
West Baltimore's principal, Sheila Kolman, transferred to the North Avenue central office at the beginning of this school year. She said she was "devastated the night I read" Ms. Lewis' report -- actually, the third she wrote as the evaluator of the Clark grant -- but that she came to agree with some, but by no means all, of the criticism.
"Maybe one of the lessons we learned is that you don't initiate systemic reform in two or three schools. We also learned that you need someone from the central office who stays behind something like this from the beginning. We had three of them, but none ever had the expertise or the clout at North Avenue."
Ms. Kolman's observations jibe with Ms. Lewis' written comments. "Districts reacted the same way, thinking 'programs,' not systemic reform," she wrote. " Once the Clark grant was secured, most of the district offices avoided using the initiative as their opportunity to build a capacity to support reform."
In San Diego and Louisville, where the Clark grant resulted in some success, Ms. Lewis said, the districts committed themselves to improving across the board. But she said that in none of the districts, most especially Baltimore, did the central office think of itself, its own organization and its relationship with schools, as part of the problem. That criticism could apply to any reform, be it the highly publicized Tesseract program or the mostly unpublicized Clark initiative, promoted by Dr. Amprey, Dr. Hunter or their recent predecessors.
School districts think of "programs," not system-wide reform. Once they get the money, they don't pay enough attention to how it's spent. And as Ms. Lewis wrote, "they are not accustomed to being more than minimally accountable for the results from outside funding."
Still, Ms. Kolman argued that there have been good effects from the Clark experience. "We didn't just throw the money away," she said. "Kids grew and gained because of Clark."
Moreover, Ms. Kolman and others argue, the system's current efforts to reform middle school education are at least partly attributable to the Clark effort.
For example, a visitor to the Lombard Learning Academy, on the second floor of one of Baltimore's struggling inner-city middle schools, would likely be impressed by the education offered. About 120 seventh-graders are now in their second year with a hand-picked and highly motivated faculty working in teams.
Not a single teacher at the academy left during the summer, said the academy facilitator, Brenda Abrams. The school is a demonstration center -- teachers spend a week at a time observing -- for the system's new instructors and those working in schools in danger of state sanctions. One of those, ironically, is Calverton Middle School.
This reform might have wider application, but Ms. Abrams said there are "budget implications" to expanding.
A matter of time
Here's one way to eliminate the universal excuse of tardy students -- that they overslept.
Headmistress Sheelagh Clement-Jones passed out 230 alarm clocks to all her 11-year-old pupils at a school in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in northern England.
Local companies donated the clocks.