A big boost for the beleaguered Embattled educators: Playing host to a national educational conference provided timely relief after city schools endured one of the bleakest weeks in years.

The Education Beat

January 31, 1996|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

FOR THE CITY school system and its embattled superintendent, Walter G. Amprey, being the host of this week's national conference on "promising practices in education" was (pick your cliche) a shot in the arm, a stitch in time, a breath of fresh air.

It was also an indication that Dr. Amprey may be on the canvas, but it's early in the referee's count.

Last week may have been psychologically the worst for city schools since 1974, when teachers went on strike amid a similarly miserable winter and gained little in the settlement that brought them back a month later.

There was no strike last week, but the news was uniformly bleak. The state schools superintendent designated 35 city schools for restructuring because of their dreadful performance, powerful legislators moved to punish the system for poor management by withholding $5.9 million in state funds, there was talk of replacing the system's entire management and Dr. Amprey informed teachers that 10 days of their pay would be withheld to help balance the city budget.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke helped over the weekend by removing the fourth threat, or at least by assuring the teachers that any pain over balancing the budget would be shared by all municipal employees.

But it was the conference at the Convention Center that really helped. About 900 teachers paid $50 each to attend the sessions designed to highlight 80 "innovative" programs in Baltimore City, from the Laurence G. Paquin School for pregnant teen-agers to the much-heralded Barclay-Calvert program.

The conference, attended by educators from as far away as California, cost $60,000 paid by the school system and education vendors, but it was worth a million dollars in adrenalin for Dr. Amprey and his staff.

Scheduled months ago, it could not have come at a better time.

Yesterday's final luncheon, attended by about 800 educators, had something of a revivalist atmosphere. Teachers like Frances Diggs, of Grove Park Elementary School, looked around, saw plenty of indications of success, and said to themselves and each other, "We're not that bad!"

Teachers work in isolation, but they are newspaper readers and television news watchers. "Like all human beings trying to do a job, we get really down when we hear and read constantly about our failures," Ms. Diggs said as she walked up Charles Street yesterday afternoon to retrieve her car. "Here was a chance for us to talk about our successes and share them with each other."

Andrew F. Korshalla, superintendent of Old Bridge Township schools in central New Jersey, brought his entire administrative staff to Baltimore to see and hear about the city's many programs. "I'm impressed by the commitment of this school system to try innovative things," said Dr. Korshalla. "They're far ahead of most other systems."

Dr. Amprey, who got a standing ovation at yesterday's luncheon, was ebullient. "A tremendous psychological boost," he said of the conference, which concludes this morning with tours of 23 of the "innovative" schools.

For a teacher interested in "promising practices," there was plenty to see and hear about. Some, such as the Barclay-Calvert program and Sylvan Learning Centers, got their start in Baltimore and have been well-publicized.

Others, such as Success for All, a nationwide reading program for early elementary students, has received more attention outside the city of its birth than in Charm City.

There were ironies at the Convention Center. Education Alternatives Inc., which saw its contracts in Baltimore and Hartford canceled long after agreeing to participate in the conference, sent its divisional vice president, smiled all the way through and offered one of its nine schools for today's tour. (EAI's contract with the city expires March 4.)

Most ironic, however, was the fact that many of the 80 programs highlighted at the conference are mainstays in the 35 schools added to the "reconstitution" list last week by state school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.

Lyndhurst Elementary, for example, was one of two schools that pioneered the Core Knowledge Curriculum in the city. Robert Coleman Elementary, also added to the state list last week, has several "innovative" programs, from year-round schooling to all-boys' classes. Edgewood Elementary, an EAI school featured The Sun's series on the "Tesseract" schools last spring, also made Dr. Grasmick's dishonor roll.

Asked about this, Dr. Amprey criticized the criteria used to compile the state list, but he never offered a solid explanation. If these innovations are so promising, why haven't they helped rescue these Baltimore schools from the ignominy of threatened state takeover?

Related questions: Is it possible to have too many innovative programs? Is that what happened at Coleman? Would Baltimore be better off choosing one proven program -- say, Barclay-Calvert or Success for All -- and put most of its effort and dollars behind it?

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