Schmoke wants schools replaced Better alternatives sought for all students

March 08, 1996|By Kathy Lally and JoAnna Daemmrich | Kathy Lally and JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

Baltimore must replace its failing schools with community-run or other innovative schools to give parents a real choice in educating their children, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said yesterday.

Mr. Schmoke, who wants to bring about radical change in Baltimore's ailing school system, said there are few alternatives for parents dissatisfied with their neighborhood schools.

"The supply is going to have to be expanded," said Mayor Schmoke, who told a breakfast meeting of nearly 150 community and business leaders gathered at Johns Hopkins University that he wants to bring market principles of supply, demand and competition into the school system.

The schools with high test scores are mostly filled, the mayor said in an interview, and even if it becomes possible to send public schoolchildren to private schools with the help of tuition vouchers, only a tiny percentage of Baltimore's 113,000 students could hope to be accommodated.

"A school might close and we might open another one in its place," he said, adding that the Citizens Planning and Housing Association was prepared to help communities and parents create and run those new schools, operating with tax dollars under public auspices but independent of the school bureaucracy.

Mr. Schmoke has asked a newly created task force to consider everything from open enrollment within the public schools to vouchers to defray tuition costs at private or parochial schools. Another option is a scholarship program for poor children patterned after GI bills of the past.

While the mayor offered few details on how to finance such a system, one possibility is to appropriate school funds to each student rather than to the school system.

His ideas were hailed and criticized yesterday by a variety of community leaders who see them either as the school system's salvation or its destruction.

The mayor pointed to the Stadium School, created in the fall of 1994 by teachers and residents of the neighborhoods around Memorial Stadium, as an example of what could happen if parents were offered choice.

"Those parents got a new public school," he said, which opened in the old Northern Parkway Junior High building 4 miles from the stadium. Though parents were satisfied by the creation of a new school, the schools that they had avoided because of low achievement and poor performance never felt any negative consequences, Mr. Schmoke said.

"If we had told those schools, 'You clean up your act and take care of these parents or you'll lose your job,' " the mayor said, "we might have had a different response. We might have improved those other schools instead of having to create an additional school."

CPHA had helped the Stadium School organizers with their proposal, which encountered stiff resistance from the school system and was approved only after a two-year battle.

Cheryl Casciani, the director of CPHA, said she has an education organizer on her staff who could offer help to other communities planning a similar school, or to groups that wanted to take a stronger hand in the affairs of their neighborhood schools.

"We are definitely interested in helping neighborhoods work with existing schools," Ms. Casciani said. "You could form a partnership between people outside and people inside. Sometimes being freed of the restrictions of a large bureaucracy can help. The idea is to free up innovative ideas."

Mr. Schmoke said that parents who know how to manipulate the school system already have a choice. School regulations permit a family to transfer a child out of zone to be near a baby sitter. Others break the rules by using someone else's address, he said.

Sixty percent of the children at Roland Park Elementary School live out of its zone. Many are there because of a "program" transfer. A parent says he wants his child to study Japanese, for example, and can find Japanese only there.

"Roland Park has been a school of choice for many, many years," said the principal, Mariale Hardiman. But the Roland Parks and other high-achieving schools usually fill up quickly. Mrs. Hardiman says she has had 500 applications for 150 slots at her elementary-middle school.

Similarly, the highly regarded School for the Arts, a city high school, has about 600 applicants for 100 slots. Rigorous programs are at City College, or Western High School, or Poly, but only students with good grades and attendance are admitted.

Mr. Schmoke, who appointed a task force yesterday to study parental choice, said he wants to create the kind of system where all students can have the choice of a high-quality elementary, middle or high school. And he wants to put children who are now in the worst schools first in line.

"I will ask the task force to consider initially offering the choice option to one particular group of Baltimore parents: Those whose students attend schools the state has identified as eligible for reconstitution because of poor test scores and low attendance rates," he said.

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