New schools from old court case Initiative: A little-known product of a 12-year-old lawsuit could change Baltimore education.

The Education Beat

November 13, 1996|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

OUT OF THE same court case spread across the front page of today's paper comes an initiative that could change the face of Baltimore education no matter what happens to its management and finances.

Across the city, nonprofit groups are burning midnight oil, putting the finishing touches on proposals due Friday for operating schools or parts of schools under contract and largely independent of the North Avenue bureaucracy.

The New Schools Initiative, a little-known product of the 12-year-old special education lawsuit in federal court, has the blessing of Superintendent Walter G. Amprey, who probably will not be around to witness its fruition.

In Southwest Baltimore, parents in Ten Hills and neighboring communities are preparing at least three applications, hoping one will win final approval Jan. 15. "I had a dream that we missed the cutoff date. It was because we're really excited," said Kerry Weil, one of the organizers.

"Things are serendipitously falling into place," said Molly Jackman of the New School in Midtown Community, a citizen group in the Bolton Hill-Reservoir Hill area hoping to get approval for a school initially enrolling 60 to 80 kids in kindergarten through third grade.

Other groups hoping to win one of the three to five franchises for an opening next September are social agencies, education organizations such as Sojourner-Douglass College, the Baltimore Actors' Theatre Conservatory, a literacy group, a group of teachers in an alternative certification program, church organizations and officials at several public schools.

Almost anyone or any group is eligible, said George Merrill, a lawyer hired to run the initiative. Indeed, 71 institutions and individuals submitted "letters of intent" late last month, this in a city where many schools have trouble maintaining PTAs.

The concept is fairly simple. The new entities can be existing public schools, schools within public schools or entirely new programs. (To comply with the court order, priority will be given to schools previously judged out of compliance with special education regulations.)

The new schools or programs get the same funding for each student that regular public schools do. They must follow the city schools' personnel and union regulations, but they can hire their own staffs -- an extremely attractive feature in a city that seldom witnesses the dismissal of an incompetent teacher.

Baltimore thus will enter -- partially -- the "charter school" movement that is sweeping the nation. "Technically, these schools won't be quite like charter schools," said Merrill. "Charter schools are usually more independent. They set their own vTC admissions criteria. None of our schools will have selective admissions."

Nor is the New Schools Initiative patterned after the failed experiment of Education Alternatives Inc., the Minnesota company that tried to make a profit while running nine city schools. All New Schools applicants are nonprofit groups, and most are based in Baltimore. The Baltimore Teachers Union, which opposed EAI, supports the initiative and has a seat on its board.

Merrill said, "My biggest fear is that only larger institutional applicants will seriously apply. We need some neighborhood groups, and it appears we'll have some."

An unscientific survey by Education Beat yesterday found that the number of serious applicants for the first year's initiative will be well below 71. Several groups said there wasn't enough time to get a program in shape for a fall opening, but they might consider a 1998 start. Others regretted the lack of start-up funds, although Merrill said he is approaching foundations for grants.

"I need more time," said Roger L. Lyons, president of the Baltimore Urban League, which had submitted a letter of intent. "We'd like to do it, and maybe we'll be able to on the second go-round" in the fall of 1998.

"There are Urban League charter schools in San Diego and Miami, but our experts tell us it takes 18 to 24 months to properly organize a school," Lyons said.

Andrew L. Ross, president of the Children's Guild, chose not to make a final proposal after a suburban district asked his organization to organize a special education school. And Clayton Lewis, principal of General Wolfe Elementary School, said he would delay his application for a year because his school, one of those forced to reorganize by the state Department of Education, "has just had too many changes for one staff and one student body to bear for now."

Still, Lewis said his proposal for a 7: 30-to-5: 30 school day divided between "exploration" and "didactic" activities "is the most exciting thing I've confronted in all my years in education."

Baltimore does have one model for the New Schools applicants. The Stadium School, founded in 1994 by teachers and parents around Memorial Stadium, encountered initial resistance from North Avenue. But it's still going strong, and Merrill said Amprey and his staff have been "nothing but supportive."

The New Schools Initiative bears close attention. Baltimore schools appear on the brink of another management reshuffle, this one primarily to satisfy judges, lawyers and politicians. The New Schools Initiative affects what happens inside the schools -- to students. What a revolutionary idea! Factoid of the week: How "public" is the University of Maryland System? The state paid 41.2 percent of the UM budget at the turn of the decade. This year, it is paying 31 percent.

Pub Date: 11/13/96

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