New schools will need champions System in flux: Dramatic changes occurring should not stop innovative city project.

February 03, 1997

THE LABORATORY known as Baltimore public schools has been the setting for numerous experiments -- some good, some not so good -- but the New Schools Initiative holds more promise than most. However, the superintendent and school board who approved the project could be long gone come September. That means NSI will need new champions to ensure its survival.

Maryland doesn't have a law allowing charter schools, completely independent private schools that have been created with public money. But the New Schools Initiative comes close. They will be public schools in that per-pupil classroom funding plus maintenance, transportation and food service costs will be paid by the board of education. But otherwise these schools are supposed to be on their own, with no meddling from North Avenue bureaucrats as to who teaches what and how.

There will be nine NSI schools operated by seven non-profits that have specified how they plan to improve upon the instruction offered in regular Baltimore public schools. The group at Thomas Jefferson Elementary, for example, will place special emphasis on developing language skills by concentrating on writing even at the kindergarten level. The group opening a middle school at the St. James Parish Center will have a mathematics-oriented curriculum with emphasis on computer technology.

The court-negotiated settlement that should lead to dramatic management and state-funding changes in the city school system discourages new experiments. But lawyers agreed to consider the New Schools Initiative already in existence, although the schools are not yet up and running. Their agreement, however, doesn't guarantee support by the new school board. It will be up to that board, selected by the mayor BTC and governor, to continue NSI. The New Schools contracts can be terminated at any time.

Two frequently heard laments about the experiment allowing the for-profit Education Alternatives Inc. to run nine city schools are that the experiment began before everything was ready and ended just as it was beginning to gel. Preparation for opening the NSI schools must be thorough, and then the schools must be given reasonable time to succeed. The new board should commit itself to that.

Pub Date: 2/03/97

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