Educators' four-day meeting puts the issues on the board Privatizing schools, teaching self-esteem among session topics

March 24, 1997|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN STAFF

Dozens of meeting rooms in the Baltimore Convention Center and nearby hotels took on the look of school rooms yesterday as thousands of teachers, curriculum specialists and their bosses from across the country and beyond gathered for their annual meeting, a yearly attempt to examine the latest ideas on what's good -- and bad -- for schools.

One hotly debated topic took on a piquant Baltimore flavor as Walter G. Amprey, Baltimore's superintendent of schools, and a national panel of experts tartly argued the wisdom of privatization and charter schools.

With 650 sessions scheduled for the four-day meeting, which ends tomorrow, the printed program for the conference of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development took on textbook-size proportions.

Conventioneers lined up, eager to hear about "How the Two-Year Looping Classroom Works: Promoting Teachers With Their Students." Some of the 11,000 who registered were lured by "Using Curious George to Introduce Geography, Ethnicity, Literature and Journaling."

They could choose "Teaching Self-Esteem Through Fairy Tales and Allegories" or "Holistic Education in Japan." Other sessions were available by advance ticket only, such as "Studying the Holocaust on the World Wide Web," "Quality Rubrics" and "Block Scheduling in Action."

Amprey argued passionately on behalf of school privatization, which he initiated in Baltimore through a private company, Education Alternatives Inc., which ran several schools under its Tesseract program.

"We had success for three years with EAI," Amprey said. "I think now some of the schools are reverting to what they were before because we didn't have the political will to continue."

The political will shifted abruptly when Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke decided in March 1996 that EAI was costing too much and producing too little and ordered the superintendent to end the experiment.

But Amprey said that such privatization attempts are too promising to die and that Baltimore's school system has been deeply changed by the experiment, seeing the wisdom of giving more authority to individual schools.

"The genie is out of the bottle, folks," he said.

Amprey said he opposes charter schools, a popular reform in the nation and Baltimore. The city, at the mayor's behest, is allowing several private groups to experiment with running city schools in a plan similar to charter schools, which are answerable to the public but run independently of the school system.

He said that he opposed Baltimore's Stadium School, which operates like a charter school, because he wanted to concentrate on improving the entire system instead of diverting attention to new schools.

Once the Stadium School was approved in 1994 -- Schmoke, who is Amprey's boss, lobbied for it -- Amprey decided to support it. "The Stadium School enjoys my support because it's there, and it has children in it," he said.

Joe Nathan, a champion of charter schools who directs the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota, argued that charter schools provide the energy and imagination that stimulate an entire school system.

"And they keep dedicated, passionate people like Jay Gillen [director of the Stadium School], who might leave the public school system otherwise," Nathan said.

Alex Molnar, an opponent of privatization and charter schools who has written a book called "Giving Kids the Business," provided the debate its sharpest tongue.

Molnar of the University of Wisconsin argued that public schools need more resources and smaller classes more than stimulation.

"My daughter teaches in Milwaukee," he said. "She has 31 fifth-graders, some of whom have serious problems because of lead poisoning. There's absolutely nothing that setting up a charter school down the block would do for her, except drain resources."

While hundreds of conventioneers were discussing these questions, many took a break between workshops, strolling around the harbor or getting a breath of crisp March air.

Gillen, by the way, didn't have time to attend the convention. He was at home with his children yesterday, and he had a lot of school work to do.

"School reform has to take place one school at a time," he said by telephone. "To me, the question is: 'To whom are the principal and teachers answerable -- to superintendents and supervisors or to parents and children?' "

Pub Date: 3/24/97

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