Schools hope for a new attitude Changes in city will be obvious and subtle


The ambitious city-state reorganization of Baltimore's public schools officially makes its debut today when the doors to the district's 183 schools swing open to begin the 1997-1998 school year.

But what really will be different for the district's 108,000 students when they return to their classrooms?

The short answer: Everything, and not much.

Members of the new school board and district administrators believe they have made fundamental changes in school environment throughout the district. Expectations, they say, will be higher from day one. Attitudes should be improved from the top administrative offices to school lunchrooms.

But most of the concrete changes in store for the district -- after-school academies, smaller class sizes, thrice-yearly student assessments -- will unfold over several months.

"It's not like unveiling a new model year for a car, where everything suddenly looks totally different," said interim schools chief Robert E. Schiller. "It's more that we're trying to reshape the attitude, culture and accountability levels in the district in the short term, and we will progressively roll out our ideas for big changes."

Stalled contract talks with the Baltimore Teachers Union threaten to put a damper on the district's planned changes, which call for more teacher effort and dedication. The union's leadership voted late last week to have teachers and aides "work to rule," that is do no more than their current contract requires, until a new contract is forged and a pay raise is approved.

If teachers comply, they will participate in little beyond teaching their assigned classes each day -- no lunchroom or playground ** duties, no before- or after-school activities, no extra efforts to complement reforms.

BTU President Marcia Brown said she expects most teachers to comply.

"There's a lot of support for this among teachers and parents," Brown said. "Teachers will be professional and supportive of the things that are in place to make academic progress. But they will not be doing anything that's beyond their contract."

Schiller said he expects everyone to be on board with new management and the direction it has set.

'A new day'

"This is a new day in Baltimore City's schools," Schiller said.

He and the new city school board have spent three months drawing up a blueprint by which they hope to rebuild the district's academic infrastructure, make management more -Z efficient and accountable, and energize city teachers and principals.

The result of their toil is a 24-page "transition plan" that calls for far-reaching and ambitious reforms that will appear throughout the school year. The tenets of that plan will be used to build a long-term "master plan" to be sent to the state legislature this school year.

Changes have already been made in the plan at schools throughout the city.

The new board ordered major and minor face lifts for more than 100 city schools over the summer, including paint jobs, cleanups and repairs.

More than a dozen schools have new principals, and most top administrators in the district -- former superintendent Walter G. Amprey and his staff -- are gone.

Focus on reading, math

In the early grades, there will be a renewed focus on reading and math. Schiller and the new board have set as a goal the ability to demonstrate math and reading proficiency by third grade.

Other changes coming up include:

From Sept. 15 to 19, students in grades one through five will be given the California Diagnostic Test in reading and math, the first such standardized assessment of city children in several years. The test results will serve as baselines for improvement; re-tests in January and June will measure progress.

A wave of new teachers will be hired by the end of October to help reduce class sizes in grades one through three to fewer than 20 pupils. The district hired 204 teachers at a two-day job fair last month, so some schools begin the year today with smaller classes. In addition, 150 retired teachers have been lured back to the district to help in elementary schools. Schools with no classroom space for new teachers will be hiring reading and math specialists who will help reduce student-teacher ratios.

Additional teaching materials -- about $10 worth per student -- should arrive in schools next month. The materials will be reading- and math-oriented, and will be purchased by individual schools according to plans drawn up by principals and staff members.

By Nov. 1, after-school academies will begin operating in elementary schools to help boost reading and math achievement. They will be in session from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. twice a week and will be staffed by teachers and volunteers. Attendance will be optional for students, but Schiller and the school board are considering mandatory attendance for students whose academic progress is inadequate.

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