Schools open to hope and bit of chaos Interim system chief pins optimism on city-state partnership

September 04, 1997|By Stephen Henderson | Stephen Henderson,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Mike Bowler, Brenda Buote and Marilyn McCraven contributed to this article.

Baltimore City's public schools opened their doors yesterday amid high hopes and sporadic chaos to begin the 1997-1998 school year.

While interim schools chief Robert E. Schiller swept through four schools extolling the promise of change and improvement under the new city-state management, some other buildings got off to a confused and bumbling start more typical of years past.

A "work to rule" job action called by the Baltimore Teachers Union did little at many schools to dampen first-day excitement. Schiller was happy with the debut, and many teachers and administrators shared his optimism.

"I'm thrilled by the way we opened," Schiller said. "We opened ready for business with high expectations and the broadest talent pool in the history of the system.

"But frankly, I'm more concerned with how we'll close next spring than how we opened today."

Schiller spent the day touring schools with new school board Chairman J. Tyson Tildon. He hit Medfield Heights Elementary and Booker T. Washington Middle -- two of the district's more exemplary schools -- in the morning.

In the afternoon, he was joined by Gov. Parris N. Glendening, state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke in visiting two other schools.

Schiller seemed to acknowledge yesterday that he was seeing the rosier side of the district.

"This is not the school we need to be at," he said at Booker T. Washington Middle, a clean and orderly West Baltimore magnet school that claims Thurgood Marshall and Tildon as alumni. "We need to be at a school that's in crisis."

Had Schiller visited Northern High School, which sits less than a mile off the route he took yesterday, he might have found his crisis.

There, students could be found lounging in the cafeteria or auditorium, or wandering the halls among tipped-over soft drinkcups.

Teachers at the school said they had gotten their schedules only yesterday, and there were so many glitches that confusion and disorder took over.

One teacher had returned yesterday morning to find his classroom stripped of all its furniture. Special education teacher Tom Parker was told he was to teach social studies, but Tuesday morning found his assignment switched to English. His classroom was supposed to be divided so he and another teacher could teach two classes at the same time, but that never happened.

"This is my 29th year, and it's pretty poorly organized," Parker said.

Things were a little more settled at Patterson High yesterday, despite last week's ouster of longtime Principal Bonnie Erickson.

Erickson led the troubled school's efforts to avoid a state takeover, overseeing a 10 percent boost in school attendance and a 30-point jump in the promotion rate, which measures the number of students who pass from one grade to the next each year. She was removed after a performance review found she had not brought the school into full compliance with special education mandates.

Interim Principal Robert G. Draine Sr. patrolled each of the school's five independent academies, while instructors at the school appeared to be disregarding the "work to rule" decision issued by the teachers union last week.

"By virtue of the academy concept, there is a sense of teamwork here that perhaps does not exist at other schools," said Draine, who came out of retirement to run the school until a permanent principal can be found.

Both James Sasiadek, the Medfield Heights principal, and Ruth Bukatman, the Booker T. Washington principal, said they hadn't sensed much interest among their teachers in participating in "work to rule."

Some teachers there weren't familiar with the job action.

"I've heard very little about it," said John Powers, an eighth-grade math teacher.

BTU President Marcia Brown said she's not surprised that administrators didn't notice much effect yesterday. The real consequences, she says, will be realized down the road.

"Teachers and para-professionals are for the kids first, so on the first day of school, I think they saw a great need to go beyond duty to make sure the kids' needs were met," Brown said.

"But down the road, as more school activities get started, I think principals will see more teachers just working to the contract.

"What I'm hearing from many teachers is that they will support our decision, until their needs are met."

East Baltimore's City Springs Elementary reopened its doors yesterday to truly begin a new era.

It is the first of four city public schools to adopt the experimental New Schools Initiative. But as a New School it looked a lot like the old, except for 45 minutes added to the school day, said Principal Bernice E. Whelchel.

"We've always had a clean building, we've always had dedicated teachers," Whelchel said. "We didn't become a New School to achieve those things. We're striving for excellence."

Class size is down because of the relocation of nearby Lafayette Courts public housing residents. But students will return throughout the year as residents move into the rebuilt Lafayette Courts.

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