Is school 'reconstitution' a hoax?

October 06, 1997|By Mark A. Mlawer

MORE THAN 200 parents of Baltimore schoolchildren recently drafted a petition urging the state to disapprove the 1997-98 improvement plan of their children's school, Patterson High School.

The many issues raised by these parents come at a critical point. Fifty Baltimore City schools have been named "reconstitution-eligible" by the state. Patterson High School was so named in 1994, one of the first two in the city.

If reconstitution has not had a positive effect at Patterson, significant changes must be made before the state sends more schools down that same road.

The parents write: "This, being the fourth plan submitted, should not be approved because the other three plans have yet to be fully implemented.

"The monitoring has been lax and the school has been able to appease the state by putting words on paper that are rarely, if ever, carried out. Our children leave school and can't even fill out a job application.

"Our business students can't fax a letter and the computer application course is still taught on typewriters, even though the state has sent millions of extra dollars to our school."

The petition notes that the parents don't wish to deal with state bureaucrats, who do not seem "to be able to honestly, swiftly and with the interest of the students at heart, correct the problems."

The parents have good reason to be concerned. Outside experts have confirmed that there are major problems at Patterson.

A team that included two state officials (neither one from the reconstitution office) conducted a site visit, and found a lack of appropriate instruction at the school.

In two classes the team observed no instruction whatsoever. The team also found that in all the classes observed, more than half of the students were not engaged in the lesson. In most cases, some students appeared to be asleep; others were talking, reading magazines, writing letters or playing computer games.

Chaos, confusion

Other reports describe a school where chaos and confusion reign.

A group of advocates helping parents of students with disabilities wrote that students were not receiving required services, small group instruction was rarely available, and necessary materials and supplies were often unavailable.

They concluded: "Many students were failing, becoming discouraged, dropping out and/or becoming self-destructive."

An expert from another school system wrote that Patterson's attempt to implement "inclusion" of the disabled did not include adequate preparation of teachers, students or parents.

The teachers at Patterson agree: While over 70 percent said they supported inclusion, the same percentage said they were not trained or supported adequately. One teacher wrote that she "attended a workshop over the summer, but the inclusion situations discussed and the ones I face are very different."

Inclusion works well when schools engage in at least six months of careful planning, which should include training targeted to faculty needs.

In addition, teachers need reasonable class sizes, and some hands-on assistance in their classroom in order to correct the knowledge learned in the training sessions. Patterson provided none of this, leaving teachers on their own to do the best they could.

The parents at Patterson are accurate in describing what has become of their school, and in suggesting that the state was asleep at the wheel while Patterson spun out of control.

As recently as this past winter, a top state official was heard on local radio extolling the reconstitution "accomplishments" of Patterson.

The state has approved inadequate plans from Patterson year after year. In fact, last year's plan was approved even though the "inclusion" portion of it showed no evidence that real preparation and support of teachers and students would take place.

Sadly, showing it has learned nothing from the Patterson debacle, the state continues to stamp "approved" on plan after plan. However, the plans typically have two major problems.

First, they are frequently not based on all available information. Special education reports, for example, are rarely used as data sources, guaranteeing that these problems will never be solved.

Second, the plans often speak of "monitoring" known problem areas (attendance, drop-outs, curriculum, etc.), but then either propose inadequate strategies to solve the problem or no strategies at all.

The state also fails to monitor the implementation of local proposals, although this is one of the few requirements the legislature has imposed. The Patterson plan promised class sizes no greater than 25 for inclusion; instead, class sizes of between 35-45 were the norm, one of the many facts of which the state's reconstitution staff was blissfully unaware.

Parent involvement

Moreover, state regulations require teacher, parent, and student involvement in writing the plan. The parents say that did not happen at Patterson, and certainly the school would have put proper planning, training and support in place for inclusion had the teachers been given meaningful input. Unfortunately, the state does not ensure that all stakeholders participate.

One can only wish the parents at Patterson the best as they attempt to improve their school, and one can only hope that in the future the state will be a vigorous advocate for real improvement at reconstitution-eligible schools, rather than a mere bystander.

Mark A. Mlawer represented city students with disabilities on the Management Oversight Team from 1994-1997.

Pub Date: 10/06/97

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