It's not the money, it's the principal

October 26, 1997|By ERIK LARSON

Canton Middle School occupies an austere brick building in a blue-collar neighborhood overlooking an industrial stretch of Baltimore's Inner Harbor. The school's windows are grated; the front entrance is an unwelcoming barricade of steel doors. Canton has 750 students: 55 percent white, typically of Polish, Italian or Greek ancestry; 35 percent black; 5 percent Hispanic; and 5 percent Native American. The one thing they have in common is poverty.

Eighty-six percent meet federal requirements to receive a free lunch. Anyone who visits the school expecting a scene from "The Blackboard Jungle," however, is in for a surprise. With classes in session, the halls are quiet. Bright. The floors gleam. More important: the school has become an academic showcase, with test scores advancing year to year. All this within a broader school system described by its own interim chief executive officer as "academically bankrupt."

One man gets the credit for Canton's current condition: Principal Craig Spilman, a 33-year veteran of the system. Spilman was assigned to Canton in 1989, a time when on any given day, one out of every five children was likely to be absent. Today attendance stands at 88 percent. Suspensions are down, test scores up, in some cases dramatically. Last month, for example, Canton reported that its students had tripled the rate at which they passed a battery of state school-performance tests.

To achieve this improvement, insiders and outsiders agree, Spilman had to break every rule of the system, spoken and

unspoken. When he arrived at Canton, he says, "I had to clear the deck." He fired four teachers. "They didn't want to work or didn't want to change. It didn't matter. I wanted them out." He turned the "dance of the lemons," the system's custom of shunting incompetent teachers from school to school instead of firing them, to his advantage. "If someone goes, I don't care where he goes," he says, "as long as he's gone."

Instead of hiring from within, long the practice in Baltimore, he went outside. He hired teachers from Teach for America, a nonprofit organization that recruits, selects and trains college graduates to work in urban schools. He recruited men and women exiting the Peace Corps or the downsized military, including a former military-intelligence specialist and an Arabic translator.

"He has an uncanny ability, like most good leaders, to pick the thoroughbreds," says Robert Schiller, recently hired to be interim CEO of the city's school system as part of a planned reorganization.

Spilman abandoned traditional classroom models long ago but this year took an especially daring leap. He adopted the New American Schools' "Expeditionary Learning" protocol, in which children working as a team conduct actual field research aimed at producing a final product, such as an exhibition or presentation.

This year, one team will devise a design for the interior of an old cannery being converted to office space, along the way applying mathematics, physics and historical-research techniques. Each student engages in four such expeditions a year. Spilman insists that special-ed kids take part, even children so prone to be disruptive they have been identified by the school system as emotionally disabled. "We've included all these kids who used to be boxed together in the basement. And you know what happens?" He waits a beat. "Once they're included, they behave as well as everyone else."

Spilman made the Canton school a star of the system, but he did so on a shoestring through a combination of hustle and charismatic leadership and above all a willingness to confront a management culture that resisted reform. "Why should that be unique?" asks Robert Slavin, education researcher at Johns Hopkins University and a close observer of Baltimore's schools. "There's nothing he's doing that couldn't be done everywhere else. Why do we have to depend on a single charismatic individual?"

Spilman could have used more money, of course. He compensated in part by soliciting help from local businesses, forming partnerships that helped him acquire everything from wall paint to voice mail. He remains outraged that urban schools with the most "at risk" students typically get the least money.

Still, he's gaining ground. Last spring the school drew a visit from admiring officials from Montgomery County, a rich white suburb inhabited by Washington's power elite. His visitors were struck especially by something Spilman had accomplished, largely by hustle, that their own schools had yet to achieve: the installation of telephones in every classroom for use by teachers. A simple thing, yet it sharply improved teacher morale. "Teachers have graduate degrees. I mean, these are professionals," Spilman says. "What professional doesn't have a telephone on his desk?"

Pub Date: 10/26/97

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