Marylanders of the Year: School reform: Grasmick, Sondheim and Rawlings have played crucial roles in moving public schools toward the 21st century.

December 28, 1997

IN 1997, Maryland took a step that should have a profound impact on its future -- an agreement that will provide higher levels of funding for the beleaguered Baltimore City public schools, in exchange for increased accountability for the use of those funds.

The agreement did not come easily, nor was it an isolated accomplishment. Indeed, it could never have happened outside

the context of a tough, long-term strategy for education that aims to reshape public schools across the state.

As we survey the past year, searching out accomplishments and the people who made them possible, Maryland's school reform effort stands out as a signal achievement. Few other states have held to such a steady course, surviving changes in elected leadership and overcoming opposition to such initiatives as the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, designed to test whether schools are successfully teaching students the skills they will need in the 21st-century workplace.

As in any long-term initiative, many people have played significant roles. But three people deserve special praise -- state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, State Board of Education member Walter Sondheim Jr., and Del. Howard "Pete" Rawlings, the city legislator who chairs the House Appropriations Committee and who shaped a funding agreement acceptable to his colleagues and the governor, while persuading hostile city officials to accept new measures of education accountability.

Nancy Grasmick's commitment to teaching grew from an early brush with temporary deafness, the result of a severe reaction to penicillin in high school. That experience forged an unshakable determination to reach even the children schools often give up on. As an undergraduate, she insisted on doing her student teaching at a school for handicapped children -- against the advice of her professors.

She went on to spend several years as a special-education teacher, becoming for many learning disabled students a catalyst in gaining skills necessary for self-sufficiency. Her compassion for children at all levels of age and ability is as evident when she visits a classroom as when she twists the arms of public officials to do right by the next generation.

Even a cursory look at education news in Maryland this year reveals the central role she plays in education reform: Brokering the city-state partnership agreement; drawing up a statewide plan for additional school funding and then persuading often-rival political leaders to sign on; devising a phased-in series of competency tests for high school graduates that the state board recently accepted. The last proposal initially elicited fierce opposition. But Dr. Grasmick's ability to listen and respond to critics smoothed the way for a unanimous vote.

Nancy Grasmick is the kind of teacher children remember for a lifetime. She is the kind of manager who never forgets that the true purpose of administration is to create classroom conditions where students can succeed. And she is the kind of educator who inspires commitment to a vision and then leads the charge to reach it. She has been indispensable to Maryland's success in school reform.

When The Wall Street Journal featured Walter Sondheim Jr. in a front-page article a few weeks ago, no one who knows him was surprised to read how, in his characteristically self-effacing manner, he worries about "slippage," losing his powers to advancing age and becoming a burden in the various civic undertakings in which he still participates. Neither was anyone surprised to read how his friends insist that whatever his age he will always be "a blessing" to Baltimore, never a burden.

At 89, Mr. Sondheim's resume covers almost every area of civic life. As a respected business executive, he was instrumental in the resurgence of Baltimore's downtown starting in the 1960s and '70s. But he has also been a significant influence on education over the years.

As head of Baltimore's school board in the 1950s, Mr. Sondheim led it through the potentially divisive process of integration, peacefully and without delay. Within days of the Supreme Court's 1954 decision outlawing segregated schools, Walter Sondheim made Baltimore the first city south of the Mason-Dixon line to comply. For his efforts, he won accolades -- and had a cross burned in front of his home.

In 1989, Gov. William Donald Schaefer asked Mr. Sondheim to chair a commission on the future of Maryland schools. The group produced a document remarkable for its brevity, clarity and readability. Eight years later, the notable thing about the "Sondheim Report" is how many of its recommendations, some of which seemed revolutionary at the time, are now part of the state's education landscape.

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