Dozens may lose school positions Low test performance leads Baltimore board to weigh quick action

January 30, 1998|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

Dozens of teachers and principals in Baltimore's schools could be forced out by next September as part of sweeping changes that the city's new school board will begin debating today and tomorrow.

With nearly half of its schools considered failing, the board must chart a five-year strategy for improving the system as required by the Maryland General Assembly. According to interviews with board members and interim schools Superintendent Robert R. Schiller, the far-reaching changes that the school board will consider include: Grouping 10 to 15 of the worst schools under a special area manager who would provide intensive supervision. Those schools would essentially be swept clean of all staff in June, and teachers and principals would have to reapply for their jobs.

Making about five of the system's best principals into managers over two or three other low-performing schools.

Giving management of about another five city schools to an outside group such as a nonprofit foundation or a neighborhood association. Last year, the city gave several groups permission to start new schools, such as the Midtown Academy. This year, the schools are reviewing proposals from groups that want to run an existing school.

Though the final plan will attack many problems, the school board seems already to have decided that one of its first acts must be to get good principals.

"Everything starts with schoolhouse leadership," said Carl Stokes, a board member, who believes that at least 50 percent of the city's 183 school principals may need to be replaced in the next several years.

While he said not all board members agree, he believes that what happens in the administrative offices is largely irrelevant to teaching children.

For many years, Baltimore schools have promoted from within, taking teachers and making them principals. But Schiller said that must change. "We have to deepen the talent pool," he said.

Already, he has begun advertising in national journals for teachers and principals. The school board will pay for relocating the principals and believes its salaries, now running about $80,000 a year, are for the most part competitive.

Schiller believes that as many as three-quarters of the new hires may come from outside the system.

Board members said the search would go on within the system as well.

"We are continuing to grow our own," said Patricia Morris, school board member and former city teacher. "We have some solid assistant principals." The schools need to provide training to some principals who have been given greater responsibilities in budgeting in recent years, but no additional training, she said.

But Stokes said: "Our people in the system have been beaten down so much. It is difficult for them to rise up. They are so demoralized."

Stokes said he supports the idea of having good principals manage several low-performing schools, but believes it would work only if the board were to give those principals authority to hire and fire and choose curricula at the schools they manage. Holding the hand of another principal will not be enough, he said.

Those principals would be given greater flexibility to try out programs at their schools. At Roland Park, which has test scores that meet the state's average, there are two curricula.

While the staff changes may be painful for some, no one will be fired unless he is first evaluated as inadequate, Schiller said.

Morris said she believes some teachers may simply be in the wrong jobs or at the wrong schools. Some of the good science and math teachers at Polytechnic Institute, one of the city's best high schools, would make bad teachers at another school, she said.

Moreover, she said, some schools may have the wrong leaders, which would explain why some scores have improved at schools such as Furman L. Templeton Elementary under a new principal.

Beyond changing school staff, the school board will look at trying to get teachers to teach the same things in each grade.

"We have some schools with three or four different reading programs," said Morris. "That is ridiculous."

Among all of the 70 strategies the board will begin reviewing this morning, Morris said she believes the board must keep focused on the basics. "In our attempt to turn around the system and try some new reform initiatives, I want to make sure we focus on the basics: that we do make sure that our kids can read, compute and write."

The school board will meet today and tomorrow at the school board offices on North Avenue. The meetings are open to the public. In the next two days, the board must draft a master plan for the schools. The board will hold a series of public hearings before the final plan is submitted to the legislature in March.

Pub Date: 1/30/98

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