New reforms bring great expectations Better-paid teachers, newer books arrive in Baltimore schools

Biggest change at the top

No-nonsense chief wants to see results in children's learning

August 29, 1998|By Stephen Henderson and Liz Bowie | Stephen Henderson and Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

Baltimore school students will return to classes Monday to find new textbooks in every elementary school for the first time since 1986, better-paid teachers who will be held more accountable, and a coherent reading curriculum -- all the result of the 2-year-old city-state school reform partnership.

For the school board and the system's new chief executive, Robert Booker, the second year of the reforms brings new pressures: Failures can no longer be blamed on past administrations. At the very least, there must be some indication that the reforms are working.

"I think we have to show real results this year," said school board member William Struever. "I think last year was a building year. This year, we have to be rolling."

FOR THE RECORD - The spelling of C. William Struever has been corrected for the archive database. See microfilm for original story.

The system's 108,000 students will be greeted by more than 700 new teachers and 40 new principals, and ninth-graders in south Baltimore will help christen Cherry Hill High School -- the first new secondary school in the city since 1991.

There is change at the top of the system, too.

While Baltimore has had flamboyant and dramatic school superintendents for much of the past 20 years, Booker is maintaining a deliberate, almost wooden presence that makes Al Gore seem animated.

An example: Booker announced during last week's board meeting that he would dispatch central administration bureaucrats -- some of whom haven't seen the inside of a classroom in the last decade -- to temporarily fill teacher vacancies in the first weeks of school.

It was a bombshell that ranks among the most radical proposals ever floated in city schools. But Booker said it as if he were simply announcing the time of day, and he buried the plan among a litany of ordinary details.

A retired principal in the audience smiled and made the sign of the cross.

Booker just moved on to the next item on his list.

"This guy is really different I mean really different," school board Chairman J. Tyson Tildon said last week. "There's no show with him. It's all in what he does."

While staff have reported that Booker rarely raises his voice or becomes agitated, he makes his expectations clear and holds people accountable. He does not make grand pronouncements, as interim schools chief Robert E. Schiller did. Booker's actions suggest a no-nonsense approach to managing the district's 183 schools.

He has stripped 100 teachers of their tenure after they got bad evaluations.

He has gone to great lengths to ensure that schools and staff are ready for the first day of school Monday, holding 7: 15 a.m. staff meetings for several Mondays in a row to make sure that every classroom has a teacher, every school a principal and every student a textbook and schedule.

And he has fired a warning shot at principals about the first day of classes: Any reports of scheduling problems that result in children sitting in auditoriums instead of classrooms will be investigated.

Late last month, Booker forged an alliance with city ministers who staunchly opposed the city-state partnership, something former Superintendent Walter G. Amprey had accomplished before the partnership but Schiller never did.

Booker got something in exchange for his efforts: The Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance is leading a yearlong campaign to boost parental involvement in the schools.

The new chief talks incessantly about the "good things no one knows" about city schools -- the dedicated teachers and principals and those students who are college-bound. But when he first addressed administrators and principals, he was blunt about his disappointments: Referring to the mere 15 percent of lTC city third-graders who passed the state reading exams last year, Booker said, "I don't see any way you can look at that and not say we are failing our children."

When schools open this year, however, most of the changes the average second-grader might notice will not have been Booker's work, but an agenda set by the school board and Schiller.

At 15 of the city's lowest-performing schools, for example, students will get three hours a day of reading instruction to try to bring every child up to the level of their peers nationwide.

"Everybody agrees if kids can't read, they aren't going to do well in science or social studies," said Jeffery N. Grotsky, a former Harford County school superintendent who began overseeing the schools this summer.

The approach is one that Grotsky calls "forward to basics" because he does not believe in trying the latest fad in education but in trying to give children the skills they lack.

While students at his schools have generally performed abysmally on national and statewide tests -- in some schools only a handful of students passed the state reading tests -- he believes progress can be made.

"If we do what we have done in the past, we will get the same results," he said.

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