New year, new leader for Baltimore schools Booker's challenge: New CEO must create stability even as he continues to change system.

August 31, 1998

FOR THE PAST three decades, Baltimore's public schools have been in constant turmoil. Superintendents have changed frequently; there have been endless reorganizations. A state-mandated overhaul last year created more ripples -- but also a rare opportunity for radical improvement in the city's dysfunctional education system.

Now comes the moment of truth. As some 100,000 students report to classes today, Robert Booker, the recently hired chief executive officer, will begin new procedures and programs that seek to alter the school system's culture. Among concepts to be introduced are strict performance evaluations of principals and teachers.

Such measures may be commonplace elsewhere. In Baltimore, they are unprecedented -- and essential for turning around the school system.

"We don't have a lot of time," says J. Tyson Tildon, the school board's chairman, referring to the system's need to prove that reforms are working.

For Dr. Booker and the board, the new school year will be a balancing act.

They must create stability amid continuing change and adjustments. Unless a well-functioning, basic infrastructure is established, Baltimore may again fall victim to a curse of its past: a pendulum swing of philosophies and practices when the top leadership changes again. The school board's role is crucial in making sure this doesn't happen.

It is encouraging that Dr. Booker has identified stronger parental support groups as one of his first priorities. Parents and guardians must take a more active role at home and in schools if the education system is to make good on its promise of a turnaround that benefits every child.

Increasing adult involvement will not be easy, though. Only about 70 of Baltimore City's 184 schools currently have accredited PTAs.


"I will be aggressive in increasing PTA membership," Dr. Booker pledges. If need be, "I will ask the principal to knock on the doors in the neighborhood."

The Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance also has pledged to work to boost parental involvement. Leaders say they hope to attract more than 5,000 parents and other adult volunteers to city schools by the end of the 1998-1999 school year.

Rallying the teachers will present another challenge.

The Baltimore Teachers Union, so far, generally has cooperated with the school board's efforts to improve education standards. But friction has increased as it has become evident some underperforming teachers will be placed on probation. Tensions also are likely to intensify once negotiations begin in November on a new teachers' contract.

Dr. Booker, much of whose career has been in fiscal management, wants the freedom to address the system's problems. This includes flexibility in personnel assignments.

When it became apparent that the schools would open today with a shortage of about 100 teachers, he caused a minor panic at the schools' North Avenue headquarters by saying he wanted central administrators with teaching experience to help out in classrooms. "The classroom has to be the first priority," he noted.

Dr. Booker projects the image of an unflappable veteran professional. "You deal with a problem by being calm," he said recently, adding he wants to listen and lead by example.

In the end, though, the new school chief is likely to be just as impatient about the need for better results as a more excitable executive.

As they report to classrooms, students, teachers and staff ought to be on notice that it isn't business as usual. More than ever

before, their performance will be under scrutiny as internal and external assessments are made about the success of Baltimore's school overhaul.

! Pub date: 8/31/98

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.