Coppin takes risk with Rosemont experiment

Elementary school is first in Maryland run by state college

January 04, 1999|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

From Rosemont Elementary School's perch at the end of Dukeland Street in West Baltimore, the tallest structure on the urban skyline is the high-rise classroom building at nearby Coppin State College.

That seems appropriate. Coppin, in assuming management of Rosemont last fall, has become the first college in Maryland to run an off-campus public school.

"It's a tremendous risk," said Calvin W. Burnett, the Coppin president who was taking one of his daily walks through the neighborhood last year when he decided to help Rosemont. "Somehow, people in education don't want to be venturesome. But Rosemont has been terribly neglected, and I think we must take the risk."

One of the city's poorest schools -- and on the state's list of failures -- Rosemont has a 95 percent poverty rate and a staggering annual student turnover rate of 44 percent.

The school registers a weak pulse in the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP). All of its fifth-graders failed the MSPAP reading test in 1997, and no third-grader reached the satisfactory level in mathematics the year before.

"When you have students in the fifth grade scoring zero in reading, you've got work to do," said Georgia Felix, hired by Coppin in August as Rosemont's third principal in five years. "A lot of them don't know a thing about phonics, and they're well beyond the point where phonics should have been mastered."

Coppin assumed control of the school as a participant in the second cycle of the school system's "New School Initiative." Although Maryland has no charter school laws, Rosemont falls under the charter definition: It is managed independently with public financing.

The first priority, Burnett said, was to fix the place physically. Coppin students, staff and alumni, led by the president, worked several weekends painting and replacing decades-old carpeting. Exterior doors and panels were painted bright red. Shrubbery was planted, stolen -- and planted again.

Then came volunteer tutors from the college, working on a weekly basis with the school's hard-core academic cases. Felix established Rosemont's first PTA in years and began reaching out to parents.

Coppin is installing a curriculum known as "thinking studies." Incubated in the college's Maryland Center for Thinking Studies, the curriculum "is designed to teach kids how to think, and in the process to pick up information more quickly and retain it longer," said Burnett.

Eventually, Burnett said, all of Coppin's divisions and all three of its traditional functions -- teaching, research and public service -- will concentrate on Rosemont.

The ideal scenario: Students from social work and nursing work in the school. Education students train there. Rosemont teachers take classes at Coppin. School families are treated at Coppin clinics and get free tuition at the college, an easy walk north of the school.

"I invite my kids to look out the window and see that tall building. I tell them maybe one day they'll be studying there," said Felix.

Added Frank Kober, Coppin's chair of curriculum and instruction: "The possibilities are limitless. No other college is trying to do something like this."

Potential pitfalls are numerous. Coppin was a latecomer to managing the school, and some neighbors last week complained of a lack of progress. Coppin screened candidates for principal and selected Felix from the staff of Forest Park High School, but the college inherited a young and inexperienced teaching staff.

"All innovations take time," said Kober. "The first year, you build trust and confidence, and you don't promise something you're not going to deliver."

Nationally, only a few colleges and universities have dared take on public schools, although the charter school movement is making more partnerships possible. The Wisconsin legislature, for example, recently passed laws allowing universities to run schools in Milwaukee.

The challenge has been financing and sustaining such arrangements through years of changing administrations and philosophies. Moreover, unlike the recently failed Education Alternatives Inc. attempt to profit by operating Baltimore schools, college-school partnerships aren't money-makers; the schools operate under the same funding formula as other public schools.

The longest-running example of a university managing public schools is in the Boston area, where Boston University took over the schools of Chelsea, Mass., nine years ago.

Results have been mixed. Student achievement has improved and dropout rates have been curbed. But relations between the largely Hispanic Chelsea community and the university have been chilly at best, poisonous at worst. There have been numerous fights over funding and charges of falsified test results.

Chelsea schools recently agreed to extend a 10-year contract with the university.

In the Rosemont neighborhood, the feeling is that the school has nowhere to go but up, and Coppin is the logical agency to take it there.

"It's good that Coppin is taking over," said Chenris Tracy, a 40-year neighbor who lives on nearby Baker Street. "Coppin will do a good job. We trust it."

Roberta Cooper, whose three daughters attended Rosemont, agreed. "They need a lot of help," she said, "and Coppin is in a position to give it."

Burnett approaches the task with zeal. "We won't let it fail," he said, vowing to assume personal responsibility for Rosemont's destiny.

"If one kid comes out of there at the level of Langston Hughes, Richard Wright or Martin Luther King Jr.," he said, "all of our effort will have been worth it."

Pub Date: 1/04/99

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