State OKs reforms at 53 schools

Board also to prepare for takeovers if plans fail in Baltimore

One revision awaited

Private group says some city proposals fall short on specifics

July 01, 1999|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Applauding the city school system's move to fire unqualified teachers and demote some principals, the state school board approved reform plans yesterday for 53 of Baltimore's failing schools.

But, in case those reforms fail, the state board also moved forward with preparations to take over some failing city schools, looking at a list of companies and nonprofit organizations that would be willing to step in.

"We want to be prepared if that situation presents itself," said state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. "We would never do it in a cavalier, last-minute fashion."

The state board's approval of the city's plans -- as well as reform proposals for seven failing Prince George's County schools -- brushed aside criticism from a private nonprofit group, Advocates for Children and Youth, which charged that some of the plans lack specifics to ensure that student achievement will improve.

State board members said they are generally pleased with Baltimore's recent commitment to making changes and tough decisions -- particularly in many of its lowest-performing schools.

Robert Booker, the Baltimore schools chief executive officer, told the state board that the city has commitments from 400 certified teachers to begin work this fall.

"I see some evidence of good work in these schools," said state board member Edward Andrews. But Andrews said he remains worried, pointing to several schools in the city and Prince George's County that have seemed to slide in recent years.

At Tench Tilghman Elementary in East Baltimore, the percentage of third-graders with satisfactory scores in reading on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests dropped from 27 percent in 1994 to 5.5 percent in 1998. In math, the percentage of satisfactory third-grade scores dropped from 57.1 percent in 1994 to 9.9 percent in 1998.

"The fact is, whatever people are doing in Tench Tilghman isn't working," Andrews said. "I just don't see enough evidence to say it is going in the right direction."

City educators said they, too, are worried about drops. "It is a reason of concern for everyone," said Jeffery Grotsky, a city schools officer who oversees 19 low-performing schools. "I believe when we come back here next year, we'll be singing a different song."

Since 1994, the state has named 83 of Baltimore's lowest-performing schools as candidates to be taken over, a process known as reconstitution. It also has identified 12 schools in Prince George's County and one each in Anne Arundel and Somerset counties.

In May, the state board accepted the reform plans of 29 of the Baltimore schools and a systemwide reform plan for the city.

Yesterday, the board approved the plans for 53 other schools. The plan for another has yet to be voted on because state educators sent it back for more revisions.

But Matthew H. Joseph, the public policy director for Advocates for Children and Youth, said the state board should have been more critical of the plans. The group hired outside education experts to review a sampling of 37 of the plans, and the experts found almost half lacking in details.

"We saw a lot of improvement in the plans from a year ago, but it's not enough," Joseph said. "But there was very little information on staffing in many of these schools, either for teachers or principals."

Grasmick defended the analysis by state educators and the recommendation to the board that the plans be approved.

"These plans have been closely examined by a lot of people, and many have gone through five revisions before we accepted them," Grasmick said. "The instructional strategies they have chosen are supported by research."

Despite the confidence of state and city educators, the state board still moved to ensure it's ready in case the time arrives -- perhaps as soon as next winter -- to take over failing schools that don't improve.

Eight local and national companies and nonprofit organizations have told the state board that they would be interested in assuming management of such schools, according to the report submitted to the board.

Grasmick said a proposal will be developed this fall to solicit formal bids, with the intention that groups be prepared to take over schools by July 2000.

The "pivotal moment" to make decisions on taking over schools will be in November and December, when the next MSPAP test results are to be released, Grasmick said.

Pub Date: 7/01/99

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