Reform on a shoestring

City lacks resources to bring weak schools up to state standards

October 08, 1999|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

When the state threatened that it might take over just one failing Anne Arundel County elementary school 3 1/2 years ago, the reaction was immediate.

A top-notch principal was assigned to the school. All teachers were forced to reapply for their jobs.

And barely a day went by without someone from the system's central office offering training or other help.

But when the state sounded the same alarm over the past five years for 83 of Baltimore's 182 schools -- threatening to take over or close schools that don't improve, in a process known as "reconstitution" -- the city didn't respond in the same way.

The city lacked enough top-notch principals and teachers to carry out wholesale staffing changes at the 83 troubled schools.

It lacked the money to reduce class sizes.

And it lacked the ability to offer much more training to hundreds of teachers.

"It was never envisioned that reconstitution would encompass this magnitude of schools in a single system," says state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.

So with Maryland's five-year effort to fix its worst schools now entering its endgame, the ultimate sanction -- state takeover -- is rapidly approaching for a handful of schools, particularly in Baltimore.

With some of the 97 "reconstitution-eligible" schools in Maryland showing almost no improvement in four years and seven in Baltimore performing worse, the state is preparing to take over or shut down perhaps as many as five or six schools by the end of this school year.

"We always knew it would come to this," says Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, the Baltimore Democrat who has been a legislative leader in the state's school reform effort.

"But I also think we've never budgeted quite enough for all of these schools to have a chance to get better."

Since 1994, the state school board has identified 83 failing schools in Baltimore, 12 in Prince George's County and one each in Anne Arundel and Somerset counties, based on their low state test scores and attendance rates.

When the state labeled the schools eligible for reconstitution, it gave them supervision, some training and a little more money. For some schools -- though not many -- it has been enough.

But the state has little power to affect the quality of principals or teachers, nor has it been willing to follow the lead of such states as New Jersey and order all failing schools to adopt such proven schoolwide programs as Success for All -- adhering to the long-standing principle of respecting local control of schools.

Nevertheless, the state has been demanding for several years that these schools improve. It gives each as much as $100,000 to spend on such things as more staff to teach reading and reducing fourth- and fifth-grade class sizes.

Also, the schools and their school districts have been required to submit improvement plans regularly for the state board's approval. State monitors -- often retired principals -- have been visiting at least once a week.

But the rest of the responsibility -- and decision-making -- is left to the schools and school districts.

Faced with too little improvement, the state board began soliciting bids last month from private companies and nonprofit organizations that might assume control of some of these schools.

Grasmick doesn't view that as a failure for the schools, the school systems or the state. She says she anticipated that some schools might need more radical repairs and that it would be "unconscionable" to let them continue.

"I don't consider the likelihood that we will step in on a few schools to mean that this is a failure," she says. "I consider it another part of the process."

The process appears to have been easier for the Anne Arundel, Somerset and Prince George's school systems than Baltimore's because they have a relatively small number of failing schools. And the initial results in those counties have been more encouraging.

"The schools that the state has identified are the same ones that we had identified as being concerns, and we're encouraged by the results we see so far," says Alvin Thornton, chairman of the Prince George's County school board, who is about to become chairman of a statewide education funding task force.

"But I think there is more the state could be doing to help those schools -- smaller class sizes, better physical facilities, equitable compensation for teachers."

`A lot of attention'

At Anne Arundel's Van Bokkelen Elementary, the school superintendent assigned one of her top principals to the job and treated the school like a new facility. All teachers were required to reapply for their jobs, and 26 of 30 ended up transferring to other schools.

"This was new for Anne Arundel County, so there was a lot of attention and help paid to the school," says Rose M. Tasker, Van Bokkelen's principal.

Last month, Van Bokkelen won an award of $33,430 from the state for making significant improvements on its test scores and attendance for two years in a row.

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