Maryland assumes control of three Baltimore schools

Outside contractors will attempt to rescue pupils from failure

February 02, 2000|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Maryland followed through on six years of threats to failing schools yesterday, taking control of three Baltimore elementaries and promising to turn them over to outside managers by the start of the next school year.

"No child should have to attend a failing school by accident of where he or she lives," said state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. "The 1,500 children at these three schools are not having an opportunity to be competitive."

The first state takeover of individual schools in Maryland's history came on the same day that an independent evaluation of Baltimore's school reforms gave the city a qualified thumbs-up on its effort to turn around the failing school system.

The report -- prepared after six months of study by Metis Associates Inc., a New York City research firm -- found that city schools have gotten off to a good start by putting in place new curriculums, recruiting better teachers and overhauling an antiquated system that failed to keep track of students who frequently move from school to school.

The three elementary schools taken over by the state school board yesterday are Gilmor, Montebello and Furman L.Templeton. Fewer than 10 percent of third-graders at the three schools scored satisfactory in reading on the most recent state exams, and the overall third-grade scores at two of the schools have declined in the years since they were put on notice by the state.

Most of the city's education leaders -- who attended yesterday's state school board vote -- appeared resigned to the takeover, acknowledging the low performance at the three schools but saying they believe their reforms will pay off.

"If this improves student achievement, then I think it is the appropriate decision," said Robert Booker, the Baltimore schools chief executive officer. "If it doesn't, then something else needs to be done."

J. Tyson Tildon, president of the city school board, said he thinks the takeover will catch the attention of other low-performing schools. "While there are concerns, I think one has to use this as a wake-up call," Tildon said. "When we sit here, we know these children are not learning. That is the fact."

But city school board member Sam Stringfield disagreed strongly with the state board's decision. "I cannot say strongly enough how much I feel they have made an error," he said.

Under the takeover, control of the three schools will be given to outside companies or nonprofit organizations July 1. The schools will be operated by the city until then. The state board considered closing the schools and sending the children elsewhere, but there was not room in nearby schools -- and some of the nearby schools are themselves low-performing.

The three outside managers identified yesterday -- Mosaica Education Inc., Edison Schools Inc. and a partnership of the Kennedy Krieger Institute and the Erickson Foundation -- must draw up specific plans for one or more of the schools. The state board may vote as soon as the end of this month on who takes over.

The outside contractors will hire their own teachers, principals and other staff, though those who work there now will be allowed to reapply. Those who are picked to stay -- as well as all new staff -- will be employed by the outside contractors, not the city schools. Almost everyone else will be allowed to find jobs elsewhere in the system.

"I'm a little distraught right now," said Laura Trotta, who teaches pre-kindergarten at Furman L. Templeton and may find herself out of a job.

Some teachers questioned why the three schools that were picked for takeover had just had new principals installed in the fall.

"I feel the new principal and the new faculty hasn't been given a chance, which is very discouraging," said Judy Geisler, a 10-year city teacher new to Furman L. Templeton. "It is unfair."

Yesterday's decision marks one of the boldest steps taken in Maryland's decade of education reform. In a carrot-and-stick approach to improving schools, the state offers extra money to those that improve and threatens low-performing ones with takeover.

Since 1994, the state has identified 83 failing schools in Baltimore, 12 in Prince George's County and one each in Anne Arundel and Somerset counties, based on low state test scores and attendance rates. Yesterday, the board voted not to add schools to that list -- even though 14 likely would qualify -- because the takeover is going to take so much attention.

By labeling schools as eligible for takeover, the state has given them extra supervision and training and a little more money.

For some schools, such as Pimlico Elementary in Northwest Baltimore, this has been enough to spark improvement. Woodson Middle in Somerset County improved enough in 1999 to be promoted off the failing list.

The two state school board members who voted against the takeover questioned whether enough has been done.

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