Russo proposes a separate district for failing schools

Chief offers plan as a city alternative to state takeover

January 31, 2001|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

With Maryland moving to take control of another one of Baltimore's failing schools, city education chief Carmen V. Russo asked the state to hold off yesterday and instead let her carve out a special district of underachieving schools that would report directly to her.

Russo proposed that she be given the chance to transform a dozen city schools, including the latest one targeted for state takeover, by personally working with each to improve everything from teacher training to reading and math instruction.

Her last-minute appeal to the state school board came on the eve of its annual vote, scheduled for today, on schools that have failed to meet test-score and attendance standards. Maryland, which began statewide school testing as part of reform efforts seven years ago, offers extra money to schools that improve and threatens poor-performing ones with takeover.

For the second year in a row, the state is poised to follow through on its threats by taking over a troubled city school. The board was to release the name of the school at the meeting.

Three city elementaries were turned over at the beginning of the academic year to Edison Schools, a private, for-profit company. In addition, seven more schools are likely to land on the state's failure list, which includes 79 of Baltimore's 180 schools.

"I believe this is a creative, positive way for the school system and the state to partner," Russo told the state board in presenting her counterproposal.

City school board Chairman J. Tyson Tildon said: "We feel this will do what we ought to have been doing. The trickle-down theory is not working. We thought if we raise the bar, all the schools would follow, but some aren't following fast enough."

Maryland Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick and state board members declined to say whether they were convinced by Russo's presentation.

"We have reached no decision," said Dr. Philip S. Benzil, a retired dentist who is president of the state board, adding that he expects a "lively discussion" by the board before its vote this morning.

Russo, who took over running Baltimore's 103,000-student school system in July, built a reputation for reform while working in New York City schools for much of her career. Her experience as chief executive of New York City's high schools in the early 1990s prompted Grasmick to suggest that Russo come up with an alternative plan to the state's efforts to turn around schools beset by extremely low test scores.

Russo patterned her proposal after New York City's "chancellor's districts," which were created in the mid-1990s and put underachieving schools directly under the control of the school system chief, or chancellor.

Her proposal is similar to a city program that has shown significant results.

More than two years ago, 14 poorly performing schools were split off from the city system and put under the leadership of Jeffery Grotsky, a former Harford County superintendent.

His schools have added intensive, three-hour reading programs, required summer school for failing students and ended social promotion.

The effort has begun to pay off: Schools in his district improved on average 8 percent last spring in the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program -- compared with 3.5 percent average gains citywide.

If given the go-ahead, Russo said she would enlist Victory Schools, a New York company, to work at the schools targeted for state takeover. All the schools in the special district, she said, would be given Achievement First, a series of school-improvement strategies created by Baltimore's Fund for Educational Excellence.

In other business yesterday, the state board discussed the so-called "digital divide" that persists between poor and healthy school systems despite steady improvement in student access to computers and the number of classrooms connected to the Internet.

The state is close to its target of having one mid- or high-capacity computer for every five students, according to a report released yesterday by the Maryland Business Roundtable for Education, a coalition of businesses that promotes school reform. But a number of poorer schools continue to lag in computer technology, the report found, and not all teachers know how to use computers in instruction.

"Familiarity does not always equal proficiency," said June E. Streckfus, executive director of the coalition. The report details how well each school system -- and each school -- is equipped. It is available online at www.mbrt.org.

Sun staff writer Liz Bowie contributed to this article.

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