`Civic capacity' is key to reform

The Education Beat

Study: A report on urban U.S. schools finds that improvement is impossible without a broad coalition committed to the long haul.

September 05, 2001|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

SO NOW Baltimore schools have to go begging for millions of dollars to repair and renovate long-neglected buildings.

News that the city is going, hat in hand, to businesses and foundations occurred on the same Labor Day weekend that I read a fascinating and depressing book, Building Civic Capacity: The Politics of Reforming Urban Schools, a report on a 10-year study of school reform in 11 U.S. cities, including Baltimore.

It's going to take more than the simple raising of money to cut significantly into the $680 million in accumulated construction and repair needs in Baltimore, according to the four professors who completed the study.

It's going to take ... well, a village. Or, as the professors put it, civic capacity -- the ability to build and maintain over the very long haul a broad social, business and political coalition around public schools.

The lack of such capacity, say the authors, is what makes school reform so difficult. It's also why depending on superintendents or chief executive officers to perform miracles almost never works, and why reforms ordered by outside parties -- state legislatures and courts -- also are ineffective in the long run.

Baltimore's mid-1990s experiment with school privatization presented the authors a case study.

Education Alternatives Inc., the profit-seeking Minnesota firm that took over nine city schools, had the support of many leaders in the city, including the mayor and superintendent, but it never had broad political, business or parental backing.

And when EAI replaced mostly black neighborhood paraprofessionals with mostly white college-educated interns in the nine schools, "the larger racial context asserted itself, reversed momentum toward school reform, weakened the mayor's standing as a leader in education and heightened community tensions."

Though race could be a rallying force for inner-city children, the report says, it is "too often a factor that introduces damaging stereotypes, mistrust, suspiciousness, wariness and volatility into the political process."

Civic capacity in Baltimore, the authors say, "remains at an intermediate level, loosely coupled in form and still hampered by the city's racial divide."

It's depressing, but the intermediate grade is at least passing. It puts Baltimore near the top of the middle among the 11 cities, behind top-ranked Pittsburgh, Boston and Los Angeles, in that order, and ahead of three cities with little civic capacity -- Denver, St. Louis and San Francisco. In the middle are Baltimore, Houston, Washington, Detroit and Atlanta.

Parents and teachers have very little involvement in civic capacity here, a characteristic shared by St. Louis and San Francisco.

Like many academic studies, this one is exhaustive -- and out of date. Though many of the findings still pertain, the authors didn't study Baltimore's partnership with the state, an arrangement that's been getting good marks from observers in Maryland and elsewhere. As the partnership enters its fifth year, it will be getting a crucial evaluation in Annapolis.

Building Civic Capacity, 197 pages with footnotes and index, is published by the University Press of Kansas. The authors are Clarence N. Stone of the University of Maryland, College Park, Jeffrey R. Henig of George Washington University, Bryan D. Jones of the University of Washington and Carol Pierannunzi of Kennesaw State University in Georgia.

Walls help city school become a brighter place

One of those run-down city schools is no longer Dallas F. Nicholas Sr. Elementary, third stop on yesterday's opening day tour of city and state officials.

Once a drab place, Nicholas was transformed over the summer into a cheery school in bright, vivid colors.

What's more, it has interior walls.

Principal Irma Johnson said the parents from Mildred Monroe Elementary, closed this summer and merged into Nicholas, insisted on walls. She and her faculty, Johnson said, found the open-space design "extremely distracting because, of course, we had no hallways."

Opened in the early 1970s at the corner of Calvert and East 21st streets in Charles Village, Nicholas was one of the last examples of a disastrous fad of the progressive 1960s and early 1970s -- open schools. During the past two decades, walls have been installed in most of these "schools without walls," including the majority of school buildings in Howard County.

"I don't even want to calculate how much the state has spent putting up walls in Maryland schools," state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said as she toured Nicholas.

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