New promise, old problems

City schools: Hope for some, despair for others points to need for faster reform.

September 07, 2001

IF YOU'RE the parent of a child who started kindergarten in Baltimore City's public schools last week, you have reason to be hopeful.

There are books for your child to read. There's a curriculum for your child's teacher to follow. (Yes, that's a relatively new facet of city education.) And for three years, test scores in city schools have been on a steady rise.

But optimism probably isn't flowing as freely if you're the parent of a child just starting his or her last year in city schools.

You've seen four superintendents or CEOs come and go. You've seen at least twice as many ambitious reforms hatched and then hammered. And the statistics say your child is more likely to be reading on a seventh-grade level than getting ready for a college literature course.

Therein lies the great paradox in the Baltimore schools, four-and-a-half years after a city-state partnership vowed to remake an abysmal educational landscape. So much promise amid so many squandered opportunities and dashed hopes. So many signs of a bright future clouded by mistakes of the past.

Things are getting better, but slowly, and mostly for the youngest children. There are still grave deficiencies lurking in the curricula, instructional methods and approach to dealing with older kids.

The question is: Where does the system go from here?

That's where CEO Carmen Russo - now in the job more than a year - must impress over the next few months. She must show that she has the reins of reform and is demanding a brisker pace. She must demonstrate to the state legislature - which will conduct a major review of city school reform next year - that Baltimore will not have to wait a generation for significant progress to register.

Already, Ms. Russo has some ideas - and on paper, they look pretty good.

She created a "CEO's district" of 10 terribly achieving schools and will personally oversee stepped-up efforts to turn them around. (That's an idea she brought with her from New York, where it has worked well.)

She has also spearheaded a reform of the city's middle schools that will take shape this year. High schools are next, and Ms. Russo's previous experience in this area should serve Baltimore well.

There's little room for error here, though. The CEO's district will look like a gimmick if it doesn't pay serious dividends quickly. Middle and high school reforms won't be taken seriously if they don't radically affect achievement.

Baltimore can't afford many more years in which incoming seniors have little hope for the future. Ms. Russo and her colleagues must seize this year's opportunities to forge a brighter outlook.

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