Reform means thinking big

The Education Beat

Russo: City's education chief plans on converting large buildings to contain groups of separately themed schools.

September 26, 2001|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

CARMEN V. Russo, the city schools' chief executive officer, is tackling one of the daunting tasks for which she was hired: the reform of Baltimore's troubled high schools.

Russo told a breakfast meeting of the Fund for Educational Excellence Monday that she'll begin with six to eight of the city's nine "neighborhood" high schools -- she refuses to call them "zoned" -- over the next two or three years. They'll be called "Innovation High Schools," and Russo plans to go beyond the academy concept that's been tried with mixed success in Baltimore during the past few years.

If all goes well -- and if she gets the funding from public and private sources -- Russo wants to do with the Baltimore schools what she did two jobs ago with Julia Richman High School in New York City. That large, impersonal school, then slated for closure, was transformed into a group of five small schools, each operated around an academic theme.

The common strand of what was renamed the Julia Richman Education Complex is "academic rigor, and we can do that in Baltimore," said Russo.

You have to hand it to her. She thinks smaller is better, but she doesn't think small. If she can pull this off, they should make her CEO for life.

She's right that the zoned high schools cry out for reform. They've been largely abandoned by middle-income families. On any school day, 5,000 high school students in the city are absent. The dropout rate is the highest in Maryland. Combined average SAT scores are are commonly in the 700 to 800 range (of a possible 1,600). And course work is so unchallenging that none of the neighborhood schools but Patterson and Southwestern offered Advanced Placement courses last year, according to a recent Abell Foundation report. (Those two schools had but three AP courses.)

Another problem is physical. Consider three schools opened in the last major round of high school construction in Baltimore at the turn of the 1970s.

Lake Clifton was then the largest high school in the nation -- and proud of it. Walbrook and Southwestern were a pair of fortresses designed as much to keep people in as to welcome them.

Who knows what the planners and architects were thinking? Officials at Lake Clifton, a school with 120 classrooms, a mile of corridors, a half-million square feet of floor space and so many exterior doors that it was a security problem from the day it opened, bragged about its size. One official said it could accommodate 4,000 students, though it never had to.

But at least Lake Clifton (now Lake Clifton-Eastern), with its sprawl, will lend itself to Russo's deconstruction. Not so Southwestern, a dark, partly windowless building with the look and charm of a prison.

All of these schools are 30 years old this month, and they're showing their age. So are many other city schools, high and otherwise. "I thought I'd seen some of the worst in New York City," Russo said. "We cannot be proud that adults, not children, have let [these schools] deteriorate. It's mind-boggling."

Smaller, of course, is better. A number of studies have demonstrated that.

A report due out today from the nonpartisan research organization Public Agenda will say it again.

New York (led initially by Russo) and Chicago are further along the path to reducing school size than Baltimore, and Congress is considering legislation to offer extra funding to schools with 600 or fewer students.

Correction: Bus trip took 36 hours, mission achieved

Last Wednesday's Education Beat focused in part on the unexpected bus ride home of a group of Montgomery County middle-schoolers who were on a student exchange trip to Wyoming during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Writing before the group from Farquhar Middle School in Olney arrived home, I overstated the time of the nonstop trip on two chartered buses. It was 36 hours. I also left the impression that the Farquhar youngsters did not complete the activities planned in Wyoming, including a trip to Yellowstone Park.

Grasmick is managing to leap political divide

Here's a glimpse of Nancy S. Grasmick, the politician.

Six years ago, Republican chief state school officers formed a organization, the Education Leaders Council, as an alternative to the long-established and quite liberal Council of Chief State School Officers.

But over the summer, with the appointment of Lisa Graham Keegan, former state superintendent in Arizona, as chief executive of the Republican group, it named to its board one of the nation's longest-serving Democratic state school chiefs -- Maryland's Grasmick. Grasmick said she expected to be active in both organizations and to learn from both.

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