Making school reforms reality

Carmen V. Russo has ambitious plans for Baltimore system

Some impatient for results

November 12, 2001|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

The president of the Baltimore teachers union compares the work of reform-minded school administrators to that of doctors treating patients in an emergency room.

"You have to work on all parts at the same time," said Sharon Y. Blake. "If you go to Shock Trauma, and you're injured in four or five places and you're only treated for one, what's going to happen to the rest of you? [You] die."

The city's chief executive officer for education, Carmen V. Russo, has taken a similar approach. Since arriving 16 months ago, she has unveiled a string of ambitious plans to build on the progress the system has made at the elementary level the last three years.

Among them: overhaul the city's nine neighborhood high schools, boost achievement in its two dozen middle schools, create a "CEO's district" to demonstrate fast-track reform, bring substandard school libraries up to par, raise as much as $75 million from private sources to help finance capital repairs in aging buildings, and rally the faith community to adopt schools and provide mentors and other support.

Several weeks ago, Russo added one more item, a major reorganization that would double the number of combined elementary-middle programs, close several schools and build several others.

The questions are: How much is realistic, and how soon?

Some think aiming high is exactly what the school system needs after years of low expectations and embarrassing test scores. School board members, state legislators and foundation and business leaders have said Russo already has begun to restore credibility to the district, particularly on the financial front, where her predecessor, Robert Booker, stumbled.

But others are waiting to see how much substance there is to Russo's attention-getting style, and whether the plans she has proposed will lead to better-educated children. Some also wonder whether Russo - who has a four-year contract - will be around long enough to see them through.

"I've seen a lot of plans and heard a lot of promises," said Matthew Joseph, public policy director for Advocates for Children and Youth, a Baltimore nonprofit organization. "I have to have faith that she's going to follow through on those. I don't think she's been here long enough for her to do that yet.

"I don't believe high school reform is actually taking place. I don't believe middle school reform is actually taking place," he said. "I think we're rapidly leaving the time frame of accepting plans and promises, and now it's time to see actual implementation."

Russo has said from the beginning that her priorities include reforming middle and high schools - each a major undertaking, given the academic deficiencies of children at those levels. Secondary students scored significantly worse last year on the state's functional reading and math exams, which measure basic competency.

"It's all out there," Russo said of her plans. "We're going to be very focused. I think the key word is `evolution.' When you do this kind of work, you know you can't do it all in one year. So, when you're planning, you know it's going to take three to five."

Kalman R. Hettleman, an education consultant and former city school board member, credits Russo with bringing in a strong team, being decisive and "putting the North Avenue [administrative] house in order."

"I think the jury is still out on how strong her own educational reforms for the middle schools and high schools will be, and how well they'll be implemented," he said. "That's going to take a sustained effort."

So far, progress on the middle school front has been slow. Officials backed away from a plan to launch four magnet, or citywide, schools as early as this year - one element of a far-reaching plan to raise student achievement in grades six through eight, which was announced in May.

Magnet middle schools are likely to be a few years off, said Mark Smolarz, the system's chief operating officer.

A separate plan to overhaul two low-performing middle schools this year also is behind schedule. Two months after classes began, the Talent Development program, which emphasizes teacher coaching, professional development and an improved school climate, is not in place at Hamilton and Highlandtown middle schools.

In the recently announced reorganization plan, three middle schools would close and the number of programs serving children in prekindergarten through eighth grade would double to more than 30. The idea is to break up large, failing schools, some with more than 1,000 pupils, so children receive more attention.

That plan, which would be phased in over three to five years, is expected to be popular with many parents, though it took some principals - and even some top administrators - by surprise.

School officials acknowledge they do not have the funds they need to go ahead with all of the projects.

Creating "small learning communities" is also the foundation of Russo's high school reform blueprint, a five-year, $55 million plan unveiled last month.

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