Plans call for 3 new schools

City would foot bill, but all would be run by outside groups

Part of reform initiative

School board to vote on proposals serving 5th to 12th grades

November 24, 2001|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

Three new schools that would be funded by the Baltimore school system but run independently are being planned for next year as part of an effort to give parents more choices in where their children are educated.

Two of the schools would be middle schools, and the third would be a combined middle and high school.

Carmen V. Russo, chief executive officer of city schools, has approved preliminary plans for the three schools that are trying to become part of the New Schools Initiative. The 4-year-old program gives private operators - ranging from nonprofit groups to for-profit groups to parents and teachers - the flexibility to choose staff, curriculum and philosophy. The school board will vote on the proposals.

At a board meeting last month, member Sam Stringfield said he was encouraged that all three proposals include the middle school grades because that is where the school system has been "stagnant the longest."

A multimillion-dollar reform launched by the city and state in 1997 has primarily benefited the elementary grades. Efforts to improve secondary schools - where many children perform poorly in reading, writing and math - are still in the planning stages.

All three new schools would have no entrance requirements and would admit students based on a lottery system.

The first school, Ujima Village Academy, would be part of the Knowledge Is Power Program.

KIPP has been recognized nationally for improving test scores and learning environments at charter schools in Houston and the South Bronx. The nonprofit program received millions of dollars last year from the founders of the Gap clothing chain to help train principals and create more such schools across the country.

The KIPP academy in Baltimore would serve children in grades five through eight and set up a program that includes a longer school day (9 1/2 hours), a longer school year, and classes on Saturdays and during the summer. KIPP schools require students, parents and teachers to sign "Commitment to Excellence" contracts, which lay out specific goals and expectations.

Ujima - whose name, taken from the third principle of Kwanzaa, means "collective work and responsibility" - would open next year with 80 fifth-graders and add a grade each year, said Jason Botel, a former city middle school teacher who is the academy's organizer.

Ujima's inclusion of fifth-graders is not typical of middle schools. "The earlier you can get to them, hopefully the better chance you have of really reaching them and getting them up to speed," Botel said.

Crossroads

A second school, called Crossroads, is being planned by a group of teachers, administrators and former teachers with support from the Baltimore-based Children's Guild.

Crossroads would educate sixth- through eighth-graders using Expeditionary Learning, a curriculum developed by Outward Bound that emphasizes interactive and interdisciplinary learning.

Each grade would focus on one of the school's core concepts: community, discovery and diversity. Daily learning time would be structured in three extended blocks.

Mark Conrad, Crossroads' director of instruction, said the school wants to enrich instruction by highlighting the connection between in-class learning and real-world experience.

"The [Expeditionary Learning] model is really in line with where the state is going in terms of performance-based outcomes and a big emphasis on cooperative learning and big emphasis on hands-on experimentation," Conrad said.

Crossroads is committed to remaining small, limiting enrollment to 300 students.

"We're trying to create a school ... where the relationships between people are given the opportunity to develop," Conrad said.

Connexions

The third school, Connexions, is being planned by a group of teachers with the help of the Baltimore Community Foundation. It would serve children in grades six through 12.

Connexions would employ the reform principles of the Coalition of Essential Schools, New Schools Initiative coordinator Laura Weeldreyer told the school board. Its emphasis would be community and leadership.

Sites have not been found for all three schools.

City school officials will consider another round of New Schools applicants in the coming months.

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