Taking a pass on high school reform

City schools: New chief is supposedly a high school expert, but where are the results?

January 16, 2002

FIVE MINUTES into just about any conversation with Baltimore schools CEO Carmen V. Russo, she'll start talking about high schools. About how she reshaped and recast entire secondary systems in New York and Broward County, Fla. About how high schools are her specialty, her passion, her claim to fame.

Indeed, Ms. Russo's record with high schools was a big selling point with city school board members when they were interviewing her for the job.

Since Ms. Russo arrived, she has turned in solid performances in overall management of the system and has been a welcome, energetic change from the low profile of the last CEO.

But she has so far failed to impress on the one front that her resume suggested she'd tackle first: high schools.

Ms. Russo has been here more than a year and a half, and high schools remain a pretty dark smudge on our school system's reputation. Unwieldy, underperforming and in some cases unmanaged, city high schools continue to languish, and school officials are still only "in the process" of deciding how they will address the problems.

The latest reminder of the sad state of city high schools is Northern, which has been grabbing headlines for the persistent chaos in its halls and the fear that dogs its students. School officials are now scrambling to do damage control and implement a plan for change that had been at least partially drawn up before the school's problems gained media attention.

But Northern is hardly the only sign of a system that doesn't work. Lake Clifton, according to some reports, is just behind Northern in terms of disorder. Other schools have had recurring problems with violence, too.

Even worse, academic performance in city high schools is actually declining, by some measures. Scores on the state basic skills tests reported last fall showed only 62 percent of city middle and high schoolers passed -- down from a pitiful 69 percent the year before.

It's simply taking Ms. Russo too long for her to delve into this massive problem, and as a result, real changes will be grossly delayed. At Ms. Russo's current pace, no sweeping changes will be made in high school configuration or programming until she has been here for more than two years. A disappointment, to say the least.

Right now, school officials are working on the details of a general high school reform plan that was formulated last year. It calls for smaller, more manageable academic centers. (Already, Ms. Russo has said Northern will likely be divided.) It would create new "innovative" high schools to allow for increased academic excellence.

Ms. Russo must ensure that nothing delays this plan from being implemented. The fall opening of the 2002-2003 school year is already too late, given how long she has been here and how much experience she has had with high school reform.

Any delay beyond the fall would be an unacceptabl dereliction of her duties as CEO.

There's nothing new about Baltimore's high school problems, and there's really not much new about the solutions. Reform hasn't taken hold because city school leadership hasn't forced it to, and Ms. Russo was hired to counteract that sorry history. Let's hope she does so now, before even more time is lost.

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