Back to school

September 03, 2002

AS SCHOOLHOUSE doors reopen to 94,000 Baltimore City children today, it's worthwhile to take stock of CEO Carmen V. Russo's goals and the challenges that lie ahead.

Her long-awaited re-engineering of city high schools begins this fall, supported by more than $20.7 million in Gates Foundation and local grants that she helped raise. As once-crime-ridden Northern High divides into three smaller high schools, Southern High morphs into a technology magnet. The ninth-graders of the National Academy Foundation School for Finance, Tourism and Technology arrive today at Port Discovery; the machinations required just to open this school's doors should make an object lesson for any student of those topics.

Ten elementary schools will each add a grade, addressing parents' concerns about keeping adolescents close to home and out of oversized middle schools.

Three highly paid "principal fellows" -- county principals taking on urban reform -- and their administrator interns will take command at city schools.

This year, every elementary and elementary-middle school will offer a full-day kindergarten program, an improvement too long in coming to a city where school-readiness is a problem.

Each innovation and change will be watched closely, against a backdrop of uncommon complications: This month, Maryland school officials will unveil the exams hastily chosen to replace and retool the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, which for a decade was a microscope under which Baltimore's worst flaws were magnified. Ms. Russo's leadership will be essential to ensure that the city gets off the painful treadmill of "reconstitution" as the bar is raised for all students.

Ms. Russo must guide city leaders and school administrators in forward-thinking and results-oriented investment of anticipated Thornton Commission money this year: Her choices will define the schools' course for the next decade. Meanwhile, she has a court date with a federal judge, who awaits continued improvements to special education services. And she must put her shoulder to an enormous bulge in school demographics -- 20,000 repeaters -- to make sure that the second time around, the lessons stick.

Not a job for the faint of heart, she has said. She was frequently named as a contender for the chancellor's post in New York this summer; Baltimore's lucky she's here.

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