On Ms. Russo's watch

September 24, 2002

BALTIMORE SCHOOLS Chief Executive Officer Carmen V. Russo can't be faulted for considering the Florida chancellorship. She's widely seen as effective at steering urban schools toward improvement, which is a fine prerequisite for an attractive leadership position equivalent to that held by Maryland State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. Florida is Ms. Russo's home -- where she votes, owns a house, and has family and friends.

It would be a loss if she chose to depart.

But it would be a greater disappointment if she found Florida's opportunity so attractive that she departed Baltimore with unseemly haste, nearly two years before the end of her four-year contract, without first ensuring that initiatives begun on her watch could be sustained.

Of particular importance now is the stability of newly launched high school and middle school reforms, those pieces of the education reform puzzle for which she was expressly hired by Baltimore's school board in 2000. Turnover at the top cannot be allowed to hobble the long-awaited re-engineering of the comprehensive high schools, for which millions of dollars have recently been raised.

And what would become of the "CEO's district," the 10 troubled schools whose continuing overhaul Ms. Russo chose personally to oversee, following the model of the chancellor's district in New York?

More than any others in Baltimore, these schools bear her stamp in the private management, professional development, reading resources, and curriculum choices she installed there. The test scores Ms. Russo has released have been mixed; the job is far from finished.

Citywide, test scores have risen on her watch: She can accept some credit for this, but only with the footnote that the city school board and her predecessors had already paved the path and launched seminal reforms, including phonics-based reading instruction in the elementary schools. Baltimore's schools chief is not single-handedly responsible for the school system's momentum. The painfully wrought city-state partnership, as a form of school government, is supposed to withstand changes of the guard, and so far it has.

Some would say the city school board has no more important job than the selection of the chief responsible for the system's day-to-day management. Yet the Baltimore board's direct involvement in school reform has been one of its strengths, and one of the challenges every CEO it has hired has had to face. Turnover of chiefs every couple of years is common in urban school systems, but it can frustrate this system's progress on the greater task at hand.

One hopes that when the time comes, whether she heads home to Florida or to other green pastures, at this juncture or later, Ms. Russo will leave Baltimore better off than she found it. As the public face of Baltimore's schools, Ms. Russo, 66, has lent political and public relations savvy to school management, helpful in prominent foundation and government circles. Obviously, her own profile has risen along the way.

If she gets an offer, how she handles it will determine what kind of credibility she'll be remembered for in Baltimore.

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