A grade of incomplete

March 19, 2003

WHEN SHE was hired in the summer of 2000, Carmen V. Russo vowed to make Baltimore a "model urban school district." When she departs June 30, she'll have to be given a grade of incomplete - for some satisfactory work but disappointingly short of creating the model.

Ms. Russo came directly from Florida, but her reputation as an urban administrator had been forged in her native New York City. Streetwise and possessed of a certain panache, she raised money from foundations and plunged into the task of breaking down Baltimore's large and essentially ungovernable zoned high schools into smaller, more intimate and more manageable units.

High school reform was long overdue in the city, and it will be Ms. Russo's legacy. But it is among few instructional initiatives that will bear her mark. Test scores were on the rise before Ms. Russo's arrival, and her reorganization of academic staff was of dubious value.

Included in Ms. Russo's incomplete list are steps taken to end social promotion and the full development of the CEO's district, a group of 10 of the city's most distressed schools that she took under her wing.

Ms. Russo also will be remembered for the negatives: for seeming to be adrift at the top, for allowing budget problems to reach crisis proportions - laying off more than 200 part-time workers just before Christmas was one of several blunders - and for making high-level appointments that proved disastrous.

Ms. Russo's strengths - her self-confidence and forceful style - are also her weaknesses. Many parents and community leaders have felt left out of the affairs of the schools, and her flirtation with a big job in Florida last fall left the impression that she wasn't fully engaged in Baltimore.

In Ms. Russo's defense, she inherited many of the messes, including an unbalanced budget and lead-contaminated water in school buildings.

And the job might be tougher than that of being mayor. The social and economic trauma of urban education has done in many a school chief. Indeed, Ms. Russo's three years are a bit longer than the average tenure of a big-city superintendent.

Now the school board launches a national search for the third time in five years. The timing couldn't be worse. Struggling to save Thornton funding from Annapolis budget-cutters, the city can ill afford turmoil at the top.

The list of quality people who want the top job is short, as Prince George's County has discovered in its search for a new leader.

Since the appointment of Walter G. Amprey in 1991, Baltimore has gone outside for three consecutive school leaders. This time, of course, the city should again look for the strongest candidate - but maybe, just maybe, the best choice will be right here in the back yard. Baltimore yearns for an educational leader who'll have a hometown sense of devotion to its children.

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