School board picked a winner

April 17, 2003|By Kalman R. Hettleman

THINGS HAVEN'T been going well for the Baltimore City school system.

There have been budget deficits and lead-in-the-water management fiascoes, a slowdown in academic gains and a breakdown in trust and communication between top school officials and the community. The progress that began with the new city/state education partnership in 1997 appears to be unraveling.

But now there's good news for city schoolchildren: the city school board's wise appointment of Bonnie S. Copeland as interim chief executive officer.

She has the right educational connections, rising through the teaching and administrative ranks to become deputy state superintendent of schools.

But there's more. She offers the school system what might be called the three "C's" needed to revive reform momentum: continuity, classroom focus and collaborative leadership.

Continuity is the first order of business. The worst thing about the recent bad news about the city schools is that it has erased public memory of the solid foundation for reform that has been laid. That foundation is found in the master plan constructed by the school board at the outset of the city/state partnership.

For the most part, the master plan has been followed even as a succession of chief executive officers and chief academic officers have come and gone. As recently as six months ago, state officials and outside evaluators gave the system high marks for improvement.

The foundation has been shaken since then. But it can be quickly stabilized in good hands, like those of Ms. Copeland.

Ms. Copeland has been an accomplished insider, as an original board member under the city/state regime and as the chief executive officer of the private nonprofit local Fund for Educational Excellence. The fund has developed several successful initiatives in partnership with the city system. Ms. Copeland knows the policies, practices and players.

And because of that, she seems particularly well-suited to bring to bear the instructional leadership that is needed for the second "C": classroom focus.

There is nothing wrong with the theory of a chief executive officer for school systems, with the business experience that implies, or with infusing the system with outside talent.

But what the city schools need most is someone who combines management skills with a seasoned knowledge of instruction. Public schools will always be political battlegrounds, and crises will always be with us. But when it comes to student academic progress, it's the classroom, stupid.

Notwithstanding the recent management failures, the system's biggest flaw lies in weak leadership in curriculum and instruction at the central offices at North Avenue. Contrary to conventional wisdom, schools in Baltimore and elsewhere don't need more educational initiatives. Rather, they need to sort out and continuously improve, through research and development, programs already available.

Ms. Copeland knows this, and the Achievement First program that is under her wing at the fund is an excellent model of sustained feedback, evaluation and continuous improvement.

The final "C" -- collaborative leadership -- applies to building communication and trust across the wide expanse of education stakeholders: administrators and teachers, state and city political and education leaders and the larger community. Genuine communication means timely, ongoing dialogue prior to important policy and practice decisions. As Ms. Copeland recognizes, without it, North Avenue deprives itself of not just valuable advice but also the reservoir of trust and good will needed when inevitable crises occur.

If Ms. Copeland can get all these "C's" right, and I think she will, she'll no doubt earn an "A" in her new role and the support and gratitude of city schoolchildren, parents and the community.

Kalman R. Hettleman is an education consultant, a former member of the Baltimore City school board and a former state human resources secretary. He can be reached via e-mail at

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