Principals fear academics in jeopardy

Transfer plan could affect courses at citywide schools

April 25, 2003|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

Baltimore school administrators are proposing a series of policy changes that some principals say could weaken academic standards at some of the city's top high schools.

The proposals, which must be approved by the school board, were outlined by Chief Academic Officer Cassandra Jones at a meeting of high school principals this month and have some parents and principals deeply concerned.

"I can never imagine a school board saying we want to cease operating citywide academic college preparatory schools, but this would have the very same effect," City College Principal Joseph Wilson said.

But Chief Executive Officer Carmen V. Russo contends that she does not intend to do away with the rigorous programs at citywide schools. In fact, she said, many of the changes are driven by an attempt to prepare high school students to pass tough new statewide high school assessments that will be required for a diploma.

"If anything, we are going the other way," Russo said. "We could never weaken."

Wilson said the changes, as explained by Jones, may force him to eliminate the prestigious International Baccalaureate program, a rigorous course of study that has attracted new and highly qualified students in recent years. In addition, he said he would have to cut as many as 19 of 84 teaching positions and increase the average class size from 23 students for every teacher to 32.

School board member J. Tyson Tildon said that he and the rest of the board will take a hard look at the proposals.

"I don't think the board will take any position that seriously jeopardizes the programs of the citywide high schools," Tildon said.

High school principals have not received a written list of the proposals, but they said Jones presented the proposals verbally. Jones could not be reached for comment. Russo, Jones' boss, addressed the issue instead.

Among the proposals is that all of the "citywide" high schools with admission standards - such as City College, Polytechnic Institute, Western High School, Paul Laurence Dunbar High School and the vocational technical schools - would no longer be able to transfer out students who are failing. For at least the past decade, students who did not maintain a certain grade point average could be made to leave the citywide schools and attend their neighborhood high schools.

Ian Cohen, Poly's principal, said about 5 percent of his students leave each year because they have not been able to keep up academically. While the percentage is small, he said, the impact of changing the policy would be significant.

If a student is unable to succeed in advanced-level courses, the school would have to create less rigorous classes for those students to take so they could meet high school diploma requirements, a move that would pull resources away from the college preparatory mission of the school.

The proposal would produce similar results at Carver Vocational-Technical High School, said Principal Michael B. Plitt. Students at Carver get not only the regular high school diploma, but also a technical certificate that is important in helping them get a job.

Plitt said students who continue to fail courses do not have time in high school to satisfy the requirements for the certificate.

In addition, Plitt said the decades-old transfer policy also encourages good behavior.

"The fear of being removed from this school is a motivational tool that does cause students to perform better, or at least be conscious of keeping their academic work up," Plitt said.

Russo said the proposal was prompted by complaints she had received from students who had been kicked out of citywide schools six months before graduation. "We are a long, long ways away from changing policy," she said. "This is a conversation. ... It may very well be that the policy will stay the same."

Other proposals would require all high school students to take an earth sciences course, and math and English every semester. Russo said the proposal is an attempt to raise achievement, particularly in math. Students tend to lose the skills when they go for six months without taking a math class.

But those proposals, Wilson and Cohen said, would take away the flexibility their schools have to prepare students for the most advanced courses.

Wilson said the prerequisites for students who enter the IB program as juniors are so extensive that the requirements would make it almost impossible for the school to offer the IB courses, which are taken by about 43 percent of students.

Cohen said the earth science proposal concerns him. While that course might help other schools' students who have not had a laboratory science to prepare for the more difficult biology courses and the statewide biology exam, it would hurt Poly students.

"We are vehemently opposed to that. We have to get to the hard-core lab sciences right away so that [Poly students] can take the more advanced courses," Cohen said.

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