Three Baltimoreans are sighing deeply this week -- as they mark the end of a volunteer job that consumed their lives for at least six years and changed public education in the city.
J. Tyson Tildon, Colene Y. Daniel and C. William Struever are leaving their posts as city school board members, a trio seen as key to the reform effort that raised student achievement.
"All three of them are extraordinarily talented individuals that brought a level of competence to the board that has been unprecedented," said state Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore legislator who helped frame the reform of the schools and has remained an outspoken critic. "A lot of the progress that we have made in the city can be attributed to these three individuals."
Since their time on the board, test scores have risen drastically in the elementary and middle school grades and graduation rates are up. High schools are now going through a systematic restructuring and special education is believed to be better.
All three were appointed jointly by the mayor and the governor in 1997 along with six other board members, at a time when state legislation ordered an overhaul of the school board and top administration.
The board's most urgent challenge in the beginning was to hire a chief executive officer and keep a system short on competent administrators moving ahead while improvements were made to the schools.
The board's response was to get involved, sometimes intimately, in the day-to-day operations of the system. Board members say they work as much as 35 hours a week on school business.
"The work and time commitment is just unexplainable," Daniel said.
Daniel quietly worked behind the scenes, taking on the job of trying to improve school buildings, many of which needed significant work. Daniel got to know leaking pipes, crowded schools, hot buildings without air conditioning and schools that were half full and needed to be closed.
Even as she leaves the board, she will be spending her weekends this summer, she said, working on the facilities projects -- helping oversee the breakup of Lake Clifton/Eastern High School as well as work at a number of elementary schools being turned into prekindergarten through eighth grade schools.
Daniel, who rarely gave interviews, was known for her detailed questions about contracts in the meetings.
Tildon took on the job as chairman of the board from 1997 to 2001, providing what some see as a remarkably steady voice of commitment to the city's schoolchildren.
Daniel said Tildon made the board ask, "Is this what is the best thing for the children?" whenever the board had a major decision to make.
That overriding question prevailed at the table and required egos to be left at the door, she said.
Tildon helped set a tone, board members have noted, that helped settle disputes in private. Many members have said there were screaming matches and serious disagreements, but they would always emerge from behind closed doors united -- and friends.
In contrast with school boards elsewhere, the Baltimore school board members have spoken frequently over the years about the close kinship they felt with each other.
"I think the strength of the board is its undying commitment to the children. ... That is what I will always feel in my heart, that incredible camaraderie around the common cause of improving schools," Struever said.
But not all has been rosy in public meetings. Tildon, known for his acerbic grilling of staff, was one of the most outspoken members of the board. His personal cause was raising academic standards for all children, and he pushed through tough new promotion standards that have resulted in holding back 20,000 children last year.
He believes his most significant contribution has been to help to change the culture of the system to get teachers and administrators to believe that city children can succeed. He believes that a minority of school staff believed in the city's children six years ago. That, he said, has changed.
Struever, who leaves as the board's vice chairman, headed the board's finance committee as the district came under fire for an accumulated $41 million deficit. The bad publicity that it prompted hurt the system, he said.
"It has caused havoc with our credibility and dealt with earlier would have caused less problems in the system," he said.
Struever worked hard to persuade elected officials to increase state and local funding for the school system and has often been the public voice of the system.
"I think we are losing some of the fiscal watchdogs that existed on the board. I think it is a bad time to lose them," said Christopher Maher, education director of Advocates for Children and Youth. Three new board members, who were appointed last week, will be sworn in next week.