Needed purge brings end of city schools' old world

November 14, 2003|By Michael Olesker

ON THE morning of the great North Avenue public schools purge, Nancy Grasmick warmed herself with a cup of tea and gazed at the gloomy weather outside her window: sheets of rain pouring out of leaden skies, downtown pedestrians racing to find someplace to shake themselves dry, a real End of Civilization as We Know It look.

And this was only an overture.

If nothing else, the afternoon would be billed as a legitimate end of the world as the Baltimore schools have come to know it. The game is up. For so many years now, as the schools' student population has plummeted, the numbers of its North Avenue administrators have somehow bloated exponentially, leading to an echoing municipal query: What work, exactly, do these people do?

For years, as academic scores have sagged heartbreakingly, school officials have offered this excuse and then that. Despite outside funding that for years raised the city's school spending from 16th in the state to second, the system now finds itself breathtakingly deep in debt.

So that finally, on Wednesday, came news arriving about 20 years late: of sweeping layoffs - up to 1,000, including "hundreds" from North Avenue, where roughly 700 people shuffle papers and collect their paychecks and haven't seen the inside of a classroom in years.

"Painful," Grasmick, the state school superintendent, said now, on the morning of the great purge. "But it's the responsible step and the only way the school system can survive."

She straddles two worlds that ought to be one. Across the state, there is much evidence of real learning in the public schools. The nation's education newspaper, Education Week, gave Maryland an A for academic standards for the third straight year. The state's SAT scores are the highest in the eight-state region. Advanced Placement scores for African-American children are up sharply. Eighth-grade writing scores showed the third-highest improvement in the country.

"Sometimes," Grasmick said, gazing out at the morning rain, "we look at a system in trouble, like Baltimore's, and think it's the whole state. It's not."

That's comforting - if your child does not attend public school in the city. But now, hours after the morning downpour, the real storm arrived at city school headquarters on North Avenue. There, Grasmick sat next to Bonnie Copeland, named the city schools' chief executive officer a day earlier. Grasmick reached out and squeezed Copeland's hand for support. Then they turned to Robert R. Neall, who has just given the system the back of his hand.

It was Neall, the former state senator, who was brought in to clean up the mess. "He tore away the layers of the onion," Grasmick said. For years, amid grand declarations of financial responsibility, school officials have merely nibbled around the edges. The new moves, we are told, get us closer to the heart of the matter.

"Long overdue," said Mayor Martin O'Malley. "We can't gloss over this any more."

At the heart of this are certain unspoken assumptions unhealthy for any community. One is that city kids, many of them arriving from dysfunctional families in troubled neighborhoods, should not be expected to perform well academically. That is slander. It has served as an advance suicide note for a couple of generations of children.

The second assumption is that, having a built-in excuse for failure, the schools can continue to pad the North Avenue payroll, to plead poverty every winter in Annapolis and to continue a culture in which political power grabs count for more than schooling.

"Baltimore has special problems," Grasmick was saying on the morning of the announced bloodletting. "But there are problems across the state. We have children speaking 192 different languages in the state's schools. We have thousands of poor children. Many children come to school with inhibitors to success. They haven't had preschool, they haven't had parents paying attention.

"We do an assessment: How many children enter the school system ready to learn? And the answer is: 52 percent. It's astonishing, isn't it? And it's every jurisdiction. Montgomery County, Howard County, everywhere. There's one elementary school where the kids are speaking 35 different languages. These are children who have come here from war-torn countries. When we ask them to draw pictures of their last school, they draw dead bodies. That's what they remember."

In Maryland, she said, 30 percent of the public school students are economically disadvantaged. Thirteen percent have special-education needs. Four percent have limited English skills. In a student population of about 900,000, that's a lot of children.

Each one is a potential excuse - or a child hoping to fulfill a potential. The schools of Baltimore have run out of excuses. Maybe this is a turning point.

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