A `distressing' time on city school board


Farewell: In his 5 1/2 years, good things were accomplished for the system, Sam Stringfield says, but attacks during the winter budget crisis hurt.

August 25, 2004|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

THE LAST 18 months of Sam Stringfield's 5 1/2 -year term on the Baltimore Board of School Commissioners were the worst.

As the school system's financial woes deepened, Stringfield and his eight board colleagues were branded "dysfunctional." People cursed them at board meetings. A radio talk show host gave out Stringfield's home number and urged listeners to vent their anger. Stringfield went to state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and privately offered to resign. She urged him to stay on.

That whole period was hurtful, Stringfield said. "The extent to which people turned on the board this last year and a half is distressing," he said Monday as he packed books and papers in his cluttered office at the Johns Hopkins University. "We've become the city of anger. That's not my phrase. It was the title of one of William Manchester's first books, which was based on Baltimore."

Last night was Stringfield's farewell as a board member. At age 55, he's leaving his job as an education research scientist at Hopkins to become a "distinguished university scholar" and head the Nystrand Center of Excellence in Education at the University of Louisville in Kentucky.

Despite the abuse, Stringfield said his service as one of America's 95,000 school board members "has been incredibly rewarding and fulfilling. ... I'd do it again in a heartbeat." (But not, he said, if he has to run for the office. Louisville has an elected local board.)

Stringfield has been one of only a handful of local board members who conduct school research for a living and then see their findings at play in the trenches. He's an international authority on students at risk of failure. He teaches college courses on the politics and economics of school reform.

Yet for most of the first year after he was appointed in 1999, "I was pretty quiet. We were making major budget decisions within a month of my appointment, and one night I found myself staring at $750 million. Nothing in life prepares you for making $750 million decisions."

In his last weeks in Baltimore as vice president of the board, the son of a North Carolina nurse and a country doctor has been lashing out - mostly privately - against those who blame last winter's budget crisis primarily on the school board, and who let that crisis obscure what he regards as genuine progress in the nearly eight years of the city-state "partnership."

In Stringfield's estimation, the emperor's clothes, though tattered, are real. "We ought to be judged on value added," he said. "In other words, what was the score when we got in the game and what's the score seven or eight, or in my case, 5 1/2 years later?

"I can point to a dozen different things that are fundamental indicators of health in this system and that have improved during the years of the partnership. Test scores are up, and I believe they're genuine. We're not hemorrhaging teachers like we used to, and that's because we're offering competitive salaries. They're still too low, but we're no longer the minor leagues for the suburban districts."

Stringfield said he's proud the board could raise teacher salaries substantially.

"Board members work for nothing, but knowing that there isn't a teacher in Baltimore who isn't making at least 40 percent more than a few years ago, some twice as much, is incredibly rewarding," he said.

There were failures and heartaches. Stringfield had come to city leaders' attention in 1991 with his research on one of Baltimore's grand education experiments, the installation of the private Calvert School curriculum at Barclay and, later, Dr. Carter G. Woodson public schools.

It turned out to be a sad little tale of urban education, said Stringfield. "For one brief, shining hour, actually four shining years or so, those kids were writing at levels you rarely see in public education in America, for that matter, in private education," he said.

But Baltimore couldn't stand a good thing. Leadership changed. Calvert School's interest waned. Mostly, the hard teaching that's necessary couldn't be sustained. "American education rewards longevity and not hard work," said Stringfield.

After his appointment to the board, he tried to keep the Calvert curriculum alive in the system, but it was too late. The years of the program's rise and fall "were both the happiest and saddest times of my life," Stringfield said. "I was so sorry to see it go, but if you wanted proof that inner-city kids can do higher-order thinking, Barclay was it."

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