Fresh hope for schools

Though the year had its rough patches and there's still work to be done regarding curriculum and test scores, Baltimore schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland is seeing signs of a brighter future ahead.

June 26, 2005|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

Baltimore schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland says a gnawing fear recently kept her awake at night - that Baltimore's children would not make academic gains in the just-completed school year.

She had good reason to be concerned.

A budget crisis had placed a severe strain on the city's schools. Classes were crowded and teachers overworked. Early in the year, hallways served as playgrounds for misbehaving students because paying hall monitors was deemed too great an expense. Buildings were dirty because there weren't enough custodians.

But when the results of the Maryland School Assessments - state tests taken in March by children in grades 3-8 - were released this month, they showed many city pupils had done well in spite of a whirlwind of distractions, improving in math and reading over last year.

More than 60 percent of Baltimore's third-graders passed reading and 56 percent passed math - an increase of 6 percent and 2 percent, respectively, over last year. Fifth-grade scores also went up, with 58 percent of pupils passing reading and 48 percent passing math.

"I was very surprised - pleasantly surprised - because I didn't think we would see any growth," Copeland said in an interview last week. "Against all odds, the children prevailed."

Despite that good news, Baltimore's school system remains the lowest-achieving district in Maryland.

The performance of middle-school pupils continues to lag dangerously. On the latest state tests, only about 39 percent of seventh- and eighth graders were proficient in reading - a 3 percent drop from last year.

As more than a third of the city's 180 schools languish on a state watch list because of years of low test scores, middle-class parents continue to flee the city when their children reach school age or choose private schools, leaving many schools underutilized.

But, as she ends her second full year as Baltimore's school chief, Copeland points to indicators of a brighter future.

The system is more financially stable than it was a year ago, when it had just embarked on a plan to recover from a $58 million budget deficit accumulated under Copeland's predecessor, Carmen V. Russo.

Through tight controls on spending and careful budgeting, the system has reduced its deficit by 60 percent and expects to end the fiscal year with a slight surplus. It will be able to buy new textbooks next school year and give teachers pay raises for the first time in three years, she said.

"I think there's a lot of hope," said Copeland, 55, who expects to sign a contract to remain the system's top official through 2008.

Although this school year was not nearly as chaotic as her first - during which the monumental task of reining in runaway spending consumed her - it was still a bumpy ride.

Cuts to the number of school police officers and hall monitors left hallways in many middle and high schools inadequately supervised. As some students took the empty hallways as an opportune spots to set fires and start brawls, fire engines and police cars became a routine sight outside schools.

Principals complained that they did not have enough custodians to keep their buildings clean and had trouble getting repairs performed.

There were external pressures, too. Education advocates took the school system to court over the budget cuts, arguing that reduced summer school and larger class sizes were detrimental to students' education. State officials, perceiving what management problems in Copeland's administration, kept a close, critical eye on the system.

With each successive crisis, Copeland learned to respond more nimbly and decisively.

To calm the violence in middle and high schools, Copeland dipped into reserve funds for $1.5 million to hire hall monitors and resource officers and to buy security equipment.

Unable to put more resources into maintaining school buildings, Copeland accepted an offer from Mayor Martin O'Malley this spring to allow city workers and managers to do work on school facilities. The mayor funneled an extra $3 million into city schools for that purpose.

"We were not maintaining our schools the way we should have been," Copeland said. "He volunteered."

Copeland says she caught some flak from the state - which along with the city has oversight over the Baltimore school system - for letting O'Malley increase his influence over the schools.

The mayor, who is expected to run for governor in 2006, has made education a major part of his agenda ever since the city bailed the system out of near insolvency with a $42 million loan. Last summer, he coordinated a massive volunteer campaign to clean up and repair city schools.

Most recently, O'Malley saw one of the rising stars in his administration, Eric Letsinger, the former deputy housing commissioner, appointed as the system's chief operating officer. Overseeing school facilities and police are among Letsinger's duties as one of the three highest-ranking administrators under Copeland.

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