Setting schools straight

July 04, 2005

WITH MORE failing schools than any other jurisdiction in the state, Baltimore school officials should have no illusions about the difficult task ahead of them. They have put forth an ambitious plan, approved by the Maryland State Board of Education last week, that aims to put most of the city's 22 persistently low-performing schools back on the path to progress.

But some of these schools have gone through leadership, personnel and other changes before - and they are still doing poorly. The problems of Baltimore schools cannot be addressed solely with money. But any meaningful turnaround of the city's most troubled schools will require additional resources as well as administrative oversight. And the onus should not fall on city officials alone. State education and other public officials must do their part to make sure that these schools are made over to really serve students.

A near total deconstruction and rebuilding is what officials have in mind for the three lowest-performing schools that have consistently failed to adequately improve performance on annual standardized tests as required by the federal No Child Left Behind law. At Cherry Hill Elementary/Middle School, the principal and the instructional staff will be replaced. Significant personnel changes are also planned at Northeast Middle and West Baltimore Middle schools. The remaining troubled schools will either be broken up as part of the school system's high school reform plan or assigned so-called turnaround specialists to help bring them into line.

While many of these steps can lead to improvements, some have also been tried before, often with minimal results. State and city officials must be aggressive in pushing for changes that have the best potential to make a difference. That means concentrating on two of the key ingredients in successful school makeovers: leadership and quality instruction.

It's not going to be enough to shuffle principals and teachers around. Top school officials need to provide meaningful professional development to improve the skills of teachers and administrators. They also need to come up with incentive packages - covering salaries, benefits and working conditions - that will attract highly qualified and committed principals, assistant principals and teachers to troubled schools.

In addition to ensuring instructional quality, officials need to decrease class sizes, help provide support services to needy students and reach out to parents and other community residents who also have an interest in the success of schools.

The state and the city need to step forward to provide additional resources - including money and personnel - to rescue failing schools. Everyone has a stake in making sure that schools and students succeed.

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