Fixing failing schools

August 25, 2005

THREE MORE Baltimore high schools are failing, according to the state's Department of Education. This latest blow comes on the heels of a federal judge's order to have administrators hand-picked by the state manage the city's ailing special education program. While the state takes the lead in rescuing special ed, city officials should concentrate on trying to fix other aspects of education that need intense attention. The latest test results underscore the urgency of putting failing schools at the top of the list.

Federal law requires high schools to improve on math and English tests, and schools that don't improve are placed on a state watch list. Geometry test results released this week put three more city high schools in the most serious category. This means that 12 of the city's 43 high schools are failing so badly they would be forced to reorganize if they were not already part of an elaborate reform effort that aims to break up large neighborhood high schools into smaller, often theme-based academies.

The restructured high schools are following detailed plans to make the academic program more rigorous, to keep the enrollment at a manageable size so that adults in the school know all the students, and to improve staff development. But while Baltimore's high school graduation rate increased from 54 percent to 59 percent last year and the overall pass rate in geometry improved from 48 percent to 51 percent, the overall pass rates in biology, government and algebra declined by 7, 8 and 9 percentage points, respectively.

In addition to reforming high schools, city school administrators have announced an ambitious plan to turn around stubbornly low-performing elementary and middle schools. Most of these schools will be assisted by so-called turnaround specialists. Some will convert to charter schools and others are slated to have principals, teachers and support staff replaced. In selected grades citywide, school officials are putting more emphasis on language arts, math and intensive professional development.

Many of these reforms echo changes that were instituted to help 10 failing schools designated as a special CEO's district in 2001 under former chief executive Carmen V. Russo. Improved instruction in all subjects, more certified teachers, targeted staff development, increased parental involvement and strategic use of school improvement teams led to improved student performance.

The new contract for chief executive Bonnie S. Copeland ties $18,000 in bonuses to documented increases in academic performance and implementation of innovative reform programs. Let's hope she can earn it.

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