Education foundation targets city classrooms

Group successful at pushing reforms will enter partnership with Baltimore

August 25, 2005|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,SUN STAFF

A California-based foundation that strives to improve education for poor and minority children will send experts to work with the Baltimore school system for the next three to four years, through a partnership to be announced today.

The Stupski Foundation, which was created in 1996 by a former Charles Schwab executive and his wife, will work with the city schools on improving reform plans at low-performing schools, better using data to guide instruction, among other issues.

"Our goal is to help the district become really high-performing," said John Simpson, a former school system superintendent in Norfolk, Va., and one of three veteran educators who will work in Baltimore consistently. Other experts will be brought in as needed.

"Whatever work we do is going to be in service of that goal, to really help the Baltimore City school [system] transform itself from where it is now to a much more effective and efficient school system."

School system chief executive Bonnie S. Copeland said she is "just absolutely thrilled" that the foundation selected Baltimore for a partnership.

"It's so heartening to us, after some things that we've been through, to have this very well-respected foundation see the potential in Baltimore City," said Copeland, who led the school system through a financial crisis and is now grappling with a federal judge who oversees a special-education lawsuit. "They wouldn't be here if they didn't think we had the potential for becoming a very, very strong urban school system."

The Stupski Foundation has partnerships with nine other school systems around the country, including Cleveland; New Haven, Conn.; and Jackson, Miss. Most are smaller than Baltimore, which has 87,000 students, and the foundation was looking to take on the challenge of a larger urban system, Simpson said. The foundation does not come by invitation, but rather decides what school systems it wants to work with and asks if they would be interested in a partnership.

The foundation sent experts to Baltimore for three months this spring before selecting the school system for a long-term partnership. Its services to the city schools will be worth at least $10 million, said Jane Hammond, director of the foundation's District Alliance Program.

Copeland said the foundation has already helped school system officials improve their master plan, and connected them with educators who have had success with the same reading program Baltimore is using.

"What is so exciting about this work is they tap the best minds in the country in urban education," she said.

The partnership is beginning as the Maryland State Department of Education, armed with a federal court order, is sending managers to oversee eight school system departments in an attempt to reform the city's special-education program.

William Reinhard, a state education department spokesman, said the partnership sounds like a welcome development for the city schools, but "the effort has to be coordinated" with what the state is doing.

Simpson said in response: "Everything that we will do is going to be in partnership with everyone who's here," including the several other foundations working with the school system on high school reform.

Hammond, who used to work with both state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and Copeland at the State Department of Education, said the foundation hopes to support the city school system in building a better relationship with the state.

Officials from other school systems that have worked with Stupski were enthusiastic over the assistance the group has provided.

"It's been an enormous asset to our children and our community," said Sandra Husk, who heads the 24,000-student Clarksville-Montgomery County school system in Tennessee, in its third year with Stupski. "We're seeing very significant gains in student achievement."

Husk, who wrote a letter to Copeland congratulating her on Baltimore's selection, applauded the foundation's focus on systemic - rather than school-specific - reform.

"It's exciting to see a school turning around student achievement," she said. "But for that to be sustained over many years with different principals, you have to have a structure in place at a district level."

Edwin Diaz, superintendent of the 10,000-student Gilroy Unified School District in California, which is nearing the end of its four-year partnership, said foundation staff have helped his district improve staff development, data management and school accountability.

"It was one of the more fortunate things that's happened to our district," Diaz said. "The whole equity and social justice agenda that drives them is very similar to what drives us here."

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