Baltimore schools are going through a critical year of transition. After nearly drowning in a sea of red ink, the system is finally close to floating on its own again. But the move toward financial stability needs to be matched by significant academic progress.
Since 2004, city schools have had to cope with a deficit that had ballooned to $58 million. To help keep operating, the schools accepted a $42 million loan from the city and instituted so many cutbacks that classrooms and central office support suffered. By July 1, however, the city loan is expected to be repaid and the remainder of the deficit eliminated. As a result, city school officials are trying to run the physical plant more efficiently and concentrate more on instruction.
Within the next few months, for instance, a plan to close some schools and reorganize others to reflect a declining school population will come before the school board. Under another recently announced arrangement, city schools will contract with three energy saving companies to place new boilers, lighting and other updated equipment in school buildings that are among the oldest and most neglected in the state. The costs of improvements would be generally offset by increased efficiency.
Fixing what's wrong in the classrooms is a more difficult task. Administration of the city schools' special education program has been taken over by the Maryland State Department of Education by order of a federal district judge. While the state shares some blame in the longtime poor treatment of disabled students, city school officials did not help their own cause by not providing adequate support services, among other things.
Similarly, state reviewers rejected the city schools' updated master plan for education improvements. And a controversial decision to use a relatively untested language arts curriculum in many of the city's poorly performing middle schools raised additional questions about the schools' academic program.
While more Baltimore youngsters are considered prepared for kindergarten and elementary school pupils are gaining some ground, the performance of traditional middle schools is sagging, leaving even restructured and improved high schools with too many underprepared students. City educators may not have to worry so much about making ends meet, but they still have plenty to do to help more students make the grade.