Schoolyard Brawl

City and state leaders stand on opposing sides of the debate over how to improve public education in Baltimore

Copeland, under siege, keeps her tone measured


Bonnie S. Copeland inherited the top job in the Baltimore school system in the midst of a financial collapse in 2003.

In the years since, the system has achieved financial stability, and elementary schools have shown significant academic gains. But the performance of many middle and high schools remains dismal, and the flurry of controversy surrounding the city schools has never ceased.

Now more than ever, Copeland is a woman under siege.

Last summer, a federal judge ordered nine state managers to oversee all school system departments that affect special education.

Last month, a community uproar broke out over the news that the system had lowered admissions standards at the city's elite Western High School.

And last week, the state school board ordered takeovers of 11 Baltimore schools, including the removal of four high schools from the city school board's jurisdiction. It also ordered a variety of structural reforms that would affect what the system teaches and whether eight of Copeland's high-level administrators lose their jobs.

The intervention, which the legislature voted Friday to block for one year, was initiated by state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. Copeland once worked amicably alongside Grasmick in Baltimore County schools and at the State Department of Education but is on the opposite side of the city school debate.

Copeland's style is congenial, diplomatic and nonconfrontational. She describes herself as "reserved" and "soft-spoken." Both were in evidence Tuesday in her measured response to the news of the impending state action:

"Although there are many challenges to the system, we must always be focused on improving student achievement, and we will continue to do that," she said.

The city's school board chairman, by contrast, exploded at the news. "This political [expletive] is eroding our ability to educate the children of our city," said Chairman Brian D. Morris.

Copeland, 56, grew up in Ohio, on a farm in Wapakoneta. ("Try to cheerlead that in five seconds," she says of her hometown name.) The elder of two sisters, she was a cheerleader and a dancer, but for as long as she can remember, she wanted to be a teacher. As a little girl, she would run an imaginary school in her basement.

She was the first in her family to go to college, earning bachelor's and master's degrees from Miami University.

"That was my ticket off the farm," she said.

Her first teaching job was in an urban school in Hamilton, Ohio. She started in January 1972, the 10th teacher assigned to her fourth-grade class since the beginning of the school year.

Copeland spent six years as a teacher and reading supervisor in St. Louis, where she earned a doctorate at St. Louis University before following her first husband to Baltimore in 1978 to do his medical residency at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

In the years since, she has worked as an administrator in Anne Arundel and Baltimore County schools, and at the state Education Department.

She served as acting state superintendent in the months before Grasmick's hiring in 1991, and then worked as Grasmick's deputy superintendent.

Copeland spent five years at the Greater Baltimore Committee and another five as executive director of the Fund for Educational Excellence, which works with school systems to implement changes. The group has taken a lead role in breaking up Baltimore's large high schools into smaller, more personalized environments.

Copeland also served on the city school board from 1997 to 1998, but she quit after she married a second time and moved to Howard County. Her second husband, Robert Lazarewicz, was Howard County's human resources administrator when he suffered a fatal heart attack in November 2004.

Copeland has a grown stepson from that marriage but doesn't have any children of her own. She lives in Baltimore's Federal Hill neighborhood.

In 2000, Copeland applied for the top job in the city schools, but she lost out to Carmen V. Russo amid concerns that Copeland was not forceful enough as a leader.

When she was named the system's interim CEO in 2003, City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. called her "a very thoughtful and nice person" but said she was "going to have to be very firm in her management style."

The city school board chairwoman at the time, Patricia L. Welch, said in response that Copeland had a "steel hand with a velvet glove."

During her tenure, Copeland has provided "stability and leadership" with a "calm, firm and caring approach," said Matthew Hornbeck, principal of Hampstead Hill Academy, one of the city's 12 charter schools.

But many who know Copeland say the concern about her willingness to take charge has borne out.

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