With state plans at bay, city acts to save schools

Officials move quickly after winning back control in legislature

April 12, 2006|By SARA NEUFELD | SARA NEUFELD,SUN REPORTER

A day after they won the battle to maintain authority over 11 failing schools, Baltimore officials unveiled a plan yesterday to exert more control over those schools and to attract talented principals to some of them with financial incentives.

The 11 schools that were slated for outside takeovers will now report directly to Chief Executive Officer Bonnie S. Copeland's senior staff, who will visit the schools weekly. The system will offer financial incentives to its best principals to work in the seven middle schools that were on the takeover list.

And it will proceed with plans to break up Frederick Douglass, Northwestern and Patterson high schools, while closing Southwestern High No. 412 by 2007 and Dr. Roland N. Patterson Sr. Academy by 2008.

"There is no time to celebrate," city school board Chairman Brian D. Morris said after the Senate's vote Monday to override Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s veto of a bill imposing a one-year moratorium on takeovers of 11 schools. "The only thing that counts will be how well and how quickly we achieve our academic goals and restore public confidence in our ability to enable our students to achieve academically."

In addition to the reforms the system is initiating on its own, it still must comply with a long list of other state-ordered reforms, from finding a new curriculum to evaluating and possibly firing a number of administrators.

If nine schools don't show adequate progress on state tests given last month, the city system must be prepared to make immediate and drastic changes, such as requiring all the schools' staff to reapply for their jobs.

By the time students return to class in late August, the system must develop individual plans for all those at risk of failing the state exams they must pass to graduate. It must write separate plans for each student with chronic misbehavior.

Meanwhile, state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said she is researching whether the federal No Child Left Behind Act supersedes the state legislation that overturned the takeovers. The answer, she said, will set a precedent for the nation because Maryland was the first state to use its authority under No Child Left Behind to attempt a takeover of failing schools.

"We really have to probe what does this mean, not only for the state but for the nation," she said.

Ehrlich went further, saying at a news conference yesterday, "I am not going to accept this result." He called the blocking of the takeovers "disgusting" and "disgraceful" and said the test scores at the 11 schools - where pass rates are often in the single digits - are "beyond failure."

Grasmick said the legislation threatens the entire state school accountability program. She said she also is researching whether it jeopardizes Maryland's federal education funding and compliance with the federal law.

Federal officials said yesterday that it's too soon to comment.

The state school board voted last month to impose a variety of reforms on the city schools as a result of chronically low test scores. No Child Left Behind requires states to impose structural reforms on failing school systems. Baltimore is the only system in Maryland to receive such intervention.

The reform that generated the most attention was one requiring an outside takeover of seven middle schools and four high schools. But the other state board orders will stand.

By the next academic year, the school system must implement a curriculum currently being used in a successful neighboring county - likely Anne Arundel or Howard - in middle and high school core subjects.

By June, the system must evaluate its eight "area academic officers," administrators who oversee groups of schools, and fire those deemed responsible for low student achievement. Under the plan the system released yesterday, the 11 schools that were slated for takeover will no longer report to area academic officers, but rather will report to Copeland and her senior staff directly.

Nine other city schools will be required under No Child Left Behind to restructure if they do not show adequate progress on this year's state tests. Students took the tests last month, but results are not yet available.

The school system was already planning to require all staff members at two of those schools, Canton Middle and Thomas G. Hayes Elementary, to reapply for their jobs.

But at the other seven schools, the system was planning to hire "turnaround specialists," the least severe option that No Child Left Behind allows for schools that must restructure.

The state board voted to eliminate that option, requiring more drastic reform at the seven schools: Ashburton/Dr. Nathan A. Pitts Elementary/Middle, Harlem Park Middle, Highlandtown Elementary No. 237, Morrell Park Elementary/Middle, Robert Poole Middle, Vivien T. Thomas Medical Arts Academy and Augusta Fells Savage Institute of Visual Arts.

Harlem Park and Robert Poole are scheduled to close by 2008.

The other structural reforms require the system to:

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