Standing up for schools

July 10, 2006

Charlene Cooper Boston is obviously no stranger to hard work and difficult challenges. And those who know her well say she won't rock the boat as she temporarily runs the Baltimore school system after the departure of CEO Bonnie S. Copeland. But during her tenure, she will need to strike a delicate balance between maintaining the stability and integrity of a beleaguered system and moving forward on some reforms this summer and in the school year ahead.

For starters, she should not hesitate to push aggressively on middle school reforms that aim to strengthen the system's weakest link in academic performance. Plans are under way to provide middle school pupils with more study supports as well as social services and counseling. Ms. Boston should help determine the right combination of leadership, curriculum and structural changes - including how many schools should be converted to K-8 schools - to give middle school pupils a more enriched educational program.

She must also help the system get a better handle on special-education operations, which have had an overlay of state administrators since late last year at the direction of federal District Judge Marvin J. Garbis. The school system has failed to compensate disabled students for services they are entitled to but have not received in a timely manner. Judge Garbis took state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick's suggestion that the state - which, along with the city school system, was a longtime defendant in a lawsuit brought by families of disabled students - should take a more active oversight role of the city's special-education program. But the city can still work harder to show that it can deliver services with a minimum of state interference.

Ms. Boston also needs to maintain a cooperative but cautious relationship with the state. She has promised to work with state education officials to reform special education. Ms. Grasmick, whose previously friendly relationship with Ms. Copeland deteriorated during the latter's tenure, has praised Ms. Boston for her willingness to reach out to the Maryland State Department of Education for help when needed.

If Ms. Grasmick offers reasonable advice and counsel, reaching out may be fine and dandy. But if she oversteps her bounds again - as she did in the proposed takeover of several Baltimore schools in March - city students will need Ms. Boston to stand up for them and to recognize the difference between cooperation and capitulation.

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