State board gives city a break

Baltimore schools allowed extra time to meet federal requirement for teachers aides

January 31, 2007|By Sara Neufeld and Brent Jones | Sara Neufeld and Brent Jones,sun Reporters

In a meeting punctuated with pleasantries and gestures of goodwill, the state school board yesterday gave the city school system an extension to comply with a provision of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The meeting was a stark departure from previous interactions between city and state school officials when Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was governor and Martin O'Malley was Baltimore's mayor. Ehrlich was one of the city school system's harshest critics, while O'Malley - who defeated him in the November election - is one of its biggest supporters. The governor appoints the state school board.

The state board unanimously approved a waiver to give the city schools more time to ensure that all classroom assistants in schools that serve a high-poverty populations are "highly qualified" under No Child Left Behind. State officials say the move will save city schools more than $1 million.

The board also responded favorably as city officials presented an annual report outlining steps to improve student achievement, close school buildings and comply with state-ordered reforms, among other topics.

"For the first time in eight years ... I feel there has been really significant progress," said state board President Edward L. Root.

O'Malley, who was recently inaugurated, has signaled that he wants to replace state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and the state board members who appoint her, in large part because of their frequent attacks on the city.

Grasmick has been an ally of Ehrlich. Her contract will be up for renewal before O'Malley can appoint a majority of the state board.

Part of the improved relationship can be traced to the appointment of Charlene Cooper Boston as interim chief executive officer of the city schools in July. Grasmick, who clashed with the previous CEO, Bonnie S. Copeland, endorsed Boston for the job.

Boston, who was appointed to serve for one school year, has not announced whether she will apply for the position permanently, but state board members yesterday encouraged her to do so.

Boston turned to Grasmick and the state board to get the city schools out of a predicament involving the qualifications of its classroom assistants.

No Child Left Behind requires all teaching assistants in Title 1 schools - those that have a high concentration of poor students - to be highly qualified by June last year. Highly qualified assistants must have an associate's degree or pass a standardized test.

School systems have known about the requirement since 2002.

Late last month, the city system informed about 150 assistants they would be transferred to different schools within a week, but changed course after an overwhelming community outcry.

Without a waiver, Grasmick said, the city school system would not have been allowed to use Title 1 money - extra federal money for poor schools - to pay the salaries of the unqualified assistants. As a result, she said, the system would have needed to find more than $1 million in its general fund to cover the cost.

Grasmick said the U.S. Department of Education agreed to give the city school system a year's extension - until June - for all classroom assistants in Title 1 schools to be highly qualified, providing the state school board signed off on it.

"Next year, you won't see me here asking for a waiver because we will be in compliance," Boston told the state board.

Gary Thrift, the city school system's human resources officer, said the system has 60 unqualified classroom assistants in Title 1 schools, down from about 75 earlier this month. (The other aides who would have been transferred were qualified assistants in non-Title 1 schools.)

"The numbers are decreasing every day," Thrift said.

Thrift said some of the unqualified assistants have voluntarily transferred to non-Title 1 schools, and some have submitted paperwork to show that they have passed the standardized test or earned an associate's degree.

To help the assistants become highly qualified before the end of the school year, when they could lose their jobs, Towson University and the Greater Homewood Community Corp. are offering test prep courses to assistants on Saturdays. The Baltimore Teachers Union is also offering training.

After yesterday's state board meeting adjourned, Boston thanked Grasmick for her help in obtaining the waiver. "We couldn't have done it without Dr. Grasmick," she said, as she waited for the elevator.

Grasmick kissed Boston on the cheek. "It was a nice day for you," she said.

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