Another try

March 01, 2007

The problems of urban education are rooted in poverty and the racial divide. No big-city school system has solved them. The No Child Left Behind law won't solve them. The best that school systems can do is work around the edges to mitigate the consequences of this uniquely American reality.

The Baltimore school board may have taken a step in that direction Monday night with its sweeping reorganization - which amounts to a significant, albeit limited, decentralization - but it will work only if all concerned act intelligently, cooperatively and diligently.

That's a very big "if."

Part of the reorganization involves closing seven schools, which is painful but no doubt necessary, given the district's declining enrollment. But the board also voted to hand five schools over to a partnership headed by Towson University and to set up autonomous governing boards for three troubled high schools. These are not new ideas - they've been tried here before, by people who were just as well-intentioned as those who have proposed the current changes - and they weren't exactly brilliant successes. In 1996, Patterson High School was touted as a turn-around wonder, thanks to its partnership with the Johns Hopkins University. Today, Patterson is one of those three failing high schools due to get its own governing board.

Can this plan work any better? Towson University is careful not to cast itself as a hero riding in to the rescue of four Cherry Hill schools plus Morrell Park Elementary/Middle, which it already runs. But Jeffery N. Grotsky, the co-chairman of the Towson project, declares that in the first year those schools will meet or exceed the system's goals. Though Towson traditionally has fallen on the whole-language side of the reading instruction debate, Mr. Grotsky promises the project will use a "flexed" version of the city's phonics-based curriculum. Only one of the board members challenged him on that.

Our fear is that the city school board is so eager to find a way to dig its way out of the intractable problems of urban education - most of which are not the fault of the schools themselves - that it is happy to embrace any institution that's willing to tout a solution. For one thing, this is a way to fend off the state Education Department, which tried to take over a group of city schools a year ago. But giving control of schools to others raises immediate questions about accountability.

Any improvement, of course, is to be cheered. What happened at Patterson in the mid-1990s was good for the kids who were students there then, and what happens now in Cherry Hill will probably be good for the kids living there. But it is unfair to raise expectations, especially those of the parents and children. Projects such as these typically do well for a while and then peter out; the way to avoid that in this case is for the board, administrators and parents to maintain constant vigilance, which isn't easy.

Unquestionably, there are successes, but even the best of these sorts of innovations can go only so far in alleviating the urban ills that come together at the schoolhouse door. The shortcomings in big city schools are just symptoms of much deeper problems.

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