Alonso seeks private donors

$25 million price tag put on altering the DNA of schools

Sun exclusive

December 16, 2007|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,Sun reporter

Baltimore schools chief Andres Alonso is asking private foundations for $25 million to jump-start a stalled reform effort by creating two dozen combined middle/high schools that would operate with outside partnerships and autonomy from central headquarters.

In a confidential presentation to philanthropists that was obtained by The Sun, Alonso says that thousands of city students - including many who are overage and many interested in vocational programs - aren't getting the opportunities they need in existing schools. Some of the schools he proposes would be college-prep, while others would prepare students directly for the work force.

"This is really an attempt to change the DNA of the secondary schools," Alonso said after being told the newspaper had a copy of his presentation. "A school system like this needs to be extremely bold, or the forces of inertia will bring things back to the way they have been."

The presentation begins with dismal statistics about the current state of affairs: "What is the future of Baltimore if ... Only 5 out of 10 students entering our high schools leave with a high school diploma? Fewer than 3 of those students enroll in college? Fewer than 2 of those students graduate from college within 5 years?"

Alonso's request comes as the Urban Institute releases a study today with promising findings about the city's six new "innovation" high schools. The innovation schools have much in common with the schools Alonso is proposing, operating with autonomy under partnerships with organizations such as universities and school management companies.

The study, based on five years of data, shows innovation schools as the bright spots in a major high school reform initiative that overall has fallen short of expectations. The Urban Institute, a national nonpartisan think tank, was hired to evaluate Baltimore's high school reform.

Launched with great fanfare in 2002, the reform effort has stalled in recent years as the largest donor, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, put a freeze on its funding because of concerns about administrative turnover.

Because of the freeze and other problems, four large campuses that were supposed to be broken up into smaller schools remain intact. Some of the small neighborhood high schools that were created are far more crowded than intended. And the innovation schools, while able to control their hiring and curriculum, have not received the budgetary control they were promised.

Now, Alonso - charged with overhauling education in Baltimore while facing a projected $50 million budget shortfall for the next school year - is trying to bring donors back to the table. Locally, at least, they seem receptive.

"We are so, so far short of where we need to be that it is fine for Dr. Alonso to turn this system upside down," said Diana Morris, director of the Open Society Institute-Baltimore. "We're still in the place where we don't have an awful lot to lose and we have a lot to gain."

Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation, said that "everyone involved is supportive of the superintendent" but that he needs to see in a formal proposal the rationale for putting middle and high school students under the same roof.

Alonso, who has been in his job since July, said the rationale is based on the fact that nearly half of the city's 18,488 middle school students have been held back at least once, and 1,300 of them are at least two grades overage. Another 325 elementary school students have been held back at least twice.

Overage students are at high risk of dropping out, Alonso said. Putting them in a building where they can interact with peers their own age will make their experience in school less socially awkward.

Also, Alonso said, if students could stay in the same school for seven years, "the idea is for a school leader and team to grow over time and become personally responsible for children."

Alonso wants 12 new schools to open by August 2008, with initial classes of 80 sixth-graders and 80 ninth-graders. The schools would add a middle school grade and a high school grade each year until they eventually served grades six through 12. The other 12 schools would open over the next four years.

The presentation says the system has already identified a dozen locations where new schools could start operating. Over time, they would replace many existing neighborhood schools.

Existing schools that remain would be required to partner with outside organizations and adopt a structure in which principals would be given more autonomy in exchange for accountability.

Of the 24 new schools, a third would be college-prep, a third would be alternative schools for students who are significantly behind, and a third would be vocational schools. The citywide vocational high schools - Edmondson, Mergenthaler and Carver - didn't have space this year for more than 1,000 freshmen who met entrance criteria.

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