Accountability tested

Public reacts as Alonso says he fulfills pledge to hold schools responsible with closings, mergers

March 12, 2009|By Sara Neufeld and Brent Jones | Sara Neufeld and Brent Jones,sara.neufeld@baltsun.com and brent.jones@baltsun.com

As parents and educators react to Andres Alonso's plans to close failing schools and expand successful ones, the Baltimore schools chief is proposing a central office reorganization to help principals execute increased responsibilities.

The $1.27 billion budget proposal unveiled this week would cut the central office by 15 percent, or 179 positions. Employees will have the option of applying for other jobs within the system, including more than 50 new positions to assist principals with troubleshooting as they head into a second year of decentralized management.

Alonso says the role of the central office should be to support and evaluate schools, as the people closest to the children are making decisions. Each school would be assigned to a network of four administrators: two specializing in instruction, one in special education, and one in budget and operations. The administrators would be evaluated by principals - not the other way around - based on the quality of help they provide.

Alonso's budget proposal Tuesday came on the same night as he released a major school reorganization plan, which would close, merge, expand or move about three dozen schools. He said the closures would make good on his pledge to hold schools accountable for results.

A new accountability office would be in charge of developing a data-driven method to better evaluate schools. The moves would eliminate what Alonso perceives as a conflict of interest inherent in most districts, where the same people who are supposed to help schools are also reviewing them.

The central office reorganization is prompting concerns from the city's administrators union because the new network administration positions would not be affiliated with a union. Jimmy Gittings, president of the union, has plans to meet with Alonso tomorrow. "I will take actions if we cannot resolve the situation," Gittings said.

He said he is also concerned about the school reorganization plan. "You don't close schools that are not achieving," the union leader said. "You provide additional resources to those schools."

The day after Alonso released his proposals, parents, students and educators struggled to understand the implications.

"I at least wanted to finish my eighth-grade year here," said Tichenna Taylor, 13, a seventh-grader at William H. Lemmel Middle. She is one of two girls who opposed the plan to close Lemmel this summer. The news follows the fatal stabbing of a Lemmel student outside the school in November. While in the past, closing city schools have phased out over time, Alonso wants to make all the moves this summer.

City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke is upset about the system's plans to merge Laurence G. Paquin Middle/High, which has served pregnant girls and teen mothers since the 1960s, with a new alternative school for over-age middle-school students. The Baltimore Rising Star Academy would move into the Paquin building, and Paquin would continue to operate as a program there.

Rising Star operates at Chinquapin Middle School, where it does not have enough space, while Paquin is only using a fraction of its building capacity. Clarke, chairwoman of the council's education committee and a longtime Paquin advocate, said the plan "flies in the face of the dignity and the tradition that Paquin deserves."

When it opened in 1966, Paquin was one of the nation's first schools for pregnant girls. Now it is one of the last, and Principal Rosetta Stith is one of the city's most senior administrators. It's hard to measure Paquin's academic record because its turnover rate is so high, but test scores generally have been very low.

Yet Paquin offers many social services and extensive support to girls and their babies during a vulnerable time. Its on-site medical clinic provides prenatal care, while a day-care center keeps young mothers in school. Alonso said all those services will continue.

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra staff were startled to learn that Harriet Tubman Elementary - where they started an after-school program last year teaching first-graders to play musical instruments - is set to close. Symphony musicians have painted the school, cleaned up its playground, held a book drive for its library and purchased a freezer to store food for the children.

Paul Meecham, president and CEO of the BSO, said the orchestra wants to ensure that the 35 children in the program can all transfer to the same school so they can continue with their musical training through elementary school as planned.

"It came as a surprise, but we're very supportive of Dr. Alonso and everything he's doing to raise the level of education in Baltimore City schools," Meecham said.

English teacher Brandon Arvesen wasn't surprised that his school, Thurgood Marshall High, is on the closure list, but he said he wished the system had done more to help the school. "If a student was failing my class and the parent came in, I'd have to show documentation to show I'd done everything I could to help the student pass," he said.

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