City schools ready for next step

With steady funding and stable leadership, classroom transformation is possible

July 21, 2010|By James Campbell

When I was appointed to the Baltimore City School Board six years ago, after 24 years in the state legislature, I was looking forward to working with fellow volunteer board members in an atmosphere free from controversy and politics and doing what was best for students.

What I didn't expect in those first few years was a financial meltdown of the system, a nasty confrontation with the state board that threatened the takeover of 11 schools and three CEOs in four years. To top it off, the city school system became the main player in the 2006 gubernatorial race, with then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. blaming then-Mayor Martin O'Malley for the system's failings. Despite all that, we managed to survive and even to make some improvements.

When it came time to search for a new CEO after the election, board members agreed we wanted the best person for the job, regardless of any political considerations. We found that person in Andrés Alonso. We knew we had someone who would work with the board to continue and accelerate progress. Our goal was to be the best urban school district in the country.

Now, three years later, test scores have been improving faster than in any other system in the state (new scores released this week show the number of students scoring as "advanced" has doubled in three years); our school population is increasing after decades of decline; we have settled a 25-year-old special education lawsuit; we successfully opened more charter schools than any other district in the state; and we've improved our graduation rate and lowered the dropout rate. As one community leader Bishop Douglas Miles, co-chairman of Baltimoreans United in Leadership, said, "we were the laughingstock of the state, but in the past few years we have made a 180-degree turn. For the first time in decades, we're headed in the right direction."

As I move off the board, I'm excited about our progress and that the system is poised to move to the next level of achievement. The board is the one constant in the school system's leadership. Working with Mr. Alonso, we've accomplished budgetary and school reforms; now, to give our children the quality education they deserve, we have to bring change to every classroom in every school. This will take strong, stable leadership and a commitment to maintain the course. That commitment will include:

Maintaining the current board structure. There have been repeated legislative attempts in recent years to replace the current appointed board with an elected one. This would be a mistake. The board attracts quality individuals committed to schools and who base their decisions on what's best for students. An elected board would have difficulty making many politically difficult decisions, such as whether to restructure or close failing schools.

Renewing the CEO's contract. In the past three years, Mr. Alonso has proved himself an able administrator, and he now has his leadership team in place. He has hired an outstanding chief academic officer who will be charged with bringing change to the classroom by shifting the focus to higher-level thinking skills and more student engagement. His contract should be renewed for another four years.

Maintain funding. These are challenging times for state and local governments. However, Maryland has made great progress in the past eight years since passage of the Bridge to Excellence Act. In addition to increasing education aid by 80 percent, the act targeted additional dollars to help poor students. Baltimore has been able to increase teacher salaries and reduce class size. In this election year, parents should make this a top priority at the polls.

When I joined the board, several retiring members said that their service was one of the most rewarding experiences of their lives. I couldn't agree more. The rewards come every time you walk into a classroom and see children learning. We cannot let them down.

James Campbell, a member of the Baltimore school board, is a senior communications manager at the School of Education at the Johns Hopkins University. His e-mail is

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