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Schools for everyone

Baltimore City school officials say the nearly $1.2 billion budget the system unveiled last week will fund a raft of new academic endeavors, among them a new team to upgrade instruction in the sciences to meet the higher standards of the new national "core" curriculum and additional programs for academically gifted students. This is all to the good if it helps the city attract and retain more young families with children for whom strong public schools are often the most important factor in choosing where to live. But it's not a sufficient step in a system that needs to raise the quality of classroom instruction across the board.

Since his arrival in Baltimore six years ago, city schools CEO Andrés Alonso has devoted much of his attention to matters of school governance and administration. He's given principals more power over their budgets and then held them responsible for results, closed failing schools and replaced them with new transformation and charter schools and signed a landmark agreement with teachers that ties their pay and promotions to growth in student achievement. All of these steps at the macro level have created a more supple and responsive system. The massive school renovation and construction program he, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and city education advocates secured in this year's General Assembly session should also inject real life into the system.

However, taking city schools to the next level is going to require a focus on improving day-to-day instruction in thousands of classrooms. Improving science courses and programs for advanced students is welcome, but it's not nearly enough. Notwithstanding radio host Garrison Keillor's mythical town of Lake Woebegone, where "all the children are above average," the vast majority of students in real school systems are neither the cream of the crop nor the bottom of the barrel, but rather somewhere in between.

Ultimately, how well those students fare will be the real test of whether Mr. Alonso's ambitious reform effort is successful. And that will depend on educators' meeting the challenge where the rubber meets the road — through dramatic improvements in the quality of classroom instruction for every kid in the city, not just the handful of high achievers in its elite schools. To be effective as a magnet for newcomers the school system must be able to offer excellent instruction across a wide range of achievement levels.

Baltimore already has citywide selective magnet high schools that have trained generations of bright young people whose talents would put them at the top of their class in any school system in the country. The Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, Baltimore City College, Western High School and the Baltimore School for the Arts, for instance, are all top performing institutions with thousands of distinguished alumni. The city also has a number of equally well-regarded middle and elementary public and charter schools.

But good as those institutions are, they enroll only a small proportion of the city's 85,000 public school students. Thanks to years of federal litigation, the city school system has improved its offerings for students with learning disabilities, but kids who are average but solid performers frequently have a tough time finding a school where they can realize their full potential.

It's often said that the best economic development project is a good public school. Schools are not only neighborhood gathering places where lifelong friendships are forged that bind the ties of community, they are important economic assets that can help drive businesses and new residents to an area. Parents are drawn to places where they think their children will thrive, and that often translates into wanting schools that have something valuable to offer to everyone.

The next step in Baltimore's reform project must be to focus on the micro-level of individual classrooms, school libraries, science labs, auditoriums and athletic fields. That's where learning actually happens and young minds are developed, and if reform in Baltimore is to truly achieve, its aims the schools must be able to offer that to students at all levels of ability.

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