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Controversial educator seizes chance to make a difference Berger challenged by Baltimore County

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Stuart Berger is no stranger to controversy. Or to challenge. And he doesn't shrink from either.

The 47-year-old Wichita, Kan., school superintendent, who is scheduled to take over for Dr. Robert Y. Dubel July 1, comes to Baltimore County with a clear vision of who he is and what he wants to accomplish -- and with a vivid recognition that it won't be easy.

It hasn't been so far for the outspoken educator, who has earned something of a controversial reputation in his 27 years in academia.

From the time he was a child, Dr. Berger says, he knew that he wanted to be a teacher. His priorities have always been, and remain, he insists, the kids.

The job of the school system -- indeed, its most basic responsibility -- is to educate them. And the onus falls squarely on teachers, he says.

In Frederick County, Md., where he was superintendent from 1981 to 1987, Dr. Berger developed a merit pay plan that gave extra money to teachers who were doing a good job. But the teachers union was less than impressed; it argued that the process was subjective and inequitable, and they blamed Dr. Berger.

In North Olmsted, Ohio, where he was a superintendent from 1978 to 1981, Dr. Berger also acted on his belief that teachers bear ultimate responsiblity for classroom success. He brazenly fired 30 employees whose performance he considered unsatisfactory, alienating many teachers.

Still, he hasn't wavered. "If the kids aren't growing, the teachers aren't doing a good job," he says. "It's simple."

Too "many teachers have the belief that it's their job to dispense the material," and that "it's the job of the kid and the parents to be sure [the student understands] it," he says. "I don't agree with that . . . The primary responsibility for the educational process is with the teachers."

That process, Dr. Berger says, should start early. He favors pre-kindergarten programs to help children with their verbal skills, and he commended Baltimore County Executive Roger B. Hayden for his support of such programs. In Wichita, Dr. Berger acted on that commitment. He opened two early-childhood centers and increased the number of all-day kindergartern classes.

While he insists that teachers take total responsibility for a student's education, Dr. Berger says parents should have the final decision-making power.

"If a kid wants to take algebra, and he wants to try, why won't we let him?" he asks.

"It's our job to give advice," Dr. Berger adds. But "the parent decides, not us."

Parents' roles in the partnership with educators, Dr. Berger says, should include involvement in the school system's decision-making process. He points to magnet schools -- schools that offer specialized curriculums to attract motivated students -- which he implemented in Wichita, as an example of the successes that can occur when students, parents and teachers share the same goals.

"They go there [the magnet schools] because they want to be there. And, boy, that changes how things operate," he says.

While Dr. Berger is convinced that Baltimore County is in need of finding a variety of ways to educate its children, he says he's not sure whether magnet schools would work as well in so large a county.

He says his biggest challenge as Baltimore County school superintendent will be responding to the "changing demographics," which have resulted in a more urbanized, racially and ethnically heterogeneous student population.

One strategy he's considering is forming a community task force to look at the school board's minority achievement plan. The plan suggests ways of addressing the needs of the county's minority students. Among the goals are increasing the number of minority students in gifted and talented programs, improving test scores of minority students and lowering the expulsion rate among blacks.

Dr. Berger does not come to this challenge cold. Among his sucesses, he claims, are improving the standardized test scores for minority students in Wichita. In Frederick County, Dr. Berger says, he implemented a plan for minority student achievement and instituted "equity commitees" in every school in the district.

Dr. Berger says he wants to encourage the people who work at schools with "changing student populations" to experiment in the classroom, even if their ideas "might be considered off the wall."

"And if they fail, so what?" Dr. Berger asks. "You can't say that [so what] forever. But I want the [teachers in those schools] to feel that the superintendent isn't going to penalize them if an idea that seemed to be great turns out to be a disaster.

"I would rather have a bad idea than no idea."

It would, by his own admission, be "very surprising" if Dr. Berger did not bring new people into Baltimore County's school administration, though he insists he has made no specific plans to do so.

"It's always nice in a large organization like Baltimore County if you have one or two people who know you and therefore will tell you you're wrong, right off the bat," he says.

"I guess I would like to bring in some people from some different systems who have some different ideas. But maybe not, who knows? We'll see what happens."

Much of Dr. Berger's professional performance has been criticized. In Frederick County schools, some labeled him ironfisted and intimidating, and charged that he had an affinity for shaking up the community.

Dr. Berger acknowledges that change always means controversy, and that it is especially hard on the people who've been in the district the longest.

But he insists that much of the resistance he encountered in Wichita may be avoided in Baltimore County.

"Baltimore County . . . is very, very different," he says. Dr. Berger believes, "the fact that I was Jewish was something that just played non-stop in a certain part of that community."

According to a 1989 article in the Wichita Eagle, a Kansas State Board of Education member publicly described Dr. Berger as, "an Eastern Jew who really didn't understand the Midwestern way of life." She was later condemned by the board and stripped of her powers of office.

Nonetheless, "I think some of my ideas are not going to seem nearly as radical in Baltimore County as they seemed in Wichita," he says. "I can move on to the next step without having to fight fights that are, in my opinion, ludicrous."

PTC However, in a district where teachers have not received an across-the-board pay raise in two years -- and most likely won't this year, either -- where increasing enrollment and aging buildings continue to demand fiscal support in tight budget times, Dr. Berger faces a tough challenge.

Still, he says, "I did not go into education to please adults. I went into it to do something for children. And at the end of my life, I want to be able to say that I've accomplished something."

"Give me a chance," Dr. Berger asks Baltimore County's parents, students and teachers.

WK "I think you'll find that I couldn't possibly live up to my clippings."

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