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Upside down in Baltimore County?


Stuart D. Berger says he won't turn Baltimore County schools upside down when he takes over as superintendent July 1. But if Dr. Berger's record in Wichita, Kan., and in Frederick County is any indication, county educators, students and parents had better tighten their seat belts.

Dr. Berger succeeds Robert Y. Dubel, who served for 16 years, longer than any public school chief among the nation's largest 100 districts. That tenure itself is a tribute to Dr. Dubel. He survived -- and thrived -- by making changes slowly, by politicking effectively in Towson and Annapolis, by keeping on the good side of the teachers union and PTAs and by maintaining tight control of an appointed school board.

Now comes Dr. Berger, fresh from a series of confrontations with an elected board and with many parents and teachers in Wichita. His is an aggressive, no-nonsense management style. He is said not to suffer fools gladly. He expects teachers and administrators to perform, reminding them publicly that the schools are for students, not for those who get paid for working in them.

Wichita has half of the enrollment of Baltimore County's 89,000 students. About 30 percent of Wichita students come from families below the federal poverty line, and 20 percent are black. That's not much different from Baltimore County. In his five years in the Midwest, Dr. Berger has mounted several efforts to help "at-risk" students, including early childhood centers (of which Baltimore County needs about 50 more) and programs for teen-age mothers and students prone to violence. Meanwhile, he has promoted blacks and women rapidly, shaking up the old guard in a conservative city.

Dr. Berger's new home district is not without problems. Baltimore City it isn't, to be sure, but in terms of achievement and attendance (on the latter of which the district was faulted in last fall's state "report card") it isn't Howard County, either. For more than two decades, Baltimore County has been changing in character from rural to suburban to urban. Its public schools need to be more sensitive to the growing black population along the Liberty Road corridor and elsewhere.

The new superintendent seems well suited for this assignment. He is not another Bob Dubel, but the times are no longer right for that leadership style. The county system needs a little shaking up. Dr. Berger appears to be the leader to do it.

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