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City Schools Shut Out Parents


It is time for the Baltimore public schools to recognize wh their customers are. Students and their parents, along with the larger community where those students will live and work, are the consumers.

The school system needs to maintain a dialogue with those customers to come up with a plan for changing school attendance zones that parents and the community can and will support. To accomplish that, the current process needs to stop, and a new one -- including meaningful community input -- must be put in its place.

It is unfortunate that most people in Baltimore -- perhaps even school board members themselves -- do not know the details of the latest rezoning plan, which would change the boundaries of attendance zones across the city. That's because the latest plan is only being made public now, less than two weeks before the only public hearing on this version.

Those of us who waded through the first proposal found it took days of intensive evaluation to understand its real impact. The timetable for comment on the revised plan is a travesty.

In order to reassign students for September, the school board must vote by the end of April. The only public hearing is set for March 18. Then the plan may be revised again before the vote. But there is no magic to the deadline. Baltimore has waited 20 years for school rezoning. No urgent need has been demonstrated to rush through a plan for this year.

The City Council and others individuals and groups, including Students First, have asked the school board to delay the vote on rezoning to create a meaningful process for parent and community involvement.

While arguing against a one-year delay of rezoning, Dr. Walter Amprey, the school superintendent, spoke of following a "process that has been in place for 200 years." One can only assume he is speaking of democracy. But there is nothing democratic about the way the school system is going about rezoning.

The school system ignored the community advisory committee which was supposed to have input in the plan. All over the city, community school groups are devising their own zoning plans because their thoughts weren't considered by school officials. The first revised plan, announced in a hurry in early February, was the answer to the loudest reactions to the first plan. The latest, re-revised plan accommodates the interests of additional communities who have spoken out. But this is still no more than a scattershot attempt at damage control after plans that didn't ,, provide opportunity for calm input in the first place.

The question is: What will the latest plan accomplish? Ostensibly, the goal of rezoning is better learning environments and greater efficiency as populations shift. But when asked for budget implications and enrollment figures for the new plan, school officials said the information was unavailable -- and that it may not be available until after the single public hearing March 18. How can anyone make an informed evaluation of the plan's impact?

The only clear outcome seen so far is that students will all attend the same middle and high schools as their elementary school classmates. This implies the end to the current city-wide advanced academic programs in middle schools. The school system has provided no educational rationale for this goal, and there has been no public debate on the policy questions. And that is precisely the problem with the way the school system does business. Its concepts may have merit, but it is impossible to know. No information has been provided.

A vicious cycle has been created in which parents make decisions based on inadequate information provided by school officials, then school administrators condemn the parents as not being well-informed.

A rezoning process that includes meaningful community involvement could become an opportunity for the city to do things it has not done in decades: It can inform and involve parents in making something positive happen in the schools. It can educate the community about new ideas and solutions. In the process, it can create a greater understanding that our world and our children are different today, so how we provide them with a good education must also be different.

It is time for Baltimore schools to stop their focus on damage control and start providing some customer service. If school administrators believe they can accomplish the changes that must happen in city schools without getting parents and community on board, they are shamefully mistaken. And if they believe "involvement" can come after all key decisions are made, they have forgotten just who their customers are.

Mindy Mintz is director of Students First, an advocacy group in Baltimore.

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