Tesseract: Proceed With Care


No program in the modern history of the city school system has received the attention of Tesseract, Baltimore's bold venture in contracting education to a profit-making firm. Tesseract has come through its first academic year with generally positive marks. Schools are cleaner, computers costing million of dollars are in place and, most important, there are signs -- only signs -- that the grades of the 4,800 Tesseract students are on the upturn.

Given the difficulties Education Alternatives Inc. encountered in getting Tesseract off the ground, this is a remarkable record for just nine months. EAI got the contract only weeks before the school year began. EAI officials behaved imperiously in approaching teachers and parents at the beginning. The Baltimore Teachers Union threw up roadblocks throughout the year. Some parents protested. Computer installation wasn't completed until this spring. It was a shakedown year, one that cannot be used as a yardstick for evaluation.

Still, Walter G. Amprey, the superintendent, says Tesseract has been "successful enough for it to expand," and EAI, which received $26.6 million in city funds for first-year operations and put millions more of its own funds into computer purchases and installation, says it remains a willing partner. EAI is said to be preparing plans to add eight elementary schools, two middle schools and a high school to Tesseract by September.

Dr. Amprey's eagerness is understandable. This is a system buffeted by bad news daily, and Tesseract has put it on the national map. But expansion of Tesseract should be done cautiously at first. As Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke points out, the program hasn't been properly evaluated; the second year will be a much truer test than the first.

We wonder also how much more of its own funds EAI will be able to pour into city schools. Its capital investment (and commitment) of $7.6 million in the nine current Tesseract schools is impressive, but will such a large financial contribution continue with schools added to the program? Another eight elementary schools will need $6 million more. Can EAI commit those funds and still eke out the slim profit it earned last fiscal year?

We want this experiment to succeed. So do city officials. So does EAI. If Dr. Amprey decides to expand the program this summer, hard questions first must be asked -- and answered. A thorough evaluation of Tesseract is essential. The signals, though, are positive, and we remain optimistic about this exciting but high-stakes endeavor.

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