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Privatized school snags on issue of coat hooks


When Education Alternatives Inc. assumed management of Lynda Nusinov's school two years ago, she received a rocking chair for her classroom, a telephone for her desk, and four bright fluffy floor pillows for her children.

But she needed coat hooks.

"My kids didn't have enough hooks to hang up their coats, so all year long, there was this battle to get coat hooks," recalls Ms. Nusinov, who was a third-grade teacher at Sarah M. Roach Elementary School when it became part of the city's privatization experiment during the 1992-1993 school year.

"Nobody at EAI was interested in what I needed as a teacher," she says. "We were completely out of the loop. The needs of the children were out of the loop. What we got was a lot of cutesy things that looked good for the television camera.

"Teachers felt that we were setting up a big advertising structure for EAI," Ms. Nusinov adds. "EAI needed to make a big splash very quickly to improve their balance sheets and they used Baltimore City and city children to do it."

For the 1993-94 school year, Ms. Nusinov transferred to Lockerman-Bundy Elementary School, which is managed by the city. There, she says, she found better administration, more equipment and supplies, a more innovative curriculum and much higher morale among teachers, children and parents.

Is this one disenchanted teacher talking, or is it a rare and much-needed glimpse inside one of the nine schools run by EAI?

Donna Franks, a spokeswoman at city school headquarters, said yesterday that the Nusinov portrait is outdated and does not fit Sarah M. Roach or anywhere else. (The 1992-93 school year was the first in a five-year contract between the city and EAI.) And the company says its students no longer lack basic educational tools -- if they ever did.

During the past month, I've interviewed a dozen teachers from EAI schools, but only Ms. Nusinov would let me use her name. The other teachers said they had experienced similar difficulties and attributed some of them to start-up problems.

Ms. Nusinov's big-picture complaints about the company, that it has "used" the city, echo the stand taken by the Baltimore Teachers Union and its parent organization, the American Federation of Teachers. (Ms. Nusinov had been the BTU representative at Sarah M. Roach Elementary.) This week, AFT president Albert Shanker was quoted as saying, "Based on what we know about EAI's work in Baltimore, other districts would be crazy to contract with them" without an evaluation of what has happened here.

Unions aren't the only critics. The City Council recently balked at school superintendent Walter Amprey's plan to expand privatization. Some parents and community groups have complained that the company seems slow to respond to their concerns. And EAI lost a great deal of credibility around the country when it mistakenly reported that test scores in Baltimore had improved significantly. Actually, average reading scores for the eight elementary schools were lower in spring 1994 than in 1992, before the company took over, and math scores rose only slightly during the same period.

Despite those problems, Dr. Amprey remains a strong supporter of EAI. He argues that the positive effects of privatization can be found in other areas: New computers, cleaner buildings and parental involvement. Dr. Amprey says test scores should show dramatic improvement by the end of the 1994-1995 school year.

But the teachers union -- which originally welcomed privatization -- is skeptical about this, and I think we ought to listen to it. Teachers have held this system together despite two decades of official neglect.

My own opinion, based on interviews with teachers, is that a teacher's experience with privatization has more to do with the principal's ability than anything else -- which is exactly the case with schools run by the city. Privatization still seems like an administrative cop-out: Why not invest our energy in finding or developing first-rate principals? Why not insist that the legislature fund our school system adequately?

Says Ms. Nusinov: "Baltimore has some of the brightest, hardest-working children in the state, but schools have been a political football for a long, long time."

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