Superintendent Walter G. Amprey and the Baltimore City Public Schools' central office administration recently were harshly criticized by state officials for the performance of city students in the Maryland Student Performance Program, for a lack of accountability in special education and other areas, and for an "unwillingness" to institute management reforms HTC recommended in the 1991 Towers Perrin/Cresap report. I believe this criticism is unwarranted and I am compelled to make several observations about student achievement, school system management and operations, and educational reforms.
In the Maryland School Performance Program, the Baltimore City Public Schools have the greatest distance to travel to meet the state's student performance standards. While working hard to close this gap, the school system has made consistent progress student achievement. Few urban school districts in the nation have seen this type of improvement in student performance.
Management Reform and Accountability
Central to the Cresap report's improvement plan is the recommendation that the school system "recast itself as a network of enterprise schools." Baltimore's 183 public schools became Enterprise Schools in September 1994. This school-based, decision-making model has unleashed tremendous creativity by teachers, principals, parents and business partners at individual schools. The resulting innovations are contributing to the system-wide increases in achievement.
The "enterprise" concept gives school-improvement teams budgeting authority and flexibility. Personnel at each school determine how they can best deploy their resources. During the past two years, about $45 million, previously administered by central office, was shifted to local school control.
Currently, city school expenditures for administration are among the lowest in Maryland, and the school system will continue to reduce these expenses as the authority for resources is shifted from central office to the schools.
With this authority comes accountability. As part of a network of enterprise schools, each school must develop a school-improvement plan that outlines specific academic targets for student achievement and attendance. While schools may determine individual approaches to educational reform, they are held accountable for improving student achievement.
Already, the city school system has identified 26 "alert schools" where academic performance has failed to improve or declined. Central office staff members are providing instructional and management support to these schools. Five other schools have been identified by the Maryland State Department of Education as "reconstitution-eligible," and these schools are implementing state-approved school improvement plans.
The city school system is viewed nationally as a leader in educational reform. While many of these reforms are too new to be fully evaluated, I would like to mention several that contribute to the overall success of the city schools:
Schools-Within-A-School: Some large schools now have small "schools" inside to create more nurturing learning climates, such as the Thurgood Marshall Middle Schools. Specialized career/technology and "academy" programs have been created in comprehensive high schools.
Baltimore Urban Systemic Initiative: A $15 million grant from the National Science Foundation is improving math, science and technology instruction and student achievement.
School/Community Partnerships: Sandtown-Winchester, Dunbar and Cherry Hill projects coordinate community resources to help children achieve. Health and nutritional services are offered to students and their families.
School/Business Partnerships: The private sector provides human and fiscal resources to children, teachers and schools in more than 300 partnerships.
Leadership Development Academy: This professional development program in partnership with the Greater Baltimore Committee has trained more than 500 principals, assistant principals and central office staff members to be effective managers and leaders.
MOVE: This program brings state-of-the-art equipment to physically disabled children at William S. Baer and Claremont schools.
Ombudsman: A privately operated school that serves disruptive and truant middle school students.
Barclay School: This school's success in using the Calvert School curriculum resulted in that curriculum being adopted by the Carter G. Woodson School, too.
Despite significant academic achievements and educational/management reforms, the Baltimore City Public Schools are severely under-funded. Baltimore's children need and deserve the same level of educational opportunity as the children living in the suburbs. A child's address should not determine his or her educational opportunity. The method of financing education based on local property taxes is unfair.
Even though city schools have demonstrated progress in the face of significant obstacles, the school system continues to suffer at the hands of politicians who use it as a political football.
Critics say that withholding $5.9 million from the school system is not the same as cutting those funds, and withholding them is "punishment" for poor management. Whether cut or withheld, the result is the same: The funds are not available. And the children of Baltimore as well as hard-working teachers and administrators are being punished.
For the state to argue that Baltimore's problem is mismanagement and not inadequate educational opportunity is inconsistent with the facts, insensitive to the needs of the children and "disempowering" to thousands of teachers, parents and principals in Baltimore's 183 enterprise schools.
Philip H. Farfel is president of the city school board.