Board votes to consider outside help; Most troubled schools in city could be run by educational firms; December decision expected; Contract proposals sought from businesses and nonprofit groups


The State Board of Education took a significant step toward taking over the region's most troubled schools yesterday, acknowledging that it can't wait any longer to help children in schools with a four- or five-year history of failure.

The board voted unanimously to issue a request for proposals from contractors that want to manage one or more schools. Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said the board will act cautiously and could still choose to close a school rather than give control to an outside contractor.

A decision is expected in December after the proposals are submitted and the board receives the latest test results from last May's Maryland School Performance Assessment Program.

Grasmick said she expects some action. "We have an obligation to the children in those schools. We can't wait. Those children deserve an educational opportunity," she said.

No school has been named for takeover, but all are expected to be Baltimore public schools. Two city schools have been labeled failing for five years by the state: Patterson High School and Frederick Douglass High School. Three have been on the list for four years: Calverton Middle School, Furman L. Templeton Elementary School and Arnett J. Brown Middle School.

Wresting management of a school away from the local school district would be an unprecedented step in Maryland, but one that has been taken in other states. The move comes at an awkward time in Baltimore, however, because a new school board was ap- pointed by the governor and the mayor just two years ago, and the new board's efforts to reform city schools is relatively new.

Baltimore's school chief, Robert Booker, said, "I don't feel threatened by this at all." He said the state-city partnership is working well and he has confidence in the state's judgment.

The state has ruled out the option of running the schools itself, Grasmick said, because it has neither the experience nor personnel to do the job. But if the board is not satisfied with any contractors' proposals, it may consider closing a school or putting a school in a separate category that would allow the state to change the school's management.

Some eight outside contractors have held preliminary discussions with the state, including two local partnerships.

The Kennedy Krieger Institute, a local hospital for children with neurologic disorders, and the Erickson Foundation, a local education-oriented foundation, have said that they are interested in running an elementary school in East Baltimore. And the Woodbourne Group and College of Notre Dame may propose to run an elementary or middle school. The nonprofit, Woodbourne Group runs three newly created public schools in the city.

Another bid could come from the Edison Project, a for-profit company that uses a curriculum called Success for All, developed at the Johns Hopkins University. John E. Chubb, the education officer for the New York-based Edison Project, said his company has had success in raising student achievement in schools with a high percentage of disadvantaged children. The company manages 51 schools across the nation and has raised test scores on average 5 percentile points a year.

Some educators unconvinced

Some education scholars are questioning whether a contractor is likely to have any more success than the local school system, particularly given Baltimore's poor experience with Education Alternatives Inc., a company that took over several city schools in the mid-1990s.

"Outside intervention is needed, but I am not sure that there is any group out there that has a magic bullet, and in fact, I think that is suspect," said Jennifer Economos, a program officer at the Fund for Educational Excellence, a nonprofit group that is helping to reform more than a dozen city schools.

Grasmick acknowledged that few experiments in outside control have worked, and so the state board will act only if it has confidence in the contractor. She said EAI was not given authority to hire and fire teachers and did not attempt to change the curriculum.

If the state takes over a school, it would have the option to hire or fire teachers and a principal at salaries it deems appropriate because it would operate outside the contract with the teachers union. In addition, it would not have to use the city's curriculum or textbooks.

Matthew Joseph, director of public policy for Advocates for Children and Youth, a local group that has criticized the state for its failure to take further action to improve the schools on the failing list, saw yesterday's board action as a positive step.

"I think it is a serious and courageous action on the part of the state to do this," Joseph said. "I don't think we can guarantee success, but I think we can say we are obligated to take action." Ninety-seven schools on list

Nintey-seven schools on list The state school board instituted a method of accountability for schools in 1993 and began testing third-, fifth- and eighth-graders in every school with the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program. Schools with high failure rates were placed on a list of so-called "reconstitution eligible" schools. The state threatened to take over schools on the list that did not show improvement.

Baltimore's Patterson and Douglass High Schools, the first two on the list, have been there since 1994. Since then, 83 of the city's 180 schools have been added, as well as schools in Anne Arundel, Somerset and Prince George's counties; 97 schools are on the list.

Only those placed on the list from 1994 to 1996 which have not made progress would be considered for takeover, Grasmick said. That essentially eliminates all but city schools and puts the spotlight on five city schools that have been on the list the longest, as well as Van Bokkelen Elementary School in Anne Arundel County and Carter G. Woodson Middle School in Somerset County. But both the Anne Arundel and the Somerset schools have made progress in the past several years. Thirty-five other city schools could be in serious contention for the takeover.

Booker remains optimistic, he said, that many schools will show good results when the next round of test results is released.

Joseph said he believes the state must stop threatening schools with takeover unless it is serious about taking action.

"Any accountability system has to have a bottom line," Grasmick said.

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