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Reform on a shoestring; City lacks resources to bring weak schools up to state standards


When the state threatened that it might take over just one failing Anne Arundel County elementary school 3 1/2 years ago, the reaction was immediate.

A top-notch principal was assigned to the school. All teachers were forced to reapply for their jobs.

And barely a day went by without someone from the system's central office offering training or other help.

But when the state sounded the same alarm over the past five years for 83 of Baltimore's 182 schools -- threatening to take over or close schools that don't improve, in a process known as "reconstitution" -- the city didn't respond in the same way.

The city lacked enough top-notch principals and teachers to carry out wholesale staffing changes at the 83 troubled schools.

It lacked the money to reduce class sizes.

And it lacked the ability to offer much more training to hundreds of teachers.

"It was never envisioned that reconstitution would encompass this magnitude of schools in a single system," says state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.

So with Maryland's five-year effort to fix its worst schools now entering its endgame, the ultimate sanction -- state takeover -- is rapidly approaching for a handful of schools, particularly in Baltimore.

With some of the 97 "reconstitution-eligible" schools in Maryland showing almost no improvement in four years and seven in Baltimore performing worse, the state is preparing to take over or shut down perhaps as many as five or six schools by the end of this school year.

"We always knew it would come to this," says Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, the Baltimore Democrat who has been a legislative leader in the state's school reform effort.

"But I also think we've never budgeted quite enough for all of these schools to have a chance to get better."

Since 1994, the state school board has identified 83 failing schools in Baltimore, 12 in Prince George's County and one each in Anne Arundel and Somerset counties, based on their low state test scores and attendance rates.

When the state labeled the schools eligible for reconstitution, it gave them supervision, some training and a little more money. For some schools -- though not many -- it has been enough.

But the state has little power to affect the quality of principals or teachers, nor has it been willing to follow the lead of such states as New Jersey and order all failing schools to adopt such proven schoolwide programs as Success for All -- adhering to the long-standing principle of respecting local control of schools.

Nevertheless, the state has been demanding for several years that these schools improve. It gives each as much as $100,000 to spend on such things as more staff to teach reading and reducing fourth- and fifth-grade class sizes.

Also, the schools and their school districts have been required to submit improvement plans regularly for the state board's approval. State monitors -- often retired principals -- have been visiting at least once a week.

But the rest of the responsibility -- and decision-making -- is left to the schools and school districts.

Faced with too little improvement, the state board began soliciting bids last month from private companies and nonprofit organizations that might assume control of some of these schools.

Grasmick doesn't view that as a failure for the schools, the school systems or the state. She says she anticipated that some schools might need more radical repairs and that it would be "unconscionable" to let them continue.

"I don't consider the likelihood that we will step in on a few schools to mean that this is a failure," she says. "I consider it another part of the process."

The process appears to have been easier for the Anne Arundel, Somerset and Prince George's school systems than Baltimore's because they have a relatively small number of failing schools. And the initial results in those counties have been more encouraging.

"The schools that the state has identified are the same ones that we had identified as being concerns, and we're encouraged by the results we see so far," says Alvin Thornton, chairman of the Prince George's County school board, who is about to become chairman of a statewide education funding task force.

"But I think there is more the state could be doing to help those schools -- smaller class sizes, better physical facilities, equitable compensation for teachers."

'A lot of attention'

At Anne Arundel's Van Bokkelen Elementary, the school superintendent assigned one of her top principals to the job and treated the school like a new facility. All teachers were required to reapply for their jobs, and 26 of 30 ended up transferring to other schools.

"This was new for Anne Arundel County, so there was a lot of attention and help paid to the school," says Rose M. Tasker, Van Bokkelen's principal.

Last month, Van Bokkelen won an award of $33,430 from the state for making significant improvements on its test scores and attendance for two years in a row.

Now, Tasker hopes the state will soon take her school off its list -- and Grasmick suggests that some schools might earn that promotion as others are being taken over or closed.

While such gains have also occurred in some of Baltimore's low-performing schools, many have failed to improve. Of the 34 city elementary and middle schools identified as reconstitution-eligible in 1995 and 1996, only 11 have increased 5 percentage points or more on the state's test score index.

Legislators and educators who created the state's school reform efforts never expected that more than a couple of dozen schools in any district might be on the failing list. But in Baltimore, the label has been attached to almost half the city's schools -- effectively preventing such highly targeted improvement efforts as Anne Arundel's.

"It turned out to be extremely revealing about the conditions of the Baltimore City public schools," Grasmick says. "That system was in a free fall."

The huge number of failing schools in Baltimore played a large role in propelling the 1997 landmark partnership between the city and state, which led to more state aid for the city schools and a change in their leadership.

But Grasmick acknowledges that it's almost impossible for Baltimore to give the same level of extra attention to their reconstitution-eligible schools as occurred in Anne Arundel and Somerset -- though she emphasizes that Baltimore's new schools administration is making a better effort than had been made before.

Some methods don't apply

The city has so many reconstitution-eligible schools that it can't force the teachers at all of them to reapply for their jobs -- though it did at one high school. Nor are there enough top-flight principals to ensure one for every failing school.

While the new city schools administration has given reconstitution-eligible schools the first crack at hiring certified teachers, such schools often struggle to hold onto teachers.

At Northwest Baltimore's Pimlico Elementary School -- where test scores have improved significantly since it was named eligible for reconstitution in 1996 -- a fourth-grade classroom has been vacant since a teacher quit after one day of classes.

Two other teachers were promoted during the first month of school, creating vacancies that were hard to fill.

"It's incredibly hard to turn around a school, because you have to turn around the attitudes of the parents, students, teachers and entire community," says Pimlico Principal Sarah Horsey.

To inspire and teach her newer teachers, Horsey spent a week this fall teaching reading in one of her third-grade classes, showing her staff how to budget their time to ensure they teach all the components of the city's new reading program.

"I've never heard of another principal doing that every day for a week," says Tamara Hanson, a new teacher at Pimlico.

Unrealistic goals

For many of the low-performing Baltimore schools, a persistent criticism has been that they have set unrealistic goals without specific plans for reform.

"The state should have forced schools to adopt from a selected menu of programs that are proven to work," says Matthew H. Joseph, public policy director of Advocates for Children and Youth, a nonprofit organization that closely follows the city's education reform effort.

That was the choice given last year to 19 of Baltimore's lowest-performing elementary schools by the area executive officer who oversees them, Jeffery N. Grotsky. He told them to pick either Success for All or Achievement First -- two whole-school reform programs -- and to offer summer school for second- and fourth-graders.

"This was what needed to be done for these schools," Grotsky says. But the former schools superintendent of Harford County and Grands Rapid, Mich., is quick to say that such a choice shouldn't be automatically given by the state to reconstitution-eligible schools.

"There's the line of local control and what the state can tell you to do without taking over," he said. "You only want the state going so far."

Pub Date: 10/08/99

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