Reconstituting hope for city's students


ON TUESDAY, the State Board of Education voted to take over three of Maryland's poorest-performing schools, none of which has shown significant improvement in the four to five years since being named eligible for reconstitution.

The move is guaranteed to elicit criticism -- ironically, from both sides.

Just one year ago,

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cf01 called for the state to get tougher on struggling schools and, more recently, questioned our reluctance to intervene earlier. In fact, reconstitution eligibility -- the mere possibility of state takeover -- has produced significant results. Cherry Hill, Park Heights and Pimlico elementary schools have improved their MSPAP scores, on average, nearly 23 percentage points since being named reconstitution-eligible. All but two of the 49 Baltimore schools threatened with state takeover three or more years ago have improved -- 16 by 10 points or more on Maryland's school performance index.

In some ways, however, the demand for immediate and immoderate intervention is a welcome proposition, for it was one unheard of six years ago when Maryland began the reconstitution process.

In the early days -- when many wanted accountability but not necessarily its implications -- even deeming a school eligible for state takeover drew fire from communities that believed education problems were theirs alone to solve.

Still other advocates say that takeover of the three Baltimore City schools is too tough or, at the least, premature. They say a 2-year-old partnership between Baltimore and the state intended to rejuvenate city schools hasn't been given enough time to work.

But it was, in fact, the state's acute understanding of reconstitution's advantages and limitations that gave rise to the partnership in the first place. In Baltimore -- nearly half of whose schools are under the threat of state takeover -- it's not simply a matter of reconstituting schools, but revamping a system. Because healthy schools returned to a toxic pond will become infected again, we must be confident, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that we have the infrastructure, support, and capacity to sustain improvement.

The city-state partnership is building that infrastructure. And last year, the state embarked on several initiatives to make it even stronger. We have secured more control in hiring decisions, especially the placement of principals; provided closer oversight in the design of school system and individual school improvement plans and more on-site technical assistance in their implementation; insisted on the use of research-based reform programs; and demanded from both the system and schools credible but ambitious achievement goals to serve as benchmarks. We believe that these provisions hold great promise for most Baltimore City schools.

So why intervene now in a few select schools when these provisions are in place to ultimately improve all of them? Because, quite simply, it is unconscionable not to. Because we cannot sacrifice any more children to a process that could take three more years to register substantial results.

Because time is working against the 1,500 students housed in three of our most troubled schools.

At Montebello Elementary last year, less than 2 percent of all third-graders met the state's MSPAP standard in math, science and social studies. Not one of Furman L. Templeton's fifth-graders met the state standard in reading. And just 1 percent of Gilmor's third-graders showed proficiency in science.

With Baltimore's MSPAP composite score hovering at a dismal 17 percent, these three schools slated for takeover fell far short of reaching half that mark.

There are other schools whose scores, attendance, and drop-out rates suggest a need for intervention. But in the name of impatience, we cannot sacrifice judiciousness. Concentrating our efforts on reconstituting a small number of schools -- a triage system of sorts -- will allow the state to alleviate the academic hemorrhage in some of the city's neediest schools and yet still maintain scrupulous oversight of a complex school improvement strategy.

Reconstitution -- turning schools over to private contractors freed from public policy that often breeds incremental change -- will allow for rapid, decisive action that will, we hope, effect similarly rapid improvement.

Reconstitution is not about assigning blame and sanctions. It is not capitulation -- throwing in the towel on a partnership we are still confident will bring about systemic change. Nor is it as draconian as its only viable alternative -- closing failing schools and reassigning staff and students.

While this was a difficult decision to make under the best of circumstances, we are grateful that Baltimore officials and administrators have eased the process by committing to a smooth transition to third-party management of these schools.

Reconstitution is, undoubtedly, an admission that reform hasn't worked as quickly as the children in these schools deserve. Yet it is an action prompted not by defeat, but by hope. We sincerely believe that all children can learn and that we are terribly remiss if we don't pursue every avenue to make it so.

Nancy S. Grasmick is state superintendent of schools.

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