In a high-profile effort designed to speed the pace of reform, Baltimore's public education chief has taken charge of 10 poorly performing schools with the hope of turning them into an "educational paradise."
Extra resources - from reading teachers to mentors for principals - are being poured into the six elementary, one combined elementary-middle and three middle schools, where reading and math scores are among the lowest in the city.
The goal is ambitious: to improve them so much that the state will take them off its list of failures after only 3 1/2 years.
"I think it's a little risk-taking, but I think it's entertainable," said Carmen V. Russo, chief executive officer for the system of 98,000 students. "I hope our CEO's district looks like some educational paradise for children, with a richness of books and materials and teachers who know how to get kids engaged."
The unusual arrangement - Russo will directly oversee the schools' progress - is intended also to be a showcase for what the chief executive says the school system can do with additional money. "You do need unequal resources for unequal needs," she said.
Funding is a critical issue as the system enters its fifth year of a comprehensive, multimillion-dollar reform drive heavily subsidized by the state. Elementary children have made substantial gains in reading and math, and Baltimore school officials hope the state will help fund similar progress in the city's troubled middle and high schools.
The governor and state lawmakers are preparing to consider major increases in education funding in next year's General Assembly session, after the release of recommendations this fall by a state-appointed task force studying inequities in school financing.
The CEO's district is being modeled after New York's "Chancellor's District," a reform project launched five years ago that has had considerable success in raising test scores. That district has been referred to as a "hospital ward" where failing schools are nursed back to health.
Locally, the schools in the special district will spend $4,600 per pupil, compared with $3,800 in schools outside the district, said Chief Operating Officer Mark Smolarz.
The 21 percent increase results mostly from a 50-minute-longer school day, all-day kindergarten in the elementary schools, and increased staffing and professional development across the board.
All of the CEO's schools will use a reform program called Achievement First, which emphasizes reading instruction, in-classroom teacher training and support for principals.
"Hopefully, with smarter principals and smarter teachers, we ought to see some smarter children," said Bernice Pinkney-Alston, Achievement First's director.
The Achievement First model, developed by the local nonprofit Fund for Educational Excellence, has been effective. The two dozen schools that used it last academic year met or exceeded the city average on national reading and math tests in all grades except first.
Nearly 50 of the city's more than 170 schools will use the model when classes resume next month.
State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick approached Russo last year with the idea of creating a special district for fast-track reform of some of the city's worst-performing schools.
Russo was eager to devise a plan; the likely alternative was to have the state seize control of more schools, as was the case last year with three failing elementaries now being run by the private Edison Schools.
The issue, though, wasn't just to make more schools better. It was to make them better faster.
"Everybody's making progress for the most part, but the increments are so small," said Russo, referring to citywide increases on the most recent Maryland School Performance Assessment Program exams.
Six of the 10 schools in the new district - Bay-Brook, Harlem Park, Thomas G. Hayes and Waverly elementaries and Lombard and West Baltimore middle schools - were added this year to the state's list of failures, which includes more than half of all city schools.
The rest - Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and William Paca elementaries, Diggs-Johnson Middle and Westport Elementary-Middle - were already eligible for takeover.
Westport will be managed by a private for-profit company, but the state education board allowed Russo to choose which one - New York's Victory Schools - and to oversee the reforms.
Russo, who unveiled plans for the new district in January, refers to it as a "demonstration site" rather than as an experiment. The more than 6,000 children in it aren't guinea pigs, she said, because the reforms being implemented have been tested - some in other city schools.
"Everything here is proven that it works, and it does extremely well for these children," she explained.
The difference is degree.
"It's just very concentrated and focused at very high levels" in the new district, she said.
In a way, the schools in the CEO's district are starting from scratch. The entire staff at each had to reapply for their positions. About half the employees are new.
The principals are among the system's "best and brightest," she said. A few are veterans, while others are recent graduates of the school system's principal internship program, a new on-the-job training initiative designed to produce quality leaders from within.
Besides the extra resources and added time for professional development, one plus to working in the CEO's district is financial: Teachers are being offered pay incentives tied to student achievement.
"As a team in a school, if you all work together and your school hits this benchmark, you're all going to get this [bonus]," said Russo.
Patricia L. Welch, school board chairwoman, said the CEO's district was a chance to demonstrate that the school system knows what it takes to succeed.