Chief draws help to schools

One of city schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland's favorite sayings is that it takes a village to raise a child.

Since Copeland took over the financially troubled school system nearly two years ago, she has persuaded many of Baltimore's business and community leaders to adopt that well-known African proverb as their mantra, too.


The number of donors of supplies and services to the city schools has surged during Copeland's tenure. Her office has recorded at least 100 new or revived partnerships, including some with companies based outside of Maryland.

There are several likely reasons for the upward trend, including publicity surrounding the system's financial troubles, a recent campaign by Mayor Martin O'Malley to enlist volunteers to work in schools and - perhaps most significantly - Copeland's long-standing relationships with influential civic and business leaders.


Unlike the series of out-of-town educators who swept into Baltimore to take on the system's top job and left after a couple of years, Copeland is seen as a hometown pick committed to the city, say many in the education and business community.

"I think Bonnie does bring with her enormous credibility because she is local, and people know her and love her," said C. William Struever, a former school board member whose development company has renovated schools for free.

Besides the unofficial count kept by Copeland's staff, the mayor's office said more than 150 companies, community groups and government agencies pitched in last summer to renovate and freshen up schools across Baltimore. The list included expected names - the Abell Foundation, Morgan State University - and some less expected ones, such as Taco Fiesta restaurant and Harview Roofing Co.

"There's a completely different atmosphere of collaboration that I think is a very healthy sign for Baltimore public schools," said Lisa Akchin, a public relations expert at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and an informal adviser to Copeland.

Deb Silcox, who oversees community partnerships for the system, said she fields calls every day from individuals or groups offering assistance, many of whom say they have heard about the system's financial troubles.

A Los Angeles-based publisher offered to forgive a payment of $2,200 for sheet music ordered by the system. Herbert B. Mittenthal, a real estate developer in Owings Mills, donated $10,000 to his alma mater, Arlington Elementary School. "I was looking for a place to put it that would not regularly get a boost like this," Mittenthal said.

And when it came time for the Rotary Club of Baltimore to choose a service project to commemorate Rotary International's centennial this year, its members decided to build a reading room at Cherry Hill Elementary.

"As we looked around, we saw there was plenty to be done in the school system because of their financial situation," said Danny Bands, the club's president.


Silcox said she is putting together a brochure that will describe what it means to "adopt" a school, an expression that she says organizations use too freely, even when they just drop off a one-time load of school supplies.

She said the central administration needs to increase its oversight of philanthropic giving to make sure schools don't get left out. Schools near downtown or other busy areas generally get the most attention, while other schools - in East Baltimore, for example - get few donors, she said.

The mayor's school renovation initiative, Believe in Our Schools, has been another cause of the rise in partnerships. Not only did it marshal more than 5,700 volunteers to paint and scrub city schools this summer, but it also resulted in people making long-term commitments to individual schools.

Employees of CitiFinancial Corp. stayed involved even after the summer campaign ended. "We still have people out in the schools, doing stuff on weekends," said Pat Robbins, the company's community relations director.

A few regular donors such as CitiFinancial have stepped up contributions since the financial crisis. The company spent more than $700,000 on scholarships, volunteer time and computer donations in 2004, twice the amount it spent on schools in previous years.

Other organizations and individuals have become involved because of Copeland, an Ohio native who planted roots in this region's education community in the late 1970s.


A former administrator with the Baltimore County schools and at the State Department of Education, she later served on the Baltimore City school board and headed the Fund for Educational Excellence, a nonprofit dedicated to education reform in the city.

The city's previous three schools chiefs - Robert E. Schiller, Robert Booker and Carmen V. Russo - came to Baltimore without having previously worked here.

A number of examples illustrate the benefits of Copeland's local roots.

Because she knows Betty Ferguson, a Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. executive, from the days when both women were involved with the Fund for Educational Excellence, the school system is in talks with BGE to develop a student-training program.

During last winter's employee layoffs, Copeland and her chief financial officer, Rose Piedmont, contacted their old friend, J. Michael Riley, who manages M&T; Bank's philanthropic activities. Riley helped them design e-mail updates that went out to all employees, Copeland said.

As the former vice president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, Copeland has drawn support from that group of business and civic leaders, particularly fellow alumni of the committee's elite Leadership program.


About 30 Leadership alumni with public relations and marketing expertise, including Akchin, are volunteering their time to help Copeland improve the administration's image. Some are developing a positive "brand" for the city schools, and others are working on a punchy community newsletter.

Leadership alumni also organized a lavish appreciation event for teachers and other staff at the Maryland Science Center before the start of the school year.

"All the things [Copeland] has done were a perfect lead-in because she formed working relationships with all kinds of constituencies in town," Struever said. "They all came away knowing you might disagree with Bonnie, but you knew the only agenda for her was the children. It's just such a powerful credibility for her."

Copeland said she makes the most of her previous ties and also spends time cultivating new ones. At least two nights a week and every other weekend, she attends events to inform groups about the city schools and generate good will.

She recognizes that the school system has not traditionally been so open to business and community partners, and she wants that to be a thing of the past. Said Copeland: "They are very much a part of the future of the school system."

Donated items


A sample of goods and services donated to the school system this year:

Alfred Publishing Co. (Los Angeles): $2,200 in sheet music

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.: developing a student-training program

C. Eric Stewart, son of a retired teacher: $10,000 in supplies and equipment for Eutaw-Marshburn Elementary

CitiFinancial Corp.: 1,000 computers; school volunteers

Charming Shoppes Inc. (near Philadelphia): 1,000 winter coats


Coppin State University: mentoring 15 students at William H. Lemmel Middle

Herbert B. Mittenthaul, a former pupil: $10,000 for Arlington Elementary

Legg Mason Inc.: mentors; a computer lab for William H. Lemmel Middle

Maryland Office Interiors Inc.: office furniture for Edmonson-Westside High

Maryland Port Administration: developing a curriculum for the Maritime Industries Academy

Rotary Club of Baltimore: dictionaries for every third-grade pupil; a reading room at Cherry Hill Elementary


Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse Inc.: new windows and renovations in several schools

Source: Baltimore public schools

For the record

A listing of donations accompanying an article in Monday's editions of The Sun about philanthropic giving to the city schools incorrectly spelled the name of Herbert B. Mittenthal.The Sun regrets the errors.