Fresh hope for schools

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Baltimore schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland says a gnawing fear recently kept her awake at night - that Baltimore's children would not make academic gains in the just-completed school year.

She had good reason to be concerned.

A budget crisis had placed a severe strain on the city's schools. Classes were crowded and teachers overworked. Early in the year, hallways served as playgrounds for misbehaving students because paying hall monitors was deemed too great an expense. Buildings were dirty because there weren't enough custodians.

But when the results of the Maryland School Assessments - state tests taken in March by children in grades 3-8 - were released this month, they showed many city pupils had done well in spite of a whirlwind of distractions, improving in math and reading over last year.

More than 60 percent of Baltimore's third-graders passed reading and 56 percent passed math - an increase of 6 percent and 2 percent, respectively, over last year. Fifth-grade scores also went up, with 58 percent of pupils passing reading and 48 percent passing math.

"I was very surprised - pleasantly surprised - because I didn't think we would see any growth," Copeland said in an interview last week. "Against all odds, the children prevailed."

Despite that good news, Baltimore's school system remains the lowest-achieving district in Maryland.

The performance of middle-school pupils continues to lag dangerously. On the latest state tests, only about 39 percent of seventh- and eighth graders were proficient in reading - a 3 percent drop from last year.

As more than a third of the city's 180 schools languish on a state watch list because of years of low test scores, middle-class parents continue to flee the city when their children reach school age or choose private schools, leaving many schools underutilized.

But, as she ends her second full year as Baltimore's school chief, Copeland points to indicators of a brighter future.

The system is more financially stable than it was a year ago, when it had just embarked on a plan to recover from a $58 million budget deficit accumulated under Copeland's predecessor, Carmen V. Russo.

Through tight controls on spending and careful budgeting, the system has reduced its deficit by 60 percent and expects to end the fiscal year with a slight surplus. It will be able to buy new textbooks next school year and give teachers pay raises for the first time in three years, she said.

"I think there's a lot of hope," said Copeland, 55, who expects to sign a contract to remain the system's top official through 2008.

Although this school year was not nearly as chaotic as her first - during which the monumental task of reining in runaway spending consumed her - it was still a bumpy ride.

Cuts to the number of school police officers and hall monitors left hallways in many middle and high schools inadequately supervised. As some students took the empty hallways as an opportune spots to set fires and start brawls, fire engines and police cars became a routine sight outside schools.

Principals complained that they did not have enough custodians to keep their buildings clean and had trouble getting repairs performed.

There were external pressures, too. Education advocates took the school system to court over the budget cuts, arguing that reduced summer school and larger class sizes were detrimental to students' education. State officials, perceiving what management problems in Copeland's administration, kept a close, critical eye on the system.

With each successive crisis, Copeland learned to respond more nimbly and decisively.

To calm the violence in middle and high schools, Copeland dipped into reserve funds for $1.5 million to hire hall monitors and resource officers and to buy security equipment.

Unable to put more resources into maintaining school buildings, Copeland accepted an offer from Mayor Martin O'Malley this spring to allow city workers and managers to do work on school facilities. The mayor funneled an extra $3 million into city schools for that purpose.

"We were not maintaining our schools the way we should have been," Copeland said. "He volunteered."

Copeland says she caught some flak from the state - which along with the city has oversight over the Baltimore school system - for letting O'Malley increase his influence over the schools.

The mayor, who is expected to run for governor in 2006, has made education a major part of his agenda ever since the city bailed the system out of near insolvency with a $42 million loan. Last summer, he coordinated a massive volunteer campaign to clean up and repair city schools.

Most recently, O'Malley saw one of the rising stars in his administration, Eric Letsinger, the former deputy housing commissioner, appointed as the system's chief operating officer. Overseeing school facilities and police are among Letsinger's duties as one of the three highest-ranking administrators under Copeland.

Copeland says the criticism about the mayor's growing involvement doesn't bother her.

"All I care about is that our schools are clean and we have people replacing light bulbs," she said. "I don't care about whether it's political."

As she has learned to manage crises, Copeland also has tirelessly served as a cheerleader for the school system as she makes the rounds in business, philanthropic and political circles.

During the Assembly session, she was a frequent presence in Annapolis, talking to anyone who would listen about the system's regained financial stability. She wanted to persuade lawmakers that the system could again be trusted to wisely spend money, such as sorely needed state construction dollars.

"My role, I felt, was to try to restore that credibility," she said.

She also found time to visit a school or two each week. Those visits helped her evaluate whether the right principals were in the right schools and realize the urgent need for new textbooks and better teacher training - both planned for next year.

All that work took its toll; in January, Copeland was briefly hospitalized after complaining of chest pains and shortness of breath during a school board meeting. But her efforts paid off.

Since taking charge of the system in April 2003, she has won many friends in the local business and nonprofit community, many of whom give her free advice and shower schools with donations and volunteer time.

As a result of lobbying by Copeland and others, lawmakers increased the city's share of state construction money for the coming school year from $4 million to $21 million. And several national foundations and nonprofits have agreed to devote money and manpower to help Baltimore's schools.

"It's people of a national stature that are looking at the Baltimore City public schools as a place to invest," she said.

Many believe the kinder, gentler Copeland has been better for city schools than her more combative predecessors, and credit her with calming the system during its financial crisis.

But Copeland has critics, some of whom say she should be a more assertive leader, now that the crisis is over.

"I think she could be stronger," said Michael Hamilton, president of the Baltimore Council of PTAs. "While her style may have been great when this whole [financial] situation was at a critical stage, I think to move us forward ... she needs to change her style."

Copeland waves off questions about the impact she has had on the system, preferring to talk about some outstanding student or how much scholarship money high-school seniors brought in collectively this year ($35 million).

"I'm boring," said the soft-spoken Copeland, who tends to slip into rooms unnoticed.

When she's not talking about successes, she's discussing academic reforms planned for coming years, including an initiative intended to combat a trend of low achievement in traditional middle schools, which serve grades 6-8.

Officials are retooling middle-school math and curricula and planning "a heavy dose" of professional development for teachers, she said. And many of the city's two dozen traditional middle schools will have new deans assigned to support pupils' social and psychological needs.

"We can never lose sight of what goes on in the classroom," Copeland said. "We've got to redirect our focus to instruction. It's instruction, instruction, instruction."

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