Schools in spotlight

The Baltimore Sun

State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick will allow three Baltimore elementary schools run by a corporation to return to city school system oversight next summer rather than risk another battle over state control with the Maryland General Assembly.

Grasmick unexpectedly revealed her new position during a pep rally yesterday at one of the schools run by the company, Edison Schools Inc. She urged parents and teachers at Montebello Elementary School to lobby the city school board to renew Edison's expiring contract, claiming the state lacks the authority to negotiate a new deal.

Grasmick was joined yesterday at Montebello Elementary School's auditorium by first lady Kendel Ehrlich. The two praised the efforts of Edison, its teachers and the parents, grandparents and students at the school.

"I'm here to cheer for you today," Grasmick said. "These Edison schools are still outpacing other schools. Maryland is proud to be a partner with the Edison Schools."

Montebello, Furman L. Templeton and Gilmor elementaries were taken over by the state in 2000 under a Maryland law that allowed Grasmick to step in after repeated years of low performance.

The Maryland State Board of Education immediately signed a contract with Edison Schools, a for-profit company that runs hundreds of schools across the nation, to operate the schools, but that contract expires in June.

Montebello has made significant progress since it was taken over and now meets federal and state standards for progress.

But the other two schools have posted mixed results. Templeton has made some progress in 2004 and 2005 but did not meet state standards in 2006. Gilmor continues to be listed in a category of the lowest-performing schools in the state.

While Grasmick could not maintain the state's takeover of Montebello or Templeton because of their improvement, she clearly has authority to continue controlling Gilmor. But she has recently decided not to because of actions by the state legislature, according to a state schools spokesman William Reinhardt.

Earlier this year, the General Assembly - with Mayor Martin O'Malley's support - stepped in to put a yearlong moratorium on Grasmick's attempts to directly take over four city high schools and to require the city to put seven middle schools in the hands of a third party.

If she moved to continue the control over Gilmor, "it is clear the General Assembly might try to intervene," Reinhardt said.

Grasmick confused city officials yesterday after she took the microphone at the Montebello pep rally and told the crowd that the decision to continue with Edison rests with the Baltimore City school board - not with her.

"When we did this, which was a bold move, in 1999/2000, the state had the authority to do it," Grasmick said. "We no longer have that authority to do it. The city school board is the one who must do it now."

Grasmick said after the pep rally that she was not happy that the O'Malley campaign has attempted to portray the Edison schools as a failure. A radio commercial by O'Malley's campaign states that "Ehrlich's administration paid millions to a for-profit corporation to run three city schools. And, now, test scores in those schools are down."

"We don't like the ads," Grasmick said. "This contract wasn't even signed under this current governor [Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.]. It was signed under [former Gov.] Parris N. Glendening. We want people to know that it was in the best interest of these children. I'm saying let's look at the facts."

While the three Edison schools generally saw rising test scores for two years - and Montebello remains above citywide averages - last year the state reported a significant drop at the other two.

Scores at Templeton and Gilmor dropped at least 10 percentage points in most grades, falling below the citywide averages in nearly all grades in both math and reading.

The two schools also ranked in the bottom 25 of the city's 114 elementary schools, according to a Sun analysis of Maryland School Assessments from 2006.

It is difficult to assess how far each school improved because the state changed the test it administers after No Child Left Behind took effect in 2002.

"Given that the first Edison contract was not signed until late March, this looks like an attempt by Nancy Grasmick to scare people before Election Day," O'Malley spokesman Steve Kearney said. "Regardless of any excuses, the truth is she has the authority to take over these schools. Her problem is convincing people she is capable of improving schools once she's taken them over."

At the time the state first stepped in to take control of the three schools, the move was heralded as an experiment in privatization that might turn around struggling schools.

The move angered city school board members, but they did not try to block it.

Over the years, Edison has gotten both praise and criticism. Last year the Abell Foundation released a report that was critical of the state contract, which allows Edison to keep $5.6 million as revenue.

Although the state contracted with Edison, the city school system pays the bill for the schools. Edison charges the city about $9,000 per student. The city school system spends about $12,000 per student, but that includes administrative costs that individual schools don't have, according to city officials.

Earlier this summer, state officials said they had not decided what the future of the three Edison schools would be but said there are options that could be considered.

"This is really up to Dr. Grasmick," Kearney said. "Months from now, when the state board considers renewing Edison's contract, she will need to demonstrate that parents, teachers and students are better off with a for-profit company taking out nearly $6 million annually in profits and overhead from only three schools, as their test scores decline - rather than, for example, a charter school where all resources would go to education. She hasn't started to make that case yet."

City school system officials did not comment on Grasmick's announcement, but other city officials said they thought it was up to the state to renew Edison's contract, not the city school board.

City Council President Sheila Dixon said she supports extending Edison's contract. She said she has met with the company's representatives and that it is not fair to judge the firm for one year's dip in test scores when it has shown improvements since taking over.

Grasmick and the first lady both said that their joint appearance yesterday has nothing to do with politics. Instead, they said they were there to simply trumpet Montebello's success on state tests and to remind people that the city school system needs all the help it can get.

"No matter what I do on a daily basis now, people may say that it has political ramifications, but that's nonsense," Kendel Ehrlich said. "This is about celebrating a very successful school."

Grasmick said the parents and grandparents' testimonials yesterday about Edison's success prove that the company should be allowed to continue.

"I don't feel any pressure at all related to the election," Grasmick said. "My job is to ensure that every child ... receives a quality education."

A name was incorrect in the caption on yesterday's Maryland front page for the photo of children exercising at Montebello Elementary School. The girl in the foreground doing jumping jacks is Solaan Lee, 7. The children in the background are unidentified.THE SUN REGRETS THE ERROR.
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