Bowing to mounting public pressure and the threat of litigation, the Baltimore school system reversed course yesterday and notified about 150 teaching assistants that they will not be transferred to different schools next week as scheduled.
The only employees who will change jobs Monday are 40 qualified school aides who had not been working in classrooms. Those aides have agreed to be transferred into classroom assignments at Title 1 schools, which enroll high-poverty student populations.
But as qualified teaching assistants celebrated yesterday that they will get to stay where they are, the fate of 75 assistants who are not considered qualified under the federal No Child Left Behind Act remained unclear. Also uncertain was whether the school system is jeopardizing federal funding as a result of its decision.
No Child Left Behind required all teaching assistants in Title 1 schools to be "highly qualified" by June last year, a mandate that school systems have known about since January 2002. To be considered highly qualified, an assistant must have an associate's degree or pass a state test.
System officials said yesterday that by Feb. 1 they will individually review situations of the 75 assistants in Title 1 schools who still don't meet that criteria.
The system released a statement saying those assistants "may qualify for other employment opportunities" in city schools. However, officials did not rule out the possibility of layoffs at the end of the school year.
"If they either do not meet the minimum requirements by the end of the year or we have no other positions for them, then obviously they would face possible termination," said Gary Thrift, the system's human resources officer. "That is not our objective. Our objective is to try to maintain the work force and find suitable locations for them."
Thrift said the system believes it can recruit and hire enough qualified assistants to fill the jobs of the unqualified assistants. Previously, the system planned to fill those jobs by transferring qualified assistants from other schools, some of them in wealthier areas.
Those schools rejoiced yesterday at the news that they'll get to keep their staff intact.
City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke brought balloons to a news conference at Mount Washington Elementary School that was originally meant to be a protest.
"I'm just busy being happy," said Clarke, whose granddaughter is in a prekindergarten class that was going to lose its assistant.
Roxanne Harrison, a qualified assistant who has worked in a variety of positions at Morrell Park Elementary/Middle School since 1979, rushed to tell the children in her kindergarten class that she doesn't have to leave them.
"My kids screamed," she said. "I said, 'Tomorrow, we party. I'm bringing in a cake.'"
Charter school operators, who were bracing for a potential legal battle, were particularly relieved by the development.
As public schools that operate independently, charter schools have contracts with the city school board that give them autonomy to select their employees. Operators said the system was violating their contracts by taking away their qualified assistants and replacing them with unqualified ones.
Bobbi Macdonald, president of the board that governs City Neighbors Charter School, said the system's reversal shows how the charter movement has helped force officials to listen to parents, teachers and students.
"We have a great unifying purpose, and our voice is getting stronger," Macdonald said.
This week, system officials had said they would jeopardize millions of dollars in funding for their Title 1 schools if they did not immediately come into compliance with the highly qualified provision of No Child Left Behind. And state officials said the city could not get an extension from the federal government.
William Reinhard, a spokesman for the Maryland State Department of Education, said yesterday that he was mistaken: that state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick can in fact ask the federal government to give Baltimore an extension. He said last night that she plans to do so.
"She has indicated her willingness to help," Reinhard said.
Some education advocates questioned whether it's necessary for the school system to be in full compliance with the No Child Left Behind provision, as long as it is showing substantial progress. Two years ago, only a third of teaching assistants in Title 1 schools were highly qualified. Last year, two-thirds were. This year, according to Thrift, the figure is 80 percent.
Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Baltimore-based Abell Foundation, said there could only be sanctions against the school system if it weren't showing significant progress toward compliance. And, he said, the system had to outline how it planned to achieve compliance in a master plan submitted to the state. That plan, which was approved by the school board, mentioned nothing about transfers.
To change the master plan, Embry said, system administrators would need school board approval. But the board did not sign off on the transfers.
"Somebody made the decision to do this without any notice to the school board or the principals in spite of the fact that the master plan hadn't said anything about transferring," Embry said.
The issue over the unqualified teaching assistants has prompted concern about how the system will handle No Child Left Behind's next major deadline: By June of this year, classroom teachers at all schools must be highly qualified - certified with subject-area expertise.
Last school year, 47 percent of classes in city schools were being taught by highly qualified teachers. This year, officials estimate that number has increased to about 60 percent.
"It's a much bigger issue," Embry said. "What's the school system going to do there?"