ALONSO WOULD EXPAND SCHOOL CHOICE

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Baltimore would begin giving students a choice of where they attend middle school next fall under a plan expected to be presented to the city school board tonight.

City schools CEO Andres Alonso's proposal also calls for the closing or revamping of 12 schools, primarily middle schools, that are some of the lowest-performing in the city and often have declining enrollments.

In his latest move to restructure the district, Alonso is attempting to create more competition among schools and more opportunities for parents.

"Poor, urban parents should not be imprisoned by their geography and only have a choice of poor schools," Alonso said.

Under the plan, the city would see a small growth in its number of publicly funded charter schools, transformation schools that serve grades six through 12 and outside groups that take on significant roles in several schools.

If the plan survives scrutiny by the public and is approved by the school board in the next couple of months, fifth-graders in elementary schools would be given a choice of where they go to school next fall, rather than being assigned to a neighborhood school. Fifth-graders in schools with kindergarten through eighth grades would also get to move to a charter or new transformation school, but they would be given lower priority than the fifth-graders at an elementary-only school.

Alonso's proposal would keep the district moving in step with federal goals for turning around and closing the worst schools, which he believes might give the city a greater chance to cash in on federal stimulus money called Race to the Top, if the state receives that funding. The middle schools that would close under the proposal are Chinquapin, Diggs- Johnson, West Baltimore and Winston; however, other schools would move into most of those buildings.

The operators of Chesapeake Science Point Public Charter, a successful Anne Arundel science, technology and math charter school, would open a new school at Chinquapin. Diggs-Johnson's students would be able to go to an expanded Southwest Baltimore Charter school that would move into their building. Green Street Academy, a transformation school, would open in West Baltimore's building in 2011.

Alonso also would close Doris M. Johnson High School and allow a transformation school called REACH! to locate there. Bill Reinhard, a spokesman for state school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, said she supports Alonso's efforts and believes that offering parents more choices beyond the neighborhood schools is a good idea.

Over the past decade, the city has moved to give all eighth-graders a choice of where they go to high school. This reform included breaking up many of the city's large neighborhood high schools.

Proposals to close and change city schools have become an annual event. Each year since he was hired, Alonso has come before the board to ask for major changes in the structure and operation of schools. In the past two years, he has closed 12 schools, opened 14 new ones and used various means to improve about another dozen.

The school district began developing this plan by looking at the 60 worst-performing schools. These schools may have improved for a couple of years with particularly strong leaders but have been troubled generally by disruptive students and a decadelong history of poor academic achievement.

Alonso said his staff then narrowed the 60 down to 12 schools to be improved or closed. At least 15 others are being watched closely for possible changes or closure in the coming years, he said. "We can't close all the ineffective schools at once," Alonso said.

The 12 schools stand out not just because they have low test scores, but because their enrollments are declining. "Parents are smart, and if you have schools that aren't working, the enrollments go down," he said.

School districts around the nation have been searching for ways to improve their lowest-performing schools. National groups have suggested that some of the most widely used methods, including removing all the staff and starting over, have not proved very successful.

Seven schools would get makeovers under Alonso's plan, which will be discussed at public hearings at 5 p.m. Feb. 16 at school headquarters and Feb. 20 at Polytechnic Institute. The schools that would be affected are Calverton Elementary/Middle, Commodore John Rodgers Elementary/ Middle, Booker T. Washington Middle, Garrison Middle, William C. March Middle, Augusta Fells Savage High and Frederick Douglass High.

Alonso said he doesn't believe in using just one approach, such as closures, to turn around low-performing schools. Rather, he said, he wants to try several different approaches, including bringing in outside partners to operate schools and opening new transformation schools.

At Frederick Douglass, where the Johns Hopkins University's Talent Development model of high school reform has been started, Alonso is considering asking other outside groups to run the school. While Hopkins has made the high school better in the past couple of years, he said, there is more room for improvement.

The school district intends to establish Booker T. Washington as a performing arts school and increase the academic rigor. Those students, ideally, would be well enough trained to go to the Baltimore School for the Arts.

In the past couple of years, Alonso has opened many transformation schools. The school board recently approved four, including one that is set to open in 2012.

ACCE, an existing high school, will add a sixth through eighth grade and become a transformation school next school year. Laura Weeldreyer, city schools deputy chief of staff, said the approach is being used because many ninth-graders in the school system traditionally drop out. By combining a middle and high school, the district hopes to keep those students, she said.

If Alonso's latest proposals go through, about 25 percent of city schools would be either charters, transformation schools or new independently operated schools. "In the end, we will return to the neighborhood school, but not because we tell the parents to send their children there but because they choose to send" them, Alonso said.

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