- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 26, 2002

For public schools in Baltimore, 1997 was another disappointing year in a long succession of bad years. Low attendance was dispiriting, and children didn't seem to be learning much when they did show up. The average score on state-mandated tests hovered below 14 percent.
Maryland lawmakers, exasperated with the culture of failure, voted that year for the state to take over Baltimore's schools and turn them around. And now the state is making a similar attempt to rescue public schools in Prince George's County the second-worst-performing district after Baltimore.
Impatient with the rancorous battles between the county's elected school board and Superintendent Iris T. Metts, the General Assembly this year passed legislation to replace the board. A new board appointed by the governor and county executive is scheduled to take over on Saturday.
Prince George's County joins 40 other school districts nationwide that were placed under state control in the past 14 years, and changes are being considered in New York City, San Francisco and Kansas City, Mo. But such takeovers are far from a magic bullet, and school districts run by states have shown little improvement in most cases.
"We have not seen a dramatic turnaround in any of the school districts that were taken over," said Todd Ziebarth, a policy analyst for the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based group working to improve public education.
Twenty-four states have takeover laws, giving them the power to fix broken school districts. In Philadelphia, the city and the state legislature were embroiled in a high-profile struggle over school funding and reform that resulted in a state takeover late last year. Restructuring is supposed to begin in the fall.
In some instances, however, the state ends up exacerbating a local district's problems.
In Newark, N.J., state-appointed administrators incurred a $70 million deficit for the school system even as test scores dropped. The Jersey City school system, taken over in 1989, so far has showed little progress, and officials are considering returning control to the local level. In California, school districts such as Compton United have not shown any improvement in scores after several years under state control.
Some districts have fared better: In Boston and Chicago, a Harvard study found, scores of elementary students improved their performance under takeovers that placed the mayor in charge.
States have more success pulling school systems out of their financial mess than in raising student achievement, Mr. Ziebarth says. Still, a policy paper by his group concludes that state takeovers and reconstitutions are not a quick fix for troubled school districts.

Overhaul in Baltimore
Baltimore schools are a prime example of how a state takeover yields mixed results.
Maryland lawmakers led by Delegate Howard "Pete" Rawlings, Baltimore Democrat came up with a plan in 1997 to save the schools: The city's mayor-appointed school board would be replaced with appointees screened by the Maryland Department of Education and approved by the governor.
In the five years since the state took over, the average score on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAPs) rose from 13.9 percent to 22.5 percent last year.
A study by Westat, a Rockville-based research group, gave points to the new Baltimore board for raising achievement.
"We found they made progress," said Joy Frechtling, who directed Westat's Baltimore schools project. "They had a pretty low base to start with. They've still got a ways to go. They have made improvements, but they have not solved all the problems."
Indeed, despite gains on tests, scores remain more than 20 percent below the statewide average. Attendance rates show only a slight increase at best, statistics from the state Department of Education show.
And most of the city's poorest-performing schools have failed to be taken off the state's reconstitution-eligible list a watch list created by Maryland education officials in 1994 to identify struggling schools despite receiving an extra $100,000 a year.
Each year, public schools in Maryland that rate below the average State Performance Index which measures schools based on attendance and MSPAP test scores, among other things are placed on the list.
Schools that perform badly year after year may be taken over, but the state does not demand to see improvements by a set deadline.
Only four of the 85 Baltimore schools on the list have been taken off it.
In March, 11 schools that improved scores for three consecutive years were "upgraded," but were left on the list.
Officials this month took Beacon Heights Elementary in Prince George's County off the list after scores improved on this year's MSPAP tests.
In addition to the Baltimore city schools, the list includes 20 schools in Prince George's and one each in Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties.
Some have been on the list as long as eight years, and most have registered small or no improvements in scores.
By comparison, three Baltimore schools that were put under the management of the private, for-profit company Edison Schools Inc. two years ago showed significant improvement on state tests this spring.
Reginald Dunn, a member of the state Board of Education, says reconstitution "hasn't worked."
"If you look at the fact that only four schools have come off the list, I don't think we have made the kind of progress we envisioned," Mr. Dunn said.
The state school board is looking into whether specific deadlines of three or five years should be built into the process, he said, with state takeover the fate of any school that fails to hit benchmarks by the end of that period.
But other state board members, Walter Sondheim among them, say deadlines would not work for schools because needs and problems at individual schools are different. Mr. Sondheim said he believes reconstitution has helped.
"There is no sure way of saying where those schools would have been otherwise. There is enough evidence to show that something has been done," he said.
"It doesn't provide miraculous changes overnight; it takes a long time. I think we are better off for having created the list."

One success story
Five years was time enough for one Baltimore school City Springs Elementary, which was put on the list in 1997 and taken off in January. Principal Bernice Whelchel doesn't brook bad behavior, nor tolerate teachers who are unwilling to accept her methods.
"Over here, you have to do it the City Springs way," she said. "Any teachers who disagreed with the process we employed here were helped in finding jobs at other schools."
In a kindergarten classroom one weekday, students watch and listen as teacher Helen Berkeley reads from a book with words in large letters.
"We will now spell 'moat,'" she says, pausing to look around and make sure she's got everyone's attention. "Get ready," she warns.
The children then chant the letters correctly in unison as their teacher runs a finger along the word.
Being put on the reconstitution list "was a nightmare," said Mrs. Whelchel, the school's principal since 1995. "It was the most devastating thing to have that stigma that says you are not successful."
First-grade reading scores at City Springs, where more than 90 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, climbed from the low 20s to more than 80 last year.
Children, even the smallest ones, pepper sentences with "thank you" and "please."
Seven years ago, the principal said, it was a different story. She pointed to a classroom door that children almost broke down by kicking it.
"It was chaos," she said. "There used to be frequent, violent attacks between students and teachers."
But City Springs is the exception. While the school's scores increased steadily during five years on the state's list, most others have shown an uneven pattern of performance.
In Prince George's, for instance, scores at Seabrook Elementary and Nicholas Orem Middle School have dropped in their four years on the list, although Thomas S. Stone Elementary is showing dramatic improvement since going on the list on 1999.
In Baltimore, Patterson and Frederick Douglass high schools have been on the list eight years.
"We found conditions so severe here that it was very difficult. There were so many holes to plug," said Patricia Welch, president of the Baltimore city school board, who describes herself as a former skeptic who now is pleased with how the city-state partnership has worked out. "Students have improved in reading and math; we have had the highest degree of gains in MSPAP at the elementary school level, and we have restructured the financial side."
Appointed school boards generally get credit for their ability to pull school districts out of the red. In Baltimore, four of nine appointed members have business expertise.
"The new leadership has brought in more money and invested more in teacher development and new textbooks," teachers union president Sharon Blake said.
State-appointed boards usually receive more funds to improve failing school systems a carrot legislators offer to parents and educators who are reluctant to cede control.
In Prince George's, which has had a perennial shortage of funds, state lawmakers promised the county as much as an extra $28 million next year and more than $20 million extra each year through 2007. An additional $10 million was tied directly to replacing the elected board with an appointed one.
But some administrators say they feel cheated when underperforming schools get so much more funding. A Prince George's principal who did not want to be named said the state's watch list discourages staff at other schools.
"It leaves them feeling they have to fail to get more money for their schools," the principal said.

The racial angle
In Prince George's, some parents have condemned the takeover and replacement of an elected school board, arguing that the move overturned their voting rights.
"The lawmakers did not use democracy to find a solution to the problems in our schools," said Jan Hagey, coordinator of People's Report Card, a group that lobbied unsuccessfully to preserve an elected board.
State Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, Prince George's Democrat, said he sympathizes with voters but that something needed to be done about the confrontations between the nine board members and Mrs. Metts. "Their public battling has been an embarrassment for the whole county," he said.
Opponents of state involvement often say school takeovers are racially charged.
Nationwide, state takeovers have prompted lawsuits saying that they target predominantly minority school districts.
A survey of 21 school districts under state or mayoral control by Education Week magazine in 1998 found that all but three had predominantly minority enrollments, and most were at least 80 percent nonwhite.
"I think that takeovers are sometimes viewed in racial terms, usually when white governors and legislators pass legislation to take over districts with a large number of minority students," Mr. Ziebarth said. But he pointed to Maryland and Pennsylvania as places where black leaders were among the most vocal in calling for change.
In Prince George's and earlier in Baltimore, Mr. Rawlings was among black legislators leading the charge for state takeover.
"A few African Americans participated in it, and that made it OK," Edythe Flemings Hall, president of the Prince George's chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said dismissively.

'No guarantees'
On Saturday, an appointed school board is scheduled to take over for the elected board in Prince George's. A chief executive officer or interim administrator will replace the superintendent, although Mrs. Metts is a candidate for the job.
Gov. Parris N. Glendening and County Executive Wayne K. Curry, both Democrats, will select the nine appointees to the board. The new board will be in place until 2006, when an elected board will take control again.
Management of the county's schools nearly came to a standstill in early February when board members fired Mrs. Metts, whom they had hired in 1999. The state Board of Education reinstated her.
Critics point to the outgoing Prince George's school board as an indication of trouble to come: Three members Bernard Phifer of Hillcrest Heights, Kenneth Johnson of Mitchellville and Felicia Lasley of District Heights were appointed by Mr. Curry to fill vacancies.
"They obviously don't have a good track record on appointed members," parent activist Donna Beck said.
Lawmakers express confidence that qualified members will be appointed. Appointees, Mr. Pinsky argued, "come without political agendas and are not concerned about running for the next office."
Despite the uncertainties, the state senator added, change is necessary so the school system can move on.
"Is an appointed board the answer? I don't know," Mr. Pinsky said. "There are no guarantees. But too many people have destroyed our confidence in this board. We have tried to do what's best for increasing accountability and improving our schools."


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