Education Beat: City schools leadership moving to embrace choice

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By Mike Bowler

Barring another weather catastrophe, the city school board will vote this evening on the renewal of several charter school contracts. One school, Dr. Rayner Browne in East Baltimore, is likely to lose its contract for lack of performance. This doesn’t mean Rayner Browne will close. More likely, it will become a “regular” public school with a revamped curriculum and new leadership.

I attended the board meeting at which the contract renewals were announced and parents and staff from Browne and the other schools rallied. The meeting took on the atmosphere of a pep rally. At one point schools CEO Andres Alonso donned a City Springs School shirt and declared, “I love City Springs,” although he recommended only a two-year contract extension, not the five years sought by the school.

Much is at stake. Remaining a charter school means continuing to operate independently while on the public dole. It means running a “private” school without charging tuition. It means being free of the red tape that inevitably ties up big bureaucracies. It means the freedom to experiment, a very big thing. It means little things, too, like having the freedom to buy supplies without having to go through the North Avenue procurement office.

Alonso made no attempt to spare Rayner Browne’s feelings. “If a school is moving backwards while the rest of the system is propelling forward, you do not get a renewal,” he said. “…If I were moving backward, I’d be out of a job.” He added rather sternly that his recommendations would be influenced only by data and staff recommendations, not by the size or enthusiasm of demonstrations.

At another point in the evening Alonso noted that “this is not the same school system as the one where charters originated several years ago.”

He got that right! I stopped paying day-to-day attention when I retired as The Sun’s education editor in late 2004. There were a couple of well-established charters, four schools operated under contract with Edison Schools and several reformed high schools, now called “innovation schools.” (In the early 1990s, nine schools had been privatized for a few years to a Minnesota firm, Education Alternatives Inc. Rayner Browne was one of those “Tesseract” schools.)

In the five-plus years since my retirement -- 2 ½ under Alonso -- Baltimore has become a cornucopia of school choice.

There are now 28 charters operating in all kinds of environments with all kinds of hours and all kinds of community partners, from churches to universities. Coppin State actually runs one of them. Another, the high-performing Kipp Ujima Village Academy, is part of a national network and features nine-hour days. Still another is a Montessori school.

There are four innovation high schools, a dozen independently operated “transformation schools” for grades 6 through 12, and four schools under contract. (This is not to mention the iconic citywide magnets such as Poly and City, nor specialized high schools like the School for the Arts and Digital High.) That’s 48 schools in all, almost a quarter of the city’s 201.

And last month Alonso proposed abolishing middle school zones, opening these traditionally academically troubled schools to any city resident.

That’s a whole lot of choice.

What is even more remarkable is that this restructuring has occurred despite a state charter school law that can only be described as hostile.

Charters in Maryland, for example, can only be authorized by the very bureaucracies that traditionally oppose them. And charter schools aren’t eligible for capital funding. Unions don’t like charters. Same for most of the education establishment.

This is largely because in granting autonomy to these schools, public school officials and school boards by definition give up much of their own power. A long line of Baltimore superintendents and CEOs before Alonso paid lip service to giving schools autonomy, but none came anywhere near giving up what amounts to a public monopoly.

I spent an afternoon recently at City Neighbors Hamilton, one of three authorized City Neighbors charters in Northeast Baltimore. This one is in the old Hamilton Middle School, nee Hamilton Junior High. The original City Neighbors struggled for a couple of years to get its charter. Today it’s considered a model of what a successful charter can be.

With an enrollment half black and half white, the Hamilton school draws kids from all over Baltimore. It has the feel of a progressive private school, and that’s deliberate. “We wanted a private school-like setting,” said Bobbi Macdonald, founder of City Neighbors and principal of the Hamilton charter. “The middle class misses the public school system.” (City Neighbors will open a charter high school for 88 students in the Hamilton building next fall.)

David Stone, a member of the school board and staunch advocate of charters, agrees. “Around these schools the middle class conversation used to be which private school the kids will attend,” he said. “Now, and especially in this economy, it’s about which charter school.”

None of this is to say that all charter schools are good and all traditional schools bad. Far from it. There’s mixed evidence on the academic front. Alonso produces testing evidence that the least advantaged and lowest performing students are in the city’s traditional schools, particularly the zoned middle schools. On the other hand, just last week the U.S. Education Department released a study showing that charter students’ reading and math test score growth is lower than the growth of similar students in traditional public schools (but only marginally lower).

But choice is good. Choice fosters pride of ownership and competition, which is also good in a city so often down on itself. So good to hear the radio ads for Patterson Park Charter, which in effect has to sing for its educational supper or go out of business.

“It’s all about building a culture that values education,” said City Neighbors’ Macdonald, who conducts “charter starter” tours around the city, helping traditional school folks who want to convert. Charter starter business is brisk, she said.

Mike Bowler retired from the Baltimore Sun in 2004 after 34 years at the newspaper as a reporter and editor, much of it covering education. He wrote more than 900 of his “Education Beat” columns for The Sun.
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