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Grants Help Baltimore Schools Aim High
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Determined to expand reform efforts from elementary schools to middle and high schools, Baltimore City School District officials worked on a plan and then looked for support. Their efforts attracted $20 million in contributions from local and national organizations to reorganize the city's high school system. Included: Descriptions of high school reform efforts in Baltimore.

Armed with blueprints for change and $20 million in grants, Baltimore (Maryland) City Public School officials are aiming to transform their high schools into smaller, better-performing learning communities over the next five years.

Baltimore's plans won support from both national and local foundations. In addition to $12 million pledged by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, another $8 million plus is coming from six local organizations. The money actually is allocated to the Fund for Educational Excellence, a Baltimore non-profit organization in charge of overseeing the improvements and disbursing the money.

None of the money will be used for capital improvements or construction. The grants are slated for professional development, teacher recruitment, and educational materials. State and city funds will cover building renovations.

"Symbolically, this is a sign that everyone is willing to roll up their sleeves and work together," says Diana Morris, director of the Open Society Institute-Baltimore, one of the local donors. "I think people just finally realized this [conditions in the high schools] could not go on. We are going to change every high school in Baltimore."


The goal of the initiative is to reorganize Baltimore's nine neighborhood high schools into smaller learning communities and open six or eight small "innovation" high schools, some with themes.

"It's clearly daunting; there is a lot to be done," says Bonnie Copeland, president of the Fund for Educational Excellence. "There is a great need in Baltimore to have all the high schools reorganized. But I think all the major players are at the table, and we are very optimistic."

Reform aims include having a maximum enrollment of 1,000 students at each high school and providing the same level of education at every school, according to Carmen V. Russo, chief executive officer of the Baltimore City School District.

The city has 18 high schools; three vocational schools, six selective schools that students must qualify for based on academic average and other criteria, and nine neighborhood high schools. The neighborhood high schools serve the more than 50 percent of the city's students who do not qualify for one of the six selective schools or attend a vocational school.

The neighborhood schools have the largest enrollments, poorest students, and lowest achievement scores, according to district administrators. Enrollment in neighborhood schools is between 1,500 and 2,000 each, compared to 300 to 1,000 at the selective high schools. Sixty-five percent of students entering ninth grade in neighborhood schools fail to graduate within four years.

"We want to prepare all kids to go to college or work," Russo says. In addition to her other goals, Russo adds, at the end of five years, she would like to see

  • more personalized high schools, with nurturing environments.
  • access to rigorous academic courses in all high schools.
  • the very best teachers and principals leading the schools.


School officials began seeking support from national and local foundations for high school reforms in 2001. In 2000, the Open Society Institute provided $229,000 to begin planning high school reform.

Several months ago, a Baltimore administrator attending a conference talked about plans for its high schools with a representative of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The representative seemed interested, Russo tells Education World. "For some reason, Baltimore had not been on the radar screen for national foundations," she says.

Several aspects of Baltimore's plans fit in with the Gates Foundation ideals, says Julie Moriarty, a spokeswoman for the Seattle-based foundation. "It appealed to us because Carmen Russo is taking the school district in the right direction, and they are on their way to creating high schools in which all students can achieve," Moriarty tells Education World. "We are also very supportive of smaller schools. [Baltimore school officials] have done a lot of good work at the elementary level, and they are on their way at the high school level."

The school system began revamping its elementary schools in 1984, under the leadership of the Fund for Educational Excellence. The fund was established by the city's mayor, out of concern for low performance by city students. Although the current initiative is aimed at high schools, the district is working on improvements in its middle schools as well, Russo says.


The first high school reorganization is scheduled for completion by September. Southern High School, a neighborhood school, is slated to be reborn as a technology high school divided into four academies, each focusing on a different aspect of technology, Russo explains.

Southern High School will still serve mainly neighborhood children, but students from other areas of the city will be able to attend as well, she adds. "This [reform plan] will give kids a lot more choices."

"These will be great examples, working with these nine high schools," says Moriarty of the Gates Foundation. "It's really exciting to be a part of it."