Baltimore City Public Schools (City Schools) is one of the oldest and most historic public school systems in the United States. Established in 1829, City Schools boasts the nation’s oldest all-girls public high school (Western High School) and the third oldest public high school overall (Baltimore City College).
In one of the most notable events in education history, prayer was banned in U.S. public schools as a result of a lawsuit filed by the parent of a City Schools student. In addition, a Baltimore high school (Baltimore Polytechnic Institute) was the scene of racial integration two years before Brown v Board of Education.
As of March 21, 2022
In 2003, Baltimore City Public Schools marked 174 years of service to the community–its children, youth, and adults. A Study of Baltimore City Public Schools presents a candid and engaging discussion of the history of City Schools from its beginning in 1829 to today.
Through the years, literally millions of parents in Baltimore City have entrusted the education of their children to the schools; and for nearly two centuries, devoted teachers have accepted this great responsibility. The classroom is the central focus of our existence, and an understanding of the past can illuminate the future.
During the colonial and early national periods, there was very little schooling for the majority of the boys and girls. It was not uncommon for boys of wealth to have private tutors or to be sent from home for their education. Tutors frequently lived with private families or taught the children of a few families who lived close together.
At times, the clergy, in addition to their regular duties, undertook the education of children. Schools were established as a necessary adjunct to the churches. The earliest schools in Baltimore were established by individuals who sought to support themselves by instructing the young. Yet, despite rather modest beginnings, interest in education increased rapidly as the city grew, and by the turn of the century, teachers were so numerous in Baltimore that it was difficult to keep track of them. Schools of many types and descriptions–primary and secondary–were open to those children whose parents had the wherewithal to pay.
By the early part of the nineteenth century, the need for adequate educational facilities for poor children had become apparent. Primary schools, which were established to help meet this deficiency, were largely the work of charity associations and church groups. Charity schools were also established by philanthropists.
Plans for establishing an academy in Baltimore were made as early as March 7, 1786. Enthusiastic community spirit and cooperation attended the establishment of the first Baltimore Academy. Unfortunately, it did not receive continued support and was discontinued soon after December 1787. The Methodists were responsible for the next Baltimore Academy. In May 1796, they purchased a large dance hall in Baltimore and turned it into a schoolhouse for the education of youth of any faith. Within three months, the academy’s enrollment reached more than three hundred.
The general school law of 1826 empowered the mayor and City Council of Baltimore to establish a separate system of public or primary schools in the city. It was not until March 1828, however, that an ordinance was passed creating a Board of Commissioners of Public Schools invested with power to establish and regulate a system of free public schools for the City of Baltimore.
After careful consideration of the situation, the board submitted its views to the City Council. Thus, it was given permission to receive the city’s distributive share of the school fund for the years 1825-28 from the Treasurer of the State, which amounted to only $1,431.41. On July 21, the board resolved to establish four schools; by September 9, teachers were selected; and on September 21, 1829, the first public school in the City of Baltimore was opened. By December of that year, three schools were operating, with an enrollment of 269 pupils.
The history of the Public Schools during the decade from 1829 to 1839 is a story of struggle for existence. During the short course of the first ten years, the fate of the schools was in the balance. Although the Board of Commissioners of Public Schools worked hard to make the schools a success and to popularize public education, public sentiment fluctuated.
At times, the popularity and ultimate success of the schools seemed assured; at other times, their future seemed doomed by an indifferent citizenry. Attendance ranged from 34 to 300, and many more boys than girls were enrolled. It was not until 1839, when 1,126 pupils were in attendance that the struggle for existence appeared to be won.
Care was exercised in the selection of teachers. Salaries were low, but teachers had considerable leeway in the management of their schools. Although discipline in the schools was strict, corporal punishment was discouraged. The curriculum consisted of grammar, geography, history, mathematics, and bookkeeping, in addition to the “three Rs.” Throughout the first ten years, curricular offerings remained fairly static. The school day and school year were correspondingly long. The plan of instruction was soon modified by the use of lectures by the teacher and by simultaneous instruction. There was much memory work and continual use of textbooks.
Difficulties were encountered in securing appropriate buildings for the early schools. The commissioners decided on a policy of building schoolhouses, and by 1838, smaller schools that were more widely scattered over the city were being constructed.
The schools were financed through funds derived from tuition; a city tax; the State school fund; dividends on bank stock; and rents. By 1939, only one quarter of the school budget was covered by tuition fees. For that year, one half of the disbursement went to teachers’ salaries; and one fourth went to books and equipment.
A reorganization of the board, in 1839, led to a series of changes, which strengthened the schools in the eyes of the public. Assistant teachers were employed, and, subsequently, class-size was reduced. Night schools were started to meet the needs of those boys who were not able to attend day school. Finally, in October, 1839, a significant step was taken in expanding the work of the schools, when the Male High School, the first secondary school in Baltimore, was founded.
In the nineteenth century, because of its location at the head of the Chesapeake Bay and its proximity to the west, Baltimore became a natural terminus of internal American trade on the Atlantic seaboard. The city, in addition to developing its contacts with the expanding west, concentrated on its maritime pursuits and gained world renown for the perfection of its swift-sailing schooners, the clipper ships. Its valuable contributions to the development of the railroad and the magnetic telegraph were further evidence of Baltimore’s continued interest in facilitating transportation and communication.
Unfortunately, the history of Baltimore from 1850 to the Civil War was marked by destructive fires, disastrous floods, and disgraceful riots. From 1854 to 1860, the corruption and violence of the Know-Nothing party earned the city the epithet, “mob town,” and it was not until 1860 that a victory of the Democratic party brought about needed municipal reforms. Despite the sordidness of the times, constructive forces were at work. Cultural, educational, and civic improvements were made; philanthropic endowments were increased, and advances in commerce and industry were notable.
Baltimore’s location destined it to become identified with both the North and the South during the Civil war. Although the city experienced a long period of harsh military occupation at the hands of the Federal forces, Baltimore escaped many of the ravages of war. It was in this historic setting that the public schools of Baltimore experienced an era of significant growth and expansion. The period 1839-66 was the formative period of public education in Baltimore and the system which evolved was the product of years of test and trial.
The control of the schools remained in the hands of the Board of School Commissioners, which was elected annually by the City Council. The growth of the system made it difficult for this group of laymen to perform their functions effectively. Duties of the superintendence gradually became part of the responsibilities of the Treasurer of the Board. When revisions in municipal financial procedures relieved the treasurer of many of his tasks, he was able to devote his time to duties of a professional nature. The office of treasurer was abolished on June 20, 1866, and John N. M’Jilton was appointed the first Superintendent of Public Instruction.
The class system of instruction was introduced and the services of the schools were expanded to include secondary schools for girls; separate primary schools for beginning students; and a nautical school for boys. The program for boys’ high school was increased to five years and that of the girls' to four years. A primary objective of this additional year of instruction was to prepare youth for teaching in the schools.
The need for a “normal school” was deeply felt, but it was not until 1866 that the Maryland State Normal School was founded. Professional examinations, teachers’ institutes, and normal classes were among the attempts to raise standards of the teaching profession.
The establishment of the Public Floating School, in 1857, marked a significant contribution in the field of vocational education, and also represented a community approach to the solution of an educational problem. In further response to community needs and demands, the evening schools were successfully operated.
From 1839 to 1866, the commissioners struggled to house the school population. The total school budget grew from less than twenty-five thousand dollars, in 1840, to over a quarter of a million dollars in, 1865, and the main sources of revenue were derived, for the most part, from a municipal school tax and from tuition fees. The appropriations, however, proved inadequate to the demands, and the salaries of the professional staff remained generally low.
The Maryland School Law of 1865 was interpreted as a threat to the mayor and City Council over the control of Baltimore public schools, and it was not until 1867 that a further revision of the Maryland Constitution, with its resulting new school law, restored the municipal authorities with the power to regulate the public schools through their ordinances and resolutions.
The number of public schools increased from nine, in 1839, to eighty-eight in 1866; and their total enrollment grew from 1,226 to 18,307. Drop-outs continued to be alarming and the magnitude of non-attendance caused commissioners to advocate a compulsory education law in Maryland.
Despite the growth of the public schools from 1839 to 1866, the majority of school-age children in Baltimore continued to be educated in numerous private schools. The commissioners labored to overcome prejudices against the schools–in particular, the objection that they were “poor” schools. Various attempts were made to inform the public of what the schools were trying to accomplish and to present them in a favorable light. Included among the aims of public education were the development of the true patriotic citizen and the inculcation of moral and spiritual values considered essential to good character.
In this era of forward movement, the schools tried to keep pace with the growth of the city and with advances made in public instruction in other parts of the country. The efforts of the commissioners, which were strongly motivated by a zeal for public education, received the unqualified praise of educators who visited the schools of the city. Notwithstanding the disturbing influences of the Civil War, the schools continued relatively uninterrupted.
In the latter half of the nineteenth century, Baltimore expanded its borders; diversed its interests; and became a modern city. Two new wards to the west and north of the city were added to its territory in 1888, and after rapid transit facilities were introduced, the development of suburban areas became practicable. Baltimore’s harbor continued to play a vital role in the progress of the thriving community and was deepened to accommodate the larger vessels of the day.
From the Civil War on, Baltimore progressed steadily. The population of the city grew from 267,354 in 1870 to 508,957 in 1900, and the extremes of wealth and poverty were probably less perceptible than in any other city of equal size in the country. As the community advanced in wealth and commercial importance, its educational and cultural facilities experienced corresponding growth. The city became noted for its universities, colleges, medical and other professional schools, hospitals, charitable institutions, theatres, musical schools, and art collections.
In contrast to the rapid growth and development of the Baltimore Public Schools during the formative period, the period from 1866 to the reorganization of the schools in 1900 was an era devoted more to maintaining the status-quo than to expanding the services of the schools. In this period of arrested development, the educational system experienced few significant accomplishments. The beginning of the colored schools, the English-German Schools, and the manual training schools represent exceptions and were innovations which marked progress in public instruction.
The schools became caught in the maze of municipal politics. Professional educators and those commissioners who were not pawns of political bosses were faced with endless frustrations as they worked zealously for the improvement of public education. Appropriations for the schools provided for minimum essentials and little thought was given to facing realities of the near future. Constructive suggestions of the superintendents were frequently ignored and, even in matters of great importance, procrastination appeared to be the rule of the day.
Although the management of the schools was entrusted to the Board of School Commissioners, the real authority in all matters of consequence was the City Council. Even though the schools were operated under the shadow of political corruption, their history is free of serious mismanagement and scandalous action. The New Charter of Baltimore City, 1898, in creating a Department of Education and reducing the number of commissioners to nine, aimed to protect the schools from the direct control of ward politicians and to provide an atmosphere in which the schools could serve the community to its best advantage.
Five superintendents headed the system during the last half of the nineteenth century. Several years after the close of the Civil War, steps were taken to remove Superintendent M’Jilton from office. In1868, William R. Creery was elected superintendent and remained in office until his death in 1875. Superintendent Henry E. Shepherd held the position until he resigned in 1882, and was succeeded by Henry A. Wise, Jr., who continued in office until 1900 when James H. Van Sickle was brought from Denver to become the fifth superintendent.
No radical changes were made in the curriculum, but new objectives introduced included drawing, physical education, cooking, and manual training. Influences of the psychological educational movement were being felt, and successful curricular experiments, in which newer approaches were demonstrated, indicated the direction in which methodology was headed.
Unfortunately, the public schools were not able to keep up with the growth of the city, and consequently, lost the position of educational leadership in the country, which they enjoyed in the 1860’s. In the thirty-four years between 1866 and 1900, the school population grew to 64,720 students and teaching staff expanded to 1,676 teachers, one hundred fifty of whom were men.
Despite the prevalence of low salaries, the supply of teachers greatly exceeded the demand. In the absence of an adequate salary scale and pension system, beneficial associations, designed to assist the teacher financially in times of illness or personal disability, were started. Confusion resulting from questionable practices of appointing and promoting teachers was lessened in 1897, when a revised set of civil service rules was adopted.
In striking contrast to the general apathy of the municipal authorities in their relations to the schools was the vigor of the teaching staff as it worked toward professional improvement. The standards of the profession were further raised by professional development activities sponsored by the administration of the schools, professional associations, and Johns Hopkins University.
With the rapid growth of the school population, the authorities were faced with the continual problem of providing sufficient classrooms. The school facilities throughout the era were miserably inadequate, and overcrowding pupils in unhealthy quarters, some of which were rented temporarily, was the rule rather than the exception. Toward the close of the period, conscientious attempts were made to safeguard the student body against health hazards and to provide the children of Baltimore Public Schools with comfortable and attractive buildings in which to learn.
Although there were evidence of wholesome school-community relationships, the parents and community were less active in visiting the schools and sharing in their functions than in the earlier period. The schools were more or less removed from the activities of the community and the criticism they were subjected to resulted from, to a degree, from a lack of knowledge of what was really going on in the schools.
February, 1904, Baltimore was almost destroyed by fire. Damaged estimated at more than one hundred twenty-five million dollars included the destruction of seventy-three city blocks; one hundred forty acres of the trade center–where business houses, wharves, and warehouses were located–were completely ravaged. Fortunately, not one school building was destroyed by the calamity. Out of the ashes of a stricken city, a new and modern Baltimore emerged... more quickly and more splendidly than anyone had believed possible.
Steps were taken to make Baltimore a healthy city to live in. A proper sewage system and a disposal plant replaced the old cesspools and stinking gutters. The water supply was extended and improved, and a filtration plant erected. Along with harbor improvements came the gradual elimination of cobblestone streets as Baltimore geared itself for faster moving vehicles.
During World War I, Baltimore experienced rapid expansion and war prosperity. When the United States entered the conflict in 1917, this great industrial and shipping center marshalled its resources and played a vital role in the war effort. With the horrors of war came the influenza epidemic, which struck with great severity. The city attempted to return to its normal way of life, with the cessation of hostilities and, within a short time, it shared the booming years preceding the Great Depression with the nation.
The public schools, during the period 1900-1925, reflected the uncertainties of the times. Two decades of conflict provided the transition between the traditional school system of the nineteenth century and the modernization of the schools in postwar years. Although the Board of School Commissioners was hampered in its work by political interference, by 1925, it had achieved a degree of independence from municipal control that permitted the progressive development of the school system. Also, despite being hindered by dissension and crippled by inadequacies of plant, personnel, and financial support in this era, the progress of the schools was enhanced by the vision and leadership of Superintendent James H. Van Sickle and Superintendent Henry S. West.
Mr. Van Sickle, who headed the schools from 1900 to 1911, challenged the practices of the traditional school and, within a decade, introduced innovations designed to improve the administration of the system and the caliber of professional staff. More adequate supervision resulted in greater uniformity among the schools, and school services were expanded to meet the needs of pupils through kindergartens, preparatory classes, and manual training and cooking centers. Improvements in teaching methods and in grouping of pupils for effective instruction resulted from Van Sickle’s stimulation.
The administration of Dr. Henry S. West, 1920-25, was a notable chapter in the history of the schools. The Strayer School Survey furnished the basis for a long-range program of development, and, under Dr. West’s leadership, action was taken to implement many recommendations of the commission. The organization of the school system on a 6-3-3 basis and a general revision of the course of study in the schools was accomplished. The reorganization of the administrative and supervisory staff; launching of the new school building program; betterment of teachers’ salaries; and encouragement of teachers toward professional development were contributions to the progress of the system made during West’s superintendency.
In 1912, attendance laws raised the compulsory school age to fourteen years. In 1925, when the population of Baltimore rose to 800,055, the number of pupils grew to 96,630. Throughout the period, problems of overage and retarded pupils remained acute and the excessive number of dropouts was attributed primarily to economic factors. The schools were governed without corporal punishment, and ungraded classes were set up to deal with troublesome pupils. The extension of vocational education; the inauguration of junior high schools; and the institution of ability grouping indicated the increase of attention given to meeting the needs of individual pupils.
Although the professional staff was increased to more than three thousand teachers to man the one hundred-fifty schools in 1925, the problem of securing trained personnel plagued the administration throughout most of the period. The unattractive teaching salaries, however, did not dampen the enthusiasm of many who remained devoted to their positions and who fervently strove towards professional development.
Municipal and state funds continued to be the chief sources of revenue for operating the schools. Although the budget had increased seven times in the twenty-five year period and had exceeded $8 million in 1925, in caparison with other large cities, Baltimore’s expenditures for public education were exceedingly modest. It was not until the passage of the loans of 1920 and 1922 that sufficient funds became available to relieve the handicap of an antiquated and inefficient school plant.
The schools as a whole enjoyed the confidence and support of the public, even though the superintendents and commissioners were subjected to frequent criticism. The period marked an increase in the interaction between school and community. The community enjoyed the extension of school services, and the schools profited by the cooperation and assistance of individual citizens and community groups.
As this chapter in Baltimore’s educational history drew to a close, the community set its goal to provide “for every child in the city of Baltimore a full-day’s schooling, in a fit and properly equipped classroom, under a well-trained and adequately paid teacher.”
In the second quarter of the twentieth century, the metropolis of Baltimore faced numerous acute conditions, brought into being by the Depression and World War II, with courage. Its citizens, through bold community action and with effective State and Federal assistance, weathered the lean years and, by 1937, enjoyed the blessings of more prosperous times.
Despite the vicissitudes of prosperity and depression, war and peace, the Baltimore Public Schools, in the period 1925-56, experienced three decades of progressive development. Growth of the system was not limited to size alone; basic accomplishments lay in the nature and quality of services rendered, and in the continuous evaluation of the program of public instruction for purpose of improvement.
The commissioners and superintendents provided the schools with competent leadership during an era in which problems of great social and economic significance faced the community. The Board of School Commissioners, under Presidents Isaac S. Field, William L. Rawls, Raymond S. Williams, Forrest Bramble, Roszel C. Thomsen, Walter Sondheim, Jr., and John N. Curlett formulated educational policies that strengthened the system and won further community support.
During the superintendency of Dr. David E. Weglein, 1925-1946, the schools were molded into a unified system. Curricular offerings were organized in terms of pupil needs and courses of study were developed to assist teachers plan meaningful learning experiences. Instruction was further improved through the extension of supervisory services.
With the growth of the school system came the introduction of practices of modern management in school administration. Superintendent Weglein’s administration, which was characterized by its stability and relative conservatism, marked the beginning of the tradition of political non-interference.
In the course of his brief administration, 1946-53, Superintendent William H. Lemmel instituted a number of significant changes in the schools. Dr. Lemmel was progressive in his approach and strongly advocated the use of democratic processes in school administration and cooperative shaping of policies through staff and community planning. He courageously presented the needs of the schools to the community.
During Lemmel's term of office, substantial gains were made in the construction of new facilities; acquisition of instructional equipment; and in provisions for better working conditions for staff, accompanied by revisions in salary schedules. Progress made by Lemmel's superintendency in identifying the needs, interests, capabilities of all who were in the schools and in modifying the curriculum to provide for individual differences reflected his deep conviction in the dignity and value of every individual.
After the death of Dr. Lemmel in 1953, the school came under the creative leadership of Superintendent John H. Fisher. In 1954, the desegregation of schools in Baltimore took place and the manner in which the system conformed to a non-segregation-basis gained national attention. The superintendent, through his sound approach to educational problems, earned the admiration and respect of the members of his profession and community.
Important historical eras are often entered quietly, without cataclysm fanfare, or even notice. For Baltimore City Public Schools, it happened in 1960. That year, George B. Brain arrived from Bellevue, Washington, to become only the 12th superintendent since 1866. Brain was the first of what might be called the “modern” superintendents–those who presided over a system of change; whose pronouncements and programs generated extreme controversy; and whose employment sometimes fell victim to acrimony.
Previous superintendents had ruled in relative calm. David E. Weiglein (1925-1946) had educated a generation of Baltimoreans without much controversy. Even the historic decision to desegregate the schools in 1954, almost immediately after the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision, had been made without huge disruption, especially among those who set policy and administered the system. (There had been considerable protest in the neighborhoods, particularly in South Baltimore, but even that was to pass away.) As a matter of fact, John H. Fischer. the superintendent who presided over desegregation, won the Hollander Foundation Award in 1955 for his “outstanding contribution toward the enforcement of equal rights and opportunities in Maryland.”
Another frontier was crossed the year George Brain moved across the continent: Baltimore’s school system became majority-black. It had happened rapidly after the unification of the white and “colored” systems at mid-decade, but it had been going on for years. White enrollment peaked in the 1930’s. Black enrollment increased from 31,300 in 1942 to 47,300 in 1952; while white enrollment fluctuated, declining during the war years and increasing in the early 1950’s. (Before desegregation, black and white city teachers had been consulting and consorting for some time. The “small town” nature of Baltimore was a factor–and still is.)
In 1955, the unified Baltimore system was 60 percent white in student population. In the1959-1960 school year, there were 2,000 more whites than blacks in a system whose total enrollment was increasing by 3,000 students a year–a sign of difficulties to come. The year Brain arrived, enrollment was 87,634 black and 82,588 white.
Baltimore had become a launching pad for “white flight.” Clifton Park Junior High School had 2,023 whites and 34 blacks just after desegregation; 10 years later, it had 2,037 blacks and 12 whites. Garrison Junior High School in Northwest Baltimore went from 2,504 whites and 12 blacks to 297 whites and 1,263 blacks in the same period. Brain predicted shortly after his arrival that by 1970, half of Baltimore’s children would be “socially deprived.” He was on the money...and money was leaving Baltimore.
The flight of the white middle class and, later, of the black middle class, to the suburbs contributed as much as anything to the severe problems experienced by Baltimore City schools in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. These people invested their time and money to help make their suburban schools superior. Their higher incomes were reflected in a state school-finance formula that has never “equalized” Baltimore City with most of the rest of Maryland–and that, in fact, finds Baltimore falling farther behind in the 1990’s.
At the same time, Brain had been on the job only a few months, when 14-year-old William J. Murray, III, walked out of the Bible-reading that was part of opening exercises at Woodbourne Junior High School and virtually every other school in the United States. Murray’s mother, Madalyn (later, Madalyn Murray O’Hair), eventually took her case against prayer and Bible reading in the schools to the Supreme Court, where she won in June 1963.
Meanwhile, although the Federal Civil Rights Commission declared, in 1961, that Baltimore was the only Southern city to have met the challenge of the 1954 Brown ruling, there were signs that racial equality meant more than opening school’s to both races. Thus, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which had been so instrumental in taking the Brown case to the high court, kept the pressure on.
Juanita Jackson Mitchell, president of the Maryland NAACP, charged that George Brain was discriminatory in his promotion practices. Both Brain and his predecessor, Fischer, moved blacks they considered the strongest leaders across the color-line into formerly all-white schools (but never higher than assistant principal). Mitchell charged that there was not a single black principal in a predominantly white school; in 1963, 53 of the city’s 189 schools had all-white faculties and 67 were entirely black.
The Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 gave the City $4 million for educating the poor. (It was the predecessor of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” program that was to change the face of American urban education.) Brain used the money to expand an “Early School Admissions” project in a 6-square-mile “target area.”
Thus, in April 1997, the state legislature passed Senate Bill 795, a 50-page document dictating broad reforms of the . A new, nine-member Board of School Commissioners was jointly appointed by the governor and the mayor to lead and execute the reforms over a five-year period. Architects of the reform were to entrust a $700 million budget, 14,000 employees, 182 schools, and 109,000 children to these managers with top-flight backgrounds.
In return for complying with the various mandates and deadlines laid out in the bill, the board would win $254 million in additional state funding for the school system. The new city-state partnership made the schools CEO accountable to the state legislature, instead of local politicians. The settlement of the lawsuit was far from perfect, but it deserved support.
Aside from the newly constituted school board, the agreement also included a more generous match of capital funds than before. Instead of having to come up with 25 percent of what the state offers in construction dollars–which some counties have had to reject for a lack of matching funds–the city can access up to $20 million in state capital financing with only 10 percent, or $2 million, in matching funds.
Also, the city will be forgiven any past errors in its system-wide enrollment estimates. That will give Baltimore more money than the current per-student funding formulas would allow if the counts were accurate, which was not the case.
The entire state’s economy is dependent upon a strong Baltimore school system. Willingness to use the state’s wealth to help the city was sheer prudence–for the sake of the children. What could be more important than that.
By June, the list of candidates for interim chief of Baltimore City’s public schools had been narrowed down to three–two executives and a former state schools administrator. The interim leader would have to merge the divided general education and special education services into a single school government; establish the school system’s parent advisory board; and replace administrative staff who have retired or departed during the transition.
Schools would have to be readied for the fall. Top ranks of the system would have to be reorganized. Projects proposed by New School Board members, including a survey of structural conditions of every school, would have to be launched. On the other hand, the interim chief would have little opportunity to institute long-term change, and by law could not be considered for the permanent job.
As a result of the tight deadlines, the school board knew that it could not wait until a new chief was in place to start major initiatives; it would have to choose a (temporary) leader who would be a very strong manager and who would see this as a challenge.
There were other motives, too. Several negotiators wanted to ensure that former Superintendent Walter G. Amprey and members of his administration would not inherit the new post. As a result of fears that the old guard would become the interim management, a law was drafted to block them from permanent leadership. Many negotiators also wanted to ensure that the temporary CEO would focus on the work at hand, rather than competing for the permanent position.
On Thursday, June 26, 1997, longtime educator Robert E. Schiller was named the interim chief executive of Baltimore City public schools. He had plenty on his plate–from getting the system of 109,000 students ready for a new academic year in September to negotiating a new contract with unionized teachers. His real job, however, was to be the tough guy who did the dirty work so that when a permanent CEO was appointed, that new chief would not have to squander initial goodwill by making necessary but unpopular moves.
When he arrived in Baltimore, Schiller found an abysmal tableau of declining student test scores at many schools; a rise in reported school crime; and a high school drop-out rate of 50 percent. This played out against a backdrop of increased spending and an ever-expanding–and seemingly ever more ineffectual–North Avenue bureaucracy.
When Robert Schiller met the newly appointed city school board, he hit the ground running. One month into his 90-day stint as interim schools chief, Schiller submitted to the Board of School Commissioners a state-of-the-system report of sorts, and it did not paint a pretty picture:
There was no baseline data showing where kids stood in reading and math, but fifth graders were not learning geometry and statistics, and the state said they should.
There was no full accounting of expenditures, but the school system would close out the books with a deficit of more than $8-12 million for 1997."
There was a glut of teachers (mostly secondary ones), many of whom were not certified for the subjects they were teaching, and there was no measure for evaluating teachers and zero relationship between their titles and pay–prompting Schiller to liken the school system to “a jobs program for 12,000 people” and to declare he’s “never been in an organization where people ignored the law.”