Baltimore City schools have a new CEO

But is this what the doctor recommends?

The beginning of Dr. Gregory Thornton’s tenure as the CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools began in July. Since then, he’s seen his share of issues from both internal and external forces. Dr. Thornton inherits a school system that’s subject to the controversial Common Core Initiative and the mixed opinions of Baltimore residents. Then, there’s a recent report released by the Fund for Education Excellence (FFEE) nonprofit that highlights even further changes that some say are needed within the city’s schools. So the question is, is the new CEO up to the task?

Dr. Thornton’s previous experience with the education system comes from his time spent in Milwaukee, where he was the superintendent in a city whose political climate and school system walked hand-in-hand. Now, he hopes to move the school system forward while building upon the steps that the previous CEO, Dr. Andres Alonso, built. In an interview conducted by the City Paper last month, Dr. Thornton expressed his belief in the 21st Century Schools Initiative, a project that aims to upgrade the city’s schools to effectively compete with the digital age. However, the initiative itself is coming under fire from concerned parties about its funding and if it will continue past its initial stage.

Whatever happens with the 21st Century Schools initiative in the future, the city’s schools will also fall under the scrutiny of the aforementioned Common Core initiative. This nationwide testing assessment judges schools by the scores of the students in various subjects. Dr. Thornton feels that while the assessment does create a “one-size-fits-all” approach to the city schools, it also provides numbers in “a world of accountability.” In other words, it allows investors to see the data presented in a clear manner, without any other information getting in the way.

The Baltimore Brew reported that the purpose of the FFEE report was to “identify a set of priorities” for Dr. Thornton, after speaking with a total of 859 people throughout 55 communities in the city. The full report can be found online, and four points stand out:

• A stronger involvement between parents and the community with the schools, as well as a more inviting school environment.

• Teachers and school staff who are not only talented, but also want to invest in the students.

• Higher academic expectations for students to properly prepare them for the rigors of life after high school.

• Activities for students that last not only throughout the school day, but also outside of the school year.

The report also mentioned several other recommendations for Dr. Thornton. With the first half of the school year quickly drawing to a close, 2015 might be the year that could answer the question of whether Dr. Gregory Thornton has what BCPS needs to transition themselves and their students to be able to navigate the changing times in an effective manner.

City Hall and CSX on shaky ground

By Benjamin Land

Take a trip north on Charles Street and look to your right on the corner of 26th Street. There you will see construction vehicles and personnel working to finish construction of a retaining wall. A wall that, when finished, will close the chapter on a story that began in April of this year when the previous structure collapsed. This incident was largely caused by years of neglect from city officials, inadequate inspections by the Department of Transportation and CSX Transportation, and, finally, a period of heavy rains in the area. With all of these factors in place, the street collapsed and forced not only the residents affected to relocate, but also forced City Hall to take a look into how this happened in the first place.

According to the Baltimore Brew, citizens had previously notified the city about the lack of structural integrity of 26th Street between Charles and St. Paul. These complaints were sent over a 12- to 14-month period, which was then followed up with visual inspections carried out by personnel who weren’t licensed structural or geotechnical engineers. This information was released via a report from City Hall on Aug. 17, and further states that, “There should have been more coordination by CSX and the City to identify the cause of the road and sidewalk collapse beyond a visual inspection.”

As such, the 100-year-old wall fell on April 30, showing the effects of the temporary repairs that the city made following the resident’s complaints. However, these repairs weren’t taken further and in doing so, there were no measures taken to ascertain the stability of the road in the long term. The collapse has prompted the city to follow new protocols when the city DOT receives citizen complaints of sunken sidewalks, sink holes and curb lines. Additionally, inspectors will be better trained from now on to identify potential risks to curtail any reoccurring incidents.

CSX agreed last month to pay $10 million towards the construction of the new wall, splitting the current amount of $18.6 million with the city. The freight transportation company also agreed to share the costs of any third party lawsuits that would come out of the street collapse at large. However, CSX’s standing with another construction site east of 26th Street, which also falls on the same train line, is problematic. The Sinclair Lane Bridge began construction around 2011 and remains unfinished to this day. The contract for the construction of the bridge has stalled due to cost overruns, created after the discovery of structural integrity issues. The final bill for this site is unknown at this moment, but the city will cover 25 percent of the associated costs.

Currently, the relationship between City Hall and CSX appears to be one that will be either hit or miss in the future. Recently, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake withdrew interest in an inner-city CSX yard that was planned to provide a local hub for the transportation company. So far, no alternative plans have been announced as to what will happen with the partnership outside of the 26th Street wall and Sinclair Lane project. But given that CSX’s presence in the city is hard to miss, 2015 will likely bring new developments to this relationship.