An Interview with Mayor Kurt Schmoke: Education in Baltimore

Article excerpt

When he took office in 1987, Mayor Kurt Schmoke recognized that there was a crisis in the Baltimore public schools, and he moved with enthusiasm and resolve first to save the system from further deterioration and then to open it to responsible reform. In this interview with Mr. Goldberg, the mayor details his progress to date.

Most leaders in school reform are well educated and deeply committed to the notions that young people need to be challenged academically and need to be in schools in which staff members make critical decisions and are held accountable for them. This is certainly the case with such noted reformers as Theodore Sizer, John Goodlad, and Deborah Meier. However, it is not necessarily the case with elected officials, who may not have education at the top of their agenda, who may focus quite narrowly on what schools should be like, or who may not have had a sterling education themselves.

Mayor Kurt Schmoke, now seeking his third term as Baltimore's chief executive and heavily favored to win, has made education his top priority. He strongly supports serious and autonomous schools, insists on accountability, and has personal educational credentials at least equal to those of the President of the United States: an undergraduate degree from Yale, a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University, and a law degree from Harvard.

When he took office in 1987, Mayor Schmoke recognized that in Baltimore there was a "crisis in our public schools," and he moved with enthusiasm and resolve first to save the system from further deterioration and then to open it to responsible reform. Since Schmoke became mayor - and particularly since Walter Amprey became the superintendent four years ago - educational innovations in Baltimore have included privatizing some schools, adopting a private school curriculum in one school, bringing in a for-profit company to tutor students in need of such services, and moving more and more responsibility from the central office to the individual school. "Baltimore is now viewed as a testing place for major innovations in privatization and other strategies to turn around urban schools," the mayor states proudly. This concern and respect for education grew out of his own experiences as a boy and young man.

High standards and strong encouragement run like a leitmotif through Kurt Schmoke's formative years. Born in Baltimore on 1 December 1949, Schmoke grew up as an only child of college-educated parents. "Dad went to Morehouse College, and my mother went to Spellman and eventually graduated from Morgan State University." His parents separated when Schmoke was 10 and were divorced when he was 12. But both parents remained close to him, encouraged him strongly in his studies, emphasized college, and let him know that their expectations were high.

From his early school years, a sixth-grade teacher named Sarah Taylor stands out in Schmoke's memory. "It was the year of the Kennedy/Nixon election, so we spent a lot of time debating issues. She encouraged me to go to a junior high school with a very strong academic program. She also made it clear that she wouldn't accept mediocre performance, and she felt I could achieve more than I thought."

The excellent junior high program led to acceptance into an "advanced academic program at the Baltimore City College High School," where Schmoke played foot-ball and lacrosse "as well as studied from time to time." Actually, he studied a good deal and came under the influence of other encouraging teachers, such as John Pentz, who gave him "the sense that I was brighter than I thought I was."

While an adolescent, Schmoke had another important experience as a member of a group called the Lancers Boys Club, founded by a local circuit judge named Robert Hammerman. This club encouraged bright youngsters to get involved in a wide range of activities. "We would meet every week. The club had 80 young men in it, representing a real cross-section of the city. …