2008-09-11 / From The Mayor...

From The Mayor's Desk ...

Providing Our Young People With Top-Quality Education

September 2 was the first day of class for public school students across our city. It was also the very first day of class in 18 brand-new school buildings with more than 11,000 new classroom seats. This is the biggest one-year gain yet in the largest school construction effort in our history — a five-year, $13.1 billion program funded 50/50 by the state and city that's reducing school overcrowding and creating the modern libraries, labs, and gyms that our students need. By 2012, we'll have increased classroom capacity by more than 116,000 seats — the equivalent of Baltimore's total public school enrollment — in just a decade's time.

Now, hard as it is to believe, just a few years ago that kind of progress would have been completely inconceivable. That was because there were two agencies with jurisdiction over school capital projects: The independent School Construction Authority, and the Division of School Facilities, which reported to the old Board of Education. And these two agencies just never seemed able to agree about what needed to be built. Their squabbling produced endless delays, sent costs soaring — and the taxpayers picked up the bill.

All that ended in 2002, when the State Legislature passed sweeping education reforms that included making these agencies accountable to one person: the Mayor. Once there were clear lines of authority, we completely overhauled a notoriously slow, inefficient, and wasteful school construction process. We ended the bureaucratic in-fighting and red tape that had discouraged top contractors from even bidding on school construction jobs.

The result: Instead of paying $650 per square foot in construction costs today, we're paying $450, while the quality of work has gone up. So has construction efficiency. Five years ago, just 60 percent of school construction jobs were finished on time. Today, it's 80 percent - even as the number of projects has nearly tripled!

Accountability in the schools also now extends right into the classrooms. It's producing results there, too. It's why students in many grades continue to make dramatic, double-digit gains on State reading and math tests. It's why, after years when the graduation rate had stagnated, it has climbed every year since 2002 and is now more than 20 percent higher than it was six years ago. It's also why Black and Hispanic students are leading the way and closing the racial achievement gap in our classrooms.

And we're not stopping now. This year, with major help from the City Council, we're putting a big focus on the middle school grades where student progress often still lags. A new "Campaign for Middle School Success" will make $35 million in additional public and private funds available to middle schools.

At the same time, the Department of Education will work with teachers, principals, students, and parents to create a culture of success in middle schools throughout the city. Just like our school capital plan, this new campaign is going to help give the young people returning to school the top-quality education that's theirs by right.

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