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February 29, 2008

Holding parents accountable for truancy

A Northeast Baltimore woman named Sonia Dunton is scheduled to appear in district court this morning, charged with failing to send her 6-year-old son to school. Legal action can be taken against any city parent whose child has more than 10 unexcused absences. But officials say it is rare for one to face jail time -- up to 10 days in this case -- for a child's truancy. School and social service workers have been trying since last summer to get Dunton's son educated somewhere.

The most recent of the Open Society Institute's ongoing forums about truancy focused on absenteeism amoung young children. According to a blog post by the forum presenter, education consultant Hedy Nai-Lin Chang, one in six Baltimore children in kindergarten through third grade were chronically absent last year. Obviously, these kids face enormous social challenges. But to what extent should their parents be held legally responsible? Is jail an appropriate sentence for a mother who doesn't send her son to school?

Click below to read a package of stories about truancy in Baltimore that I wrote last year.

UPDATE, 2/29: The city state's attorney's office reports that Dunton failed to appear in court this morning, and Judge Barbara B. Waxman issued a bench warrant for her arrest. This was the second time she didn't show up to a court date; the first was Jan. 3.

The Baltimore Sun
Tracking down truants
Cases of homeless, starving kids hint at larger issues

Date: Sunday, February 18, 2007
Edition: Final
Page: 1A
Source: Sun reporter
Byline: Sara Neufeld
Illustration: Photo(s)
Graph Source: Photos by Glenn Fawcett : Sun photographer
Caption: 1. Truancy officer Charles Washington walks through Park Heights as he tries to find the home of a child who has missed a number of days this school year.
2. A Park Heights resident answers the door as truancy officer Charles Washington (left) tries to find a student who has missed school. Guardians of truant children can face fines and jail time.
3. Truancy officer Charles Washington (right) explains to Ernest Young the possible consequences of his grandson's absences in school. Young said his grandson was beyond his control.
   About 10:30 a.m. on a school day, three teenage boys in black hats, hooded sweatshirts and puffy coats are standing on a corner known for drug-dealing. Down the block, an eviction is under way, with men throwing mattresses out an upstairs window.

    The blue van pulls up to one of the few rowhouses on this West Baltimore street that isn't boarded up. Charles Washington, 69, slides out of the back seat, knocks on the door and introduces himself: a truancy officer from the city public schools.He is looking for a 12-year-old girl who has missed 31 days of classes at William H. Lemmel Middle, but she doesn't live there anymore. The man at the door says his family took in the girl as an abandoned infant, but last summer her mother came back for her. Now, he believes she's "running wild."

    "They love her like it was their own child," Washington says as he reports back to the van's driver, fellow truancy officer Walter Barnes III, 55. "They want the child back."

    The men work for the Baltimore Truancy Assessment Center, a division of the city school police department and the only program of its kind in Maryland. The center works to track down chronic truants in a school system where an estimated 4,500 students - more than 5 percent of the total enrolled - are absent each day without a valid excuse.

    Truancy, a problem often seen as the precursor to crime and other social ills, has gained attention in recent weeks as the state's new first lady, Baltimore District Judge Catherine Curran O'Malley, made it her signature cause. She has not proposed any specific action, but she says she wants to draw attention to the issue.

    The attention couldn't come at a better time for the truancy center, which costs $1.1 million a year to operate and is trying to secure funding for a second location. City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr., one of the center's founders, plans to introduce a resolution later this month asking for Mayor Sheila Dixon's support.

    Every weekday, Washington and Barnes ride through the city's most economically depressed and drug-infested neighborhoods trying to locate chronic truants, students between the ages of 5 and 15 who've had 20 or more unexcused absences. After students turn 16, they are free to drop out of school.

    Both retired city police officers, they seek to provide whatever help is needed to get truant kids back in school. They link families with the center's in-house service providers, including counselors from the state departments of social and juvenile services and the city housing department. They also inform parents that they can face jail time for their children's prolonged absences.

    The truancy center is made possible by a city curfew law prohibiting students from being on the streets between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. on school days. Officials from other school systems have visited, expressing interest in starting something similar.

    Joe Sacco, the center's executive director, says unexcused absences have dropped since his program started in 2003, when the daily figure was between 6,000 and 7,000. But no other Maryland system except Prince George's County has a problem comparable to the city's.

    Nationally, Sacco says, about 3.2 million students are absent from school each day. Communities use a variety of strategies to combat truancy, from denying driver's licenses for bad attendance to offering cars for good attendance. In Norwalk, Conn., families can be evicted from public housing if their children are truant.

    Two Baltimore initiatives, the truancy center and a truancy court run by the University of Baltimore, focus on the problems leading to chronic absenteeism.

    With a staff of 18, the center operates out of a former day care and administrative building for Sojourner-Douglass College in East Baltimore. When it first opened, kids swept off the street during the school day were transported there for a service assessment while they waited for their parents to pick them up.

    But the need was overwhelming and the center was crowded, with kids waiting for hours and those from rival gangs sometimes trying to fight each other. So officials tried a new approach this year.

    Now, city police officers take the kids they round up on the street - 2,604 between October and December - back to school. They forward the students' names to the truancy center, which pulls their attendance records. Then Sacco's eight truancy officers make house calls for the worst cases.

    They find students who are homeless, students who are home baby-sitting younger siblings, students who are on the corners selling drugs, sometimes under orders from a parent.

    Once, they found a 12-year-old girl in a bathrobe, prostituting herself to get by. Another time, they found a filthy 7-year-old boy starving and abandoned by his mother.

    Barnes, who also served as a state trooper, has a quiet, gentle demeanor. He works three jobs: a truancy officer by day, a Johns Hopkins campus guard by night, and a Pentecostal church pastor on Sundays.

    Washington, a witty and talkative Air Force veteran who writes novels and poetry, tries to keep Barnes laughing amid the despair they witness. But he struggles to contain his outrage.

    Heading north to the Park Heights neighborhood, they pull up to another set of rowhouses. Made of brick and stone, these are all occupied, with porches and grass in front. Washington walks through a chain-link gate, past swan-shaped plant holders and a wilting poinsettia.

    Inside, he finds a man sitting in a cramped living room, watching the evangelist Benny Hinn preach on television.

    His name is Ernest Young, grandfather of a Northwestern High freshman who has missed 23 days. He and his wife have been caring for the boy and his twin sister since at least 2003, when their daughter - the children's mother - went to prison. She was released last fall, but she wouldn't take them back.

    Young says he has lost control of the household. The twins come and go as they please. He doesn't know if they are in school.

    "I don't really know what to tell you," Young tells Washington. "I'm too old to be fooling with hard-headed kids."

    Washington asks Young several questions, trying to determine who's legally responsible for the twins. He explains that the responsible person can face fines and up to 30 days in jail.

    He gives Young the name of a social worker who will contact him about his grandson.

    "I'll see if we can help you with this," he says.

    "I hope you can help me and get him out of here," Young replies.

    At the next house, a wooden canopy over the doorway is collapsing. It's the home of a Garrison Middle sixth-grader, recorded absent 31 times. The boy's mother tells Washington he's probably on the corner selling drugs.

    "He ain't in school - he won't go to school," Washington reports back to Barnes in the van. He says he feels grateful that his three kids are grown.

    "You know what people don't understand?" Washington asks. "If jail is a step up from where you live, how can it be a deterrent? Jail is a step up for these people. You're there with your homies, three meals a day."

    He sighs.

    "It's depressing. That's all I can say."

    A week later, Washington and Barnes are back in Park Heights. Washington is talking about how a lot of parents have been surprised lately to learn that their kids aren't in school, how administrators aren't always sending home letters and calling as they're supposed to.

    When a child has three unexcused absences, someone from the school is supposed to send a letter or call home. At five absences, there's supposed to be a parent conference. After 10, legal action can be taken.

    But that follow-through varies by school. The city schools' central attendance office was dismantled during a budget crisis in 2003, a few months after the truancy center opened. The office reopened this school year with a director but no employees.

    The director, Tina Spears, says plans are in the works for her to hire three staff members, plus a truancy and attendance monitor at all city middle schools, which have the highest truancy rates.

    The school system has an incentive to address the issue: the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which monitors attendance, in addition to test scores. Schools could face sanctions for failure to meet standards.

    For Washington and Barnes, the first case of the new day is a 13-year-old boy, address unknown. He has missed 47 days of school, but the file doesn't say where. Washington knocks on one door, but the man who answers says it's the wrong house.

    A mile away, Washington tries again, at a rowhouse with some windows boarded, others covered in plastic. A mattress, a box spring and garbage fill the porch, and dozens of bikes are piled on the ground. "Looks like a lot of stolen bikes to me," Washington says.

    The woman who answers first says she doesn't know the boy. Moments later, she changes the story, saying she's his aunt and can get a letter to him. She says he used to live there, but moved. Washington doesn't buy it.

    "I think it is the mother, so she got the riot act read to her," he tells Barnes as he gets back in the van, stepping over a muddy brown boot in the middle of the street. "She don't care. Human nature's not a pretty thing."

    The van passes through the streets where Washington used to patrol as a city police officer. He marvels at the number of people outside doing nothing in the middle of the day.

    No one answers at the next house, which has visible cracks between the bricks and cages over the windows. It stands next to an alley strewn with soda cans, empty bags of chips, plastic bags and burger wrappers. Two pit bulls roam amid the trash and growl.

    "Can you imagine people living like this?" Barnes asks.

    "Tell me that jail is a deterrent to that, somebody," Washington says. "I'd put in an application to go to jail if I lived here. The whole thing should be condemned."

    "The whole block," Barnes replies.

    They visit the home of a Garrison Middle seventh-grader who has missed 26 days. "Mother and father live there and they can't do nothing with him," Washington says. "What do you do when both the parents can't do nothing with a 13-year-old? Jesus, Lord."

    Another house is filled with roaches. At the last stop of the day, the girl has been shut out of school because she's not up to date on her immunizations.

    "You can see what we went through today," Washington says on the ride back to the truancy center. "We've got some real problems."

All content herein is © 2008 The Baltimore Sun and may not be republished without permission.

The Baltimore Sun
In mock court, real help for students
UB law school runs program that tackles chronic truancy

Date: Sunday, February 18, 2007
Edition: Final
Page: 5A
Source: Sun reporter
Byline: Sara Neufeld
Illustration: Photo(s)
Graph Source: Glenn Fawcett : Sun photographer
Caption: Truancy court program coordinator Patricia Schminke listens as a Guilford Elementary/Middle School student offers his explanations for skipping or being late for classes.
   His grandmother beside him, 11-year-old Daquan Knight sits at a round blue table in his school library, facing the judge who is flipping through the boy's academic records.

    "It looks like, when he is in school, he's an active student," says Juvenile Master Julius Silvestri, presiding over today's session of truancy court. "He was out 16 days in one marking period.""One week he was out of school because of the death of my daughter," replies the grandmother, Victoria Knight, referring to the boy's aunt. "That had a lot to do with him being late for school, too."

    Scenes like this play out every Tuesday morning at Guilford Elementary/Middle, one of five city schools participating in a mock court program for truant students run by the University of Baltimore's law school.

    As in an actual court, the judges are real. They volunteer to meet weekly with chronically absent or tardy children and their families, trying to pinpoint what's wrong. Law students, program coordinators and school staff are also at the table, to follow up after the judges leave for their day jobs.

    Unlike an actual court, the truancy court is not an official governmental body. And unlike many other truancy court programs around the country, there are no sanctions. The judges, who have included Maryland first lady Catherine Curran O'Malley, are there to help.

    Participation is voluntary. Families recommended by the schools receive an invitation on courthouse stationery. Students commit to attend truancy court every week for 10 weeks, with a parent coming at least a few times.

    The truancy court is similar to the Baltimore Truancy Assessment Center in that it links truant students and their families with social services. But while the center deals with the worst truancy cases, the court strives to intervene before problems escalate.

    Sometimes, the fix is as simple as giving a family an alarm clock or instructing a parent to take a television out of a child's room. The truancy court has led to treatment for asthma and diagnosis of learning disabilities.

    Directed by the law school's Center for Families, Children and the Courts, the program is designed for students who have missed five to 20 days of school. Often, though, school administrators send children who have missed more.

    Among elementary school children, court organizers have found, the problems generally originate with a parent. By middle school, children are making their own choice to cut class.

    Last month, the court launched its new semester at the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center, where Circuit Judge David W. Young explained the program to families. Some of them were angry to be there. One woman said that getting the invitation letter made her feel like a bad parent.

    "I feel I am a damn good parent," she said. "I feel I shouldn't be here."

    "The fact that you are here shows you are a great parent," Young replied.

    At Guilford a few weeks later, Victoria Knight is telling Silvestri, the juvenile master, how her daughter was living with them until she died of cancer at age 31.

    Now, Daquan is relying on his father to get a ride to school, but the father is driving five kids to different schools, resulting in Daquan's chronic lateness. The family is planning to move by the end of the month, at which point Daquan will leave Guilford - and end his participation in truancy court.

    He vows to Silvestri to make up missed tests before then.

    Last semester, about seven students from Guilford participated regularly in the truancy court. Now, there are more than two dozen, about half of them with a parent or relative.

    The children and their families scatter at tables around the room, talking, coloring and reading. One by one, they are called to the round blue table, where each gets five to 10 minutes with the judge.

    One mother comes with four children who have been chronically tardy because of a new custody arrangement in which they're with her and her former husband on alternating nights. In another case, a fifth-grade girl has been repeatedly suspended for fighting, and her mother is telling her to defend herself.

    Eighth-grader Jakeya Howard, 14, is excelling on the school's National Academic League team, but she's regularly tardy and not doing well in her classes. She tells Silvestri that her classmates tease her when she gets good grades.

    "You know what?" Silvestri says. "That's their problem."

    At 9:15 a.m., an hour and a half into what's supposed to be an hourlong session, Silvestri has to leave. Program coordinator Patricia Schminke stays, along with a law student, a school social worker and a truancy court worker who runs a mentoring program.

    When the truancy court was launched in 2005, it operated in five elementary and middle schools that fed into Patterson High. But two of those schools closed last summer. And in some cases, schools weren't putting in the effort to supply student records and send employees to sit in on the sessions.

    This academic year, schools had to apply to be in the program. Still, Schminke said, some of the same issues continue, a result of school staffs' being overwhelmed with outside mandates.

    But data suggest that the program helps. Last school year, officials tracked 39 students who missed 832 days of school in the five months before starting truancy court. In the five months during and after their involvement, they reduced absences by about 75 percent, missing 218 days.

    That data will be invaluable to Schminke and others as they seek funding for the truancy court for future years. The program has been funded largely through a grant from the Charles Crane Family Foundation, but it is due to expire in June.

    It's nearly 11 a.m. before all the children are cleared from the Guilford library.

    In almost every case, the staff can offer help, such as a bus pass for 13-year-old Brittany Avery. She lives outside the neighborhood, can't afford public transportation and can't get a ride from her mother, who usually goes to work at 4 a.m. but took the day off to attend truancy court.

    For a boy whose attendance has improved drastically, there is a small prize, a musical pen.

    Only one student, an older boy, is unreceptive to the assistance. He sits silently, head on his chest, as Schminke reviews his poor academic record. The social worker, Ann Evans, tells him he had better start coming to school more regularly before his 16th birthday, or he'll be dropped from the rolls and "become another statistic."

    "There's lots we can do to help you," Schminke says, "but you have to let us know."

All content herein is © 2008 The Baltimore Sun and may not be republished without permission.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:06 AM | | Comments (8)
Categories: Baltimore City, Parents

February 28, 2008

Pay for performance: Is it fair?

Gina’s post, which generated an insane number of comments last week, got me questioning whether teachers should be paid in relation to their students' academic performance.

Pay for performance is not a new concept nationally. Several states have flirted with the idea for years. Utah and Florida immediately come to mind.

But is it fair?

Do teachers in Howard County have the right to argue that they should be paid in relation to the standardized test scores that their students earn? Howard County students continually rank among the top in the state for standardized test scores even though Howard County ranks fourth in the state for starting teacher pay.

(Let me play devil’s advocate for a second.)

Should teachers in less affluent areas be paid more because they typically have to confront some of the problems that face many of our urban school systems: crime, poverty, a breakdown in the traditional family structure, less resources, etc.?

Should suburban teachers simply shut up because their students come to school with less baggage? Is that their payoff? In the ranking game, someone has to occupy slots one through 24… 

Posted by John-John Williams IV at 10:15 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Around the Nation, Teaching

February 27, 2008

Should all school buses be equipped with seatbelts?

I’m sure, by now, you’ve already heard the story about the Prince George’s County school bus that flipped on its side Wednesday morning when the driver made a fast turn. The driver and five children were injured as a result.

All 44 students onboard were taken to area hospitals for precautionary evaluations.

While I’m glad there were no fatalities, I am concerned with the recklessness of the driver. (He’s been charged with taking the turn at a "speed greater than reasonable," police said.)

I’m also wondering whether there were seatbelts on the bus. (Both articles did not reveal this.) A little-known reality is that some school buses are not equipped with seatbelts.

Should all school buses be equipped with seatbelts? And, should students then be required to wear seatbelts? 

The calm before the storm

It was a relatively quiet and unusually short Baltimore school board meeting last night, with the most significant agenda item -- a vote on contracts for operators to run new combined middle/high schools -- delayed to give board members more time to review the proposal.

In the coming weeks, expect a whirlwind of activity, especially when Dr. Alonso releases his proposed budget on March 11, containing $50 million in cuts.

But even at a quiet board meeting, two things happened that are indicative of what's to come: giving principals more autonomy in exchange for accountability, and doing "more with less" -- without (supposedly) harming the children.

1) The board approved textbooks for use in several subject areas. Unlike prior textbook adoptions, though, there was no dollar amount designated to be spent on any particular book. In most cases, the board approved a few books for a given subject. Principals can choose which one they want and use money from their budgets to buy it. And if a principal doesn't like any of the choices, he or she may submit a recommendation for another book to Alonso's staff, along with a justification for the recommendation and an outline of the student outcomes it's expected to produce. 

2) Administrators outlined the proposed structure for summer school. The plan is to spend $7.3 million on summer school this year, down from $11.6 million last year, while serving the same number of students (23,738 attended summer school last year; the estimate for this year is somewhere between 23,000 and 24,000). Alonso and his chief academic officer, Mary Minter, told me a couple factors explain how they can serve the same number of children with $4.3 million less. Instead of offering a summer program at every elementary school, 35 buildings will each serve students from between two and four schools, cutting down on operational costs. (There will also be 42 "standalone" sites, or schools with their own programs.) At the 35 buildings, staff from schools in the same "cluster" will design their program together. They can select, for example, which principal will preside over the summer session, or whether multiple princpals want to rotate responsibility. Alonso said that the staffing model for summer school funding will be leaner, with money cut for nonessential positions, such as "lead teachers." There will also be less money spent on materials. Two years ago, the system spent $9 million on summer school and served 23,510 students. Last year, Alonso said, the summer school budget increased by more than $2.5 million, but almost no additional students were served. A key change this year is that elementary and middle summer programs will be open to all students, not just those in Title 1 schools. (As a result, much of the money for summer school will come out of the budget's general fund, rather than Title 1 funding.)

This morning, Dr. Alonso went before the state school board to provide the city school system's annual report. There were way too many PowerPoint slides for me to get into the contents of all of them. But for the record:

The system's official graduation rate declined slightly from 2006 to 2007, from 60.63 percent, to 60.05 percent. One would assume that means the dropout rate incrased slightly. Nope. On the books, it also declined, from 10.52 percent to 9.56 percent. How is this possible? Alonso said he doesn't know, either.

In an interview after the state briefing, Alonso told reporters not to assume that $50 million in budget cuts is going to mean mass layoffs, like what happened during the deficit of 2003. After all, the system has more than 800 teaching vacancies every year. There will be jobs for everyone who's willing to work in a school. There also be pay cuts (and, I bet, a lot of resignations).

Get ready for an interesting spring.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 1:00 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Baltimore City

February 26, 2008

Is Howard County high school TB warning too little too late?

Who knew that the story I wrote about TB would be so popular?

The Associated Press picked it up. A newspaper in Delaware linked to it. I’m not even going to talk about the T.V. reporters.

My colleague Dennis O’Brien also did a blog post – with a neat graphic -- about it.

Here are the nuts and bolts of the story: Howard County health officials are investigating whether the county's first tuberculosis case this year, diagnosed in a student, spread the bacterial illness to staff members or other students at Hammond High School in Columbia.

The students and staff members at the Columbia school were told of the diagnosis Monday. The county Health Department sent letters Saturday to 50 students who ride the bus with the student, warning them that they might have been exposed and encouraging them to get tested.

Health officials learned about the infected student four weeks ago.

No one – other than the student – has contracted the disease, according to health officials. 

Do you think that the health department and school officials should have notified students and parents about the student immediately? Do you think they waited too long?

Posted by John-John Williams IV at 3:40 PM | | Comments (1)

Speaking Spanish on the school bus

This news release from the ACLU made me shake my head.

In response to an ACLU complaint, Nevada's Esmeralda County School District has lifted a ban prohibiting students from speaking Spanish on the school bus. The ban was approved by the Esmeralda County school board in October.

According to the press release, the Spanish ban directly impacted about a dozen high school students from a small farming and ranching community who ride the bus an hour and a half each way to a school in a neighboring county. In the afternoons, there is a 45-minute academic period on the bus, during which time the students are expected to speak English. The second 45 minutes is supposed to be free time.

A letter from the school superintendent, posted on the ACLU's Web site, says students are still required to speak in English to the bus driver and to the tutor aboard the bus.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 2:14 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Around the Nation, School Diversity/Segregation

February 25, 2008

Study finds limits to class-size reduction reform

Education Week is reporting on a new study suggesting that class-size reduction "might not necessarily reduce the achievement gaps that exist between students in a given classroom." (A summary of the article is here; sorry, you'll need an EdWeek registration to get the whole thing.) The study found that class-size reducation can improve test scores overall.

In my eight years as an education reporter, I've seen mixed results of class-size reduction initiatives. I was working in California after that state mandated caps of 20 students in kindergarten through third-grade classes. The result at first was an acute teacher shortage, and schools found themselves hiring teachers they wouldn't have otherwise. In addition, many of the best teachers in low-performing districts left to fill the new job openings in more affluent, higher-performing schools.

Ideally, of course, every child would be in a small class with a great teacher. But few parents would choose a small class with a mediocre or lousy teacher over a big class with a great teacher. On the other hand, class size is one of the biggest factors predicting teachers' satisfaction in their jobs. And if that great teacher with a big class gets burnt out and quits, then everyone loses out. Having small classes seems particularly important to English teachers and others who spend a lot of time on every paper they grade.

I'd be interested to hear from teachers about how your class sizes have impacted not only your personal satisfaction in your job, but also your students' achievement. Does the study's conclusion ring true?

You can find more information here on Project STAR, the Tennessee class-size reduction initiative on which the study is based.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:04 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Study, study!, Teaching

February 24, 2008

Covering the Filipino teacher suicides

My story in today's paper was one of the hardest I've had to write in a long time.

As those of you who have been following The Sun's education coverage for awhile may remember, I spent the 2005-2006 school year following Aileen Mercado, a teacher from the Philippines who at the time was living 10,000 miles away from her husband and three kids. Aileen lived in the Symphony Center apartment building near the Meyerhoff along with 70-plus other Filipino teachers, and I got to know many of them that year, including Fe Bolado. (An archive of my series is posted here.)

I met Fe on the same day I met Aileen, in July 2005 at Fallstaff Elementary School. The first batch of Filipino teachers was in orientation, and I was there to pick one to trail for the year. For a little while that day, I actually considered making Fe my subject, but I decided against it because I wanted a teacher who'd left young children behind in the Philippines. But I'd see Fe at the teachers' weekly prayer meetings (which often turned into karaoke nights). I sat with her in the hall at Symphony one evening as she waited, dressed in a white skirt and top and wearing more makeup than normal, to record a Christmas video message for her boyfriend back in the Philippines. That boyfriend became the husband whose infidelity sent her into an emotional tailspin.

When Aileen called me in tears on the morning of May 25 to say Fe had killed herself, the only comfort I could offer was that newspapers don't normally cover suicides. When she called on the night of Nov. 8 to say it had happened again, I could no longer offer such comfort. Another suicide, done the same way, I knew my editors would say it was news.

I didn't know Irene Apao, but it was terrible to see the pain her death has caused on a community I've come to care very much about. And it was terrible, getting back in touch with some of Fe's friends, hearing about the sleepless nights and nightmares and stress-releated illnesses they've experienced since she died.

Learning of my plans to write a story, many of the Filipino teachers were afraid it would reflect badly on the program that's brought more than 400 of them to teach in Baltimore. I hope that's not the case. As the story points out, Baltimore's foreign teacher program has actually become known around the country for the intensive support it provides. Many administrators attest to the good that Filipino teachers are doing for the city schools.

The suicides have sparked efforts to raise awareness about mental illness, which is highly stigmatized in the Philippines. I hope that those prevention efforts pay off, and that there won't be an occasion for me to write about this subject again.

A Filipino television segment about Irene's death is here.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:02 AM | | Comments (6)
Categories: Baltimore City, Teaching

February 21, 2008

BCPSS budget briefing

Andres Alonso has scaled back on his public appearances in the past few weeks, holed up at North Avenue consumed by preparation of next school year's budget. The budget will be particularly noteworthy this year 1) because it will contain $50 million of cuts, all or mostly coming from the central office and other administrative expenses and 2) because it will redistribute money in a major way, throwing out the old formula where most spending has been dictated centrally and giving a huge chunk to principals to spend at their discretion.

Alonso's proposed budget is scheduled to be presented to the school board -- and, thus, to be made public -- on March 11. But we were able to get a preview of what's in store today in a presentation that Dr. Alonso gave to the City Council's Budget and Appropriations and Education committees.

The 34-page presentation, available here, says Baltimore's current school funding formula can be "unfair," "complex" and "inflexible." For example, some schools get more money than others:

-- With figures controlled for the extra money dedicated things like special education, the amount spent per pupil ranges from $7,000 to $20,000 in elementary schools, from $7,000 to $13,000 in elementary/middle schools, from $9,000 to $28,000 in middle schools, and from $8,000 to $17,000 in high schools.
-- The system spends more on its middle schools (most of which are troubled and many of which are closing) than on other types of schools.
-- Small elementary and middle schools receive more money than large elementary and middle schools.
-- Combined elementary/middle schools have the lowest funding, a statistic that may validate a long-running complaint that sixth- through eighth-graders in those schools don't have adequate libraries, science labs and other resources needed to educate older children.

Alonso is recommending that funding follow each student to the school he/she attends. All students would get a base level of funding, plus more if they have special needs (some students cost more to educate than others, he says). Principals would get that money to spend as they see fit, and then be held accountable for the results.

Just how much money will be allocated per pupil remains to be seen. Under the current budget, only 14 percent of dollars are discretionary for spending at the school level. Under a possible redistribution detailed in the presentation (marked "For Illustrative Purposes Only -- Not Final or Approved"), the proportion would increase to 50 percent. Currently, principals have only about $90 per pupil of money to spend as they see fit; all the rest comes with strings attached. Discretionary funding could climb into thousands of dollars per pupil under the new formula.

Alonso is openly struggling over what money to make discretionary and what needs to remain central. As he said at a principals meeting last week, principals seem interested in handling custodial services themselves. But what about food? Transportation? In some cases, the extra control could be more of a headache than a help. Special education in the city is under federal court order and must be governed centrally. Some federal money that's designated for specific purposes can't flow directly to the schools.

Around the city, one of the biggest concerns I'm hearing is whether schools with veteran teachers will be penalized under the new formula, if all schools get the same amount per student regardless of where staff members fall on the salary scale. Most of a school's budget goes to salaries and, naturally, experienced teachers make more than inexperienced ones. But Alonso said at the principals meeting that the difference between average and actual salaries in the system is far smaller than many people fear.

About that $50 million shortfall: The presentation says the school system is estimating a revenue increase of $11 million next fiscal year. It projects $61 million in added expenses: $42 million for negotiated salary increases, $5 million for utility cost increases and $14 million in miscellaneous other expenses.

A public hearing on the budget is scheduled for March 19. The school board is scheduled to vote on the document April 8. The system has set up an email address for public comment: And (need I mention?) we always welcome your feedback here.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 7:00 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Baltimore City

The need for a balanced curriculum

It wasn't surprising. Every one of us who's been in a classroom lately has seen it: reading and math squeezing out other subjects like social studies, music and art. And this week a national report by the Washington think tank Center on Education Policy confirmed those observations. Check out my story on the findings today. Researchers found that on average districts beefed up reading time by 141 minutes a week, and increased math time by 89 minutes a week. Meanwhile, some districts sliced time in social studies by 76 minutes a week and cut art and music time by 57 minutes. Now, I'm not saying reading and math are bad. I know they form the foundation for success in other subjects like science and history. But how can American public schoolchildren hope to compete globally if they're receiveing a streamlined curriculum that's not well rounded? Think about it in terms of nutrition -- sure, protein is good for you, but to be healthy and energetic, you also need the carbs from whole grains, vegetables and fruits. Like a balanced diet -- isn't it important to have a balanced curriculum?  

Posted by Ruma Kumar at 10:32 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Around the Nation, Around the Region, Teaching, Testing

February 20, 2008

Michelle Rhee tackles special education

Within days of each other last summer, the two most troubled school systems in the region -- Baltimore and Washington -- hired dynamic new leaders and charged them with shaking things up. And for both Andres Alonso and Michelle Rhee, one of the biggest problems on an overflowing plate is special education. Both of their school systems are under federal court orders involving their special ed programs.

So I was fascinated by this article in The Post yesterday about a controversial idea that Rhee wants to try in one D.C. elementary school, for possible replication districtwide. A private special education company will be hired to run the school, West Elementary in Northwest Washington. Within each classroom, The Post reports, there will be instruction customized for special education students, regular students and gifted students. Every child will have the equivalent of an IEP, taking the concepts of inclusion and differentiated instruction to a whole new level.

Not surprisingly, the proposal has been greeted with skepticism in D.C., and critics fear it will make special education, which is already enormously expensive, even more costly.

In Baltimore, no major changes in special ed can be made without the court's consent. But in principle, how do you think such a classroom structure would play out? I often hear special educators here complaining about the astronomical amount of paperwork they're responsible for, and I'm guessing that -- regardless of potential merits -- a structure like this would create more.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 10:52 AM | | Comments (7)
Categories: Around the Region, Baltimore City, SpecialEd

February 19, 2008

Where’s the beef?

As if the news of the largest beef recall ever wasn’t enough to make you queasy, it turns out that a huge chunk of the beef went to schools. And some of the meat went to cafeterias in Maryland!

Anne Arundel, Baltimore Co., Carroll, St. Mary’s, Worcester, Wicomico, and Prince George’s -- all school systems that received the recalled beef from Westland/Hallmark Meat Packing Company -- were told to put the meat on administrative hold on Feb. 1 by the Maryland State Department of Education.

It is unknown whether any of that meat made it into school cafeterias.

This month's heads-up from MSDE could not catch the meat that went to Allegany, Prince George’s, St. Mary’s, Montgomery, Worcester, Wicomico, Baltimore County and Baltimore City in 2007. (About 37 million pounds of the 143 million pounds of beef recalled Sunday went to school lunch programs and other federal nutrition programs since October 2006, according to Ron Vogel of the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service.)

Breathe a little easier, parents, students, and staff. Investigators have found no cases of illness related to the recalled meat, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture spokesman quoted in the article.

Check out MSDE's press release here

Posted by John-John Williams IV at 1:43 PM | | Comments (0)

February 18, 2008

Banning books

Word of a book ban is in the news again. This time, the Washington Post reports, the book "And Tango Makes Three" was pulled from shelves at schools in Loudoun County, Va., after a parent objected to the book because it "promotes a gay agenda" and "tolerance of alternative families."

"And Tango Makes Three," a picture book written by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson and illustrated by Henry cole, is based on a true story about two male penguins in New York City's Central Park Zoo that adopt a fertilized egg and raise the chick as their own. The book is geared toward children ages 4 to 8 years old, according to the publisher's Web site. (Two Lives Publishing)

Few topics bring out the passion in folks like a book ban. A couple years ago, I covered a book ban in Carroll County schools. I will long, long remember the interviews I conducted for the multiple follow-ups I did on the issue. The book that caused the stir? Gotta love it -- "The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things," by Carolyn Mackler.

While remaining professionally impartial on the issue of the book ban, I must say that Carolyn's book has an amazing message. I read "The Earth" for the articles, but I went on to read all of Carolyn's books because although she writes for an audience that is quite a few years younger than I am, I still found her writing style and her messages to be compelling.

For those of you who are interested, here's some of my coverage of the book ban in Carroll County:

Book banning spurs protest
Carroll students seek to get novel returned to school libraries

Date: Wednesday, December 7, 2005
   An award-winning book about an overweight girl who doesn't fit in at school or with her family apparently doesn't fit in at Carroll County school libraries: The district's superintendent ordered the novel stripped from the shelves.

    Students at Winters Mill High in Westminster have begun a petition drive to get the book, The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things, returned to the libraries. Superintendent Charles I. Ecker said he found the language and sexual references in Carolyn Mackler's book, a top choice nationally among teenage readers, inapproriate.

    The New York-based author said yesterday that she knows of one other instance of the book being banned. On Monday, a Brooklyn, N.Y., principal removed the book after objecting to its romantic scenes, she said.

    "I write realistic novels for teenagers, and I do my best to portray their realities by being true to the characters and narratives," Mackler said. "I can't write a realistic teen novel without including a character who is contemplating or acting upon their sexuality."

    Mackler said she wrote the book to help teenagers - who she said are struggling to "make sense of their changing world" - and that the profanity and sexual references are instruments that help readers see themselves in her stories.

    "It's a much bigger story. ... It's about the very basic issue of self-esteem," she said. "As an adult writing for young people, I am aware of my responsibility. I don't just throw in sexuality casually or irresponsibly."

    After complaints of censorship from students and librarians, Ecker is reconsidering his decision, but he said he is leaning toward keeping the book off school shelves.

    "I didn't think it was the type of thing middle school or high school students should be reading. If a student would use that language in school or wrote it in a paper, he would be disciplined or probably suspended," Ecker said. "I don't think those types of books should be available in a public school."

    Students who began the petition drive said their freedoms and rights are being infringed upon.

    "We're going to be adults soon, and we're mature enough to read that book," said Crystal Gardner, an 11th-grader at Winters Mill High School who spearheaded the drive with two schoolmates. "I feel like we're not getting a say [about what to read], and we should have a say. If they're going to ban a book about an overweight girl, what's next?"

    The book chronicles the life of an overweight teenage girl, Virginia Shreves, whose father is rarely around and whose mother is an adolescent psychologist obsessed with her daughter's weight. The book explores teen romance, self-mutilation, date rape and eating disorders.

    "Mackler writes with such insight and humor (sometimes using strong language to make her point) that many readers will immediately identify with Virginia's longings as well as her fear and loathing," the American Library Assocation wrote in its review of the book.

    The book, published in 2003, was named the 2004 Michael L. Printz Honor Book by the Young Adult Library Services Association, the American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults and the International Reading Association's 2005 Young Adults' Choice, among other accolades.

    Ramona Kerby, an education professor at McDaniel College who teaches a course on literature for children -including selection criteria - said she is alarmed by the school system's decision to remove Mackler's book.

    "For one, it's not sending a good message. It's saying that we don't honor a diverse opinion, an opinion different from ours or freedom of expression," she said.

    Banning it also invites more interest in the book than educators might want.

    "In a way, it's also saying that we don't trust the students" to read about ideas without acting upon them, Kerby said. "As a teacher, you want [students] to feel we respect all points of view."

    The parents who complained about the book said it was not appropriate for middle school pupils, said Irene Hildebrandt, the school system's media supervisor.

    "That's always the tough part, because you have very young sixth-grade students and very mature eighth-grade students," Hildebrandt said. "So when you build a book collection, you're going to have this discussion, especially at the middle school level.

    In response to the parents' concerns, the school system's reconsideration committee - a group of 12 students, parents, administrators, media specialists and a teacher - met to discuss the parents' appeal.

    After reading the book and discussing it, the committee decided in October that the book should continue to be available at middle and high schools, said Hildebrandt, who oversees the reconsideration committee but does not vote.

    Parents were unhappy with the committee's decision and appealed to Ecker, Hildebrandt said.

    After skimming passages of the book, Ecker ordered it removed from all of the county's school libraries in mid-October.

    "I think it's the right thing to do," he said. "It may not be the popular thing to do, but I have to look at myself in the mirror each night and be happy with what I see. Over the years, I've made some unpopular decisions, but I thought they were the right thing to do."

    Alarmed by Ecker's decision, school librarians met with him to discuss his removal of a book they felt was relevant for teenagers. In Carroll, the staff at each school's library determines which books to put on its shelves. Five of the county's seven high schools and seven of its nine middle schools had copies of the book.

    "The high school [librarians] met with Ecker ... and told him we thought it was a bad precedent," said Bonnie Kreamer, media specialist at Winters Mill High in Westminster. "I'm sure the superintendent had all good intentions [when he ordered the books removed] and has the students' interests at heart, but I think this is not a precedent you want to set."

    Beverley Becker, executive director of the Chicago-based American Library Association, said book challenges - often lodged by parents or other community members - are not infrequent.

    She said her organization received reports of 547 book challenges last year, the majority of which were at school libraries, though some came from public libraries. That number is the tip of the iceberg, the group says.

    "Books are challenged every day," Becker said. "We track those that get reported to us, but we estimate we hear about only a fraction of them. Maybe 20 to 25 percent are reported to us."

    Gardner and her schoolmates have collected about 140 signatures and are planning to secure more names before submitting the petition to school officials.

    "We're not going to step down," Gardner said. "Our goal is to stop this from happening to other books in the future."


Petition a matter of principle
Three Carroll County students take action to counter a book banning

Date: Friday, December 16, 2005

   Crystal Gardner hadn't read The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things when she and two schoolmates launched a petition drive to protest its removal from Carroll County's schools.

    For her, it was a matter of principle."We were worried about them taking away books," said Gardner, an 11th-grader at Winters Mill High in Westminster. "We thought it was ridiculous."

    Gardner and her friends said they felt students' rights were being ignored and they wanted to voice their objections.

    They had no idea how much attention their effort would ultimately attract.

    Amid protests from such groups as the Los Angeles-based Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, Carroll County Superintendent Charles I. Ecker is reconsidering his decision to ban the book and could announce his decision soon.

    Ecker said librarians from several schools had appealed to him during Thanksgiving week to reconsider the book ban before he heard about the students' petition. He said he is willing to meet with the students, but they haven't asked for a meeting and neither has he.

    Ecker, after hearing complaints from some parents and students, ordered school librarians in mid-October to remove all copies of Carolyn Mackler's book about an overweight 15-year-old girl struggling to fit in at school and with her high-achieving family.

    He said he found the book's use of profanity and sexual references inappropriate.

    Gardner said she would like to read Mackler's book, a top choice nationally among teenage readers.

    The book is available at the county's public libraries and area bookstores. But, she said, "school should be a place of resources. I should be able to get that book at my school library."

    When she heard about Ecker's ban, she said, she was incensed. To make sure it wasn't a rumor, she spoke with a member of the school system's reconsideration committee - 12 people who review books that are challenged - and with the school librarian at Winters Mill.

    When she realized that the ban was real, she went to a friend, 11th-grader Courtney Linton, "to vent about it," she said. Together, they decided they had to do something.

    "Originally, I didn't know what to do," Gardner said. "I was going to go to the next Board of Education meeting and read passages from the Bible. There's violence and other bad stuff in there, too."

    Then she, Linton, and another friend, 11th-grader Zac Slone, decided to start a petition. Gardner and Linton wrote it during Thanksgiving week.

    "To take away our books is like taking away a chemistry set from a scientist," a portion of the petition reads. "Banning these books is an act that is inconsiderate to the professionals at this school and insulting and degrading to the students who are being pushed to become successful adults, and the gallant authors who bravely tell their experiences."

    They have gathered 253 signatures. Gardner said she would like to have 300 to 400 signatures before submitting the petition to Ecker.

    "We're hoping that all this attention will make him change his mind," Gardner said.

    Linton, who has read Mackler's book, said the story is a realistic depiction of teen life.

    The book chronicles the life of Virginia Shreves, whose father is rarely around and whose mother is an adolescent psychologist obsessed with her daughter's weight. The book explores teen romance, self-mutilation, date rape and eating disorders.

    "We see this stuff and hear this stuff every day," Linton said. "It's ridiculous that they want to shelter us from things we're going to encounter anyway."

    She said adults need to trust her and other students to read about certain ideas without acting on them.

    Mackler said she has been moved by the students' efforts to restore the book.

    "The students of Carroll County have made a brave stand, and for that I am tremendously grateful," Mackler said this week.

    "The students are not only asking for access to my novel, they're also supporting the notion that young people have both a right and a need to read as widely as possible," she said.

    Irene Hildebrandt, Carroll's school system media supervisor, said she has heard from her counterparts in neighboring districts that the students have sparked discussions at other schools about the petition and the book ban.

    "Everyone wants to bash the school system, and this is showing that our students are becoming citizens," said Hildebrandt, who also oversees the reconsideration committee.

    "We try to teach them to read, to write and have those critical-thinking skills," she said. "Whether you agree or disagree, you sit back with a smile of delight that these students are to this point of development."

    Steven Johnson, acting assistant superintendent of instruction, said the students' efforts to change Ecker's mind have been informative.

    "The students are getting to talk about issues like censorship and freedom of speech," he said.

    Johnson said he has been impressed with the way Gardner and other students have conducted themselves while expressing their objections.

    "These folks are obviously concerned. And I like the way they're going about this, in a very mature way," he said.

    When the students started gathering names on a piece of notebook paper - they have since typed the petition - Gardner and her friends had no idea that they would inspire so much interest in books.

    "This has become an issue people care about," Gardner said. "It's really cool that people care. Sometimes you feel like you could march on Washington all you want and no one would listen. But this has shown me that we can make our voices heard."

    Linton said she has been "completely amazed and happy" about the response to the petition. She said the experience is one that she, Gardner and Slone can take pride in.

    "I think this is also preparing us for college and life because we're standing up for what we believe in," she said. "I'm happy that people are starting to listen."


Book banned in Carroll gets partial reprieve

Date: Wednesday, January 11, 2006

   The superintendent of Carroll County schools, whose ban of an award-winning book from the system's libraries prompted a protest from students and an outcry from several national groups, said yesterday that he would return the book to high school libraries, but not middle schools.

    Nearly three months after banning The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things, Superintendent Charles I. Ecker said he still objects to the book's use of profanity and its sexual references, but he decided that high school students are mature enough to read it.He said he had considered several factors in his decision, including numerous e-mails and letters from supporters and opponents of the ban, as well as the publisher's recommendation of the book for students 14 and older.

    "One thing I hope to come out of this is that parents will be concerned or inquire about what their children are reading," Ecker said. "A lot of people may assume that if [a book] comes from the school library, there's nothing bad in it. Whether [their children] get it at school, the public library, or buy it at a bookstore, parents ought to be more involved in what their children are reading."

    The book's New York-based author, Carolyn Mackler - who defends her book's use of profanity and sexual references as instruments that help teen readers see themselves in her stories - said last night that she was "thrilled to hear" of Ecker's decision.

    "I applaud the superintendent for being open-minded and listening to the arguments on both sides," she said. "He made a brave and intelligent decision. However, I'm disappointed that the superintendent has chosen to ban The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things from middle school libraries. Based on the many letters I've received from 12- and 13-year-old girls who have told me [the book] has helped them feel better about themselves and their bodies, I believe this readership also needs access to honest books that encourage empowerment and healthy self-esteem."

    High school students and librarians said they were pleased with Ecker's decision, agreeing that the book's language could be unsuitable for middle-schoolers.

    "That's awesome," said Crystal Gardner, who spearheaded a petition drive in November at Winters Mill High in Westminster to protest Ecker's ban. "I see his point with not wanting middle school students to read it. But I thought it was irrational to take it away from high schools."

    Gardner, who with two classmates collected nearly 350 signatures, said she had not submitted the petition to Ecker but felt their efforts had made a difference.

    "We kind of accomplished what we wanted," she said.

    Anna Harvey, a junior at Westminster High, said that while she understands Ecker's concern that middle-schoolers might not be mature enough for the book, it "has a good message" for high school students.

    "It was probably the best decision," said Harvey, who read the 244-page book in two days last year.

    Harvey's mother, Keri Harvey, said she hadn't read Mackler's book, but she trusts her daughter's judgment.

    "She's on the National Honor Society and she's mature far beyond her years, so I trust her," Keri Harvey said. "She said she felt the book spoke to what she and a lot of teens are feeling and going through."

    Irene Hildebrandt, the school system's media supervisor, "wholeheartedly" supports Ecker's decision.

    "The real thing is that he gave thoughtful consideration," she said. "He took in all the input."

    Mackler's book chronicles the experiences of Virginia Shreves, an overweight 15-year-old girl struggling to fit in at school and with her high-achieving family. The book explores teen romance, self-mutilation, date rape and eating disorders.

    While Bonnie Kreamer, a librarian at Winters Mill High, said she was "ecstatic" about Ecker's decision, she is alarmed about another banned book.

    "I think people have forgotten that there were two books banned [this school year] from our shelves," she said. "I'm still concerned that there has been no decision on [Born Too Short: The Confessions of an Eighth Grade Basket Case by Dan Elish]."

    Kreamer said Born Too Short tells a story similar to Mackler's, but from a boy's perspective.

    "It's a teen book about a boy's growing pains," she said. "I'm extremely glad [about Mackler's book]. But I'm one who prefers that books not be banned at all."

    David Rocah, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, said the organization is "heartened [Ecker] reconsidered his decision about this book," but he and others remain concerned about other banned books in Carroll.

    "In our letter [to Ecker], we pointed out four other books that have been banned," Rocah said. "That's what's disturbing. There seems to be a pattern here of pulling books off the shelves."

    Rocah was referring to Born Too Short, Leaving Disneyland by Alexander Parsons, Beet Fields by Gary Paulsen, and Whistle Me Home by Barbara Wersba, which have been completely or partially banned in the past three years.

    After hearing complaints from a student and a parent, Ecker ordered school librarians in mid-October to remove Mackler's book.

    Soon after the superintendent's action, school librarians met with Ecker, who agreed to reconsider the book

    Ecker said he believes that the story has a valuable lesson for parents and students.

    "I wish I could require parents to read it with their kids because the book relates to families and how individuals feel about themselves," he said. "As I've said all along, the book does have a good message. But I also think the use of vulgar words and statements that are sexual in nature could've been left out."


Teen maintains stance against disputed books
High-schooler says decision to have titles on shelves is `against the values of Carroll County'

Date: Wednesday, January 25, 2006
   The Carroll County school system has returned two disputed books to high schools, but the student who led the effort to have them removed maintains that profanity and sexual references have no place in school libraries.

    Westminster High School junior Joel Ready felt so strongly that the books were inappropriate that he fired off letters last fall to Superintendent Charles I. Ecker and school board members seeking removal of The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things by Carolyn Mackler and Born Too Short: The Confessions of an Eighth-Grade Basket Case by Dan Elish, after a committee decided to keep them in school libraries.Soon after Ready sent his letters, Ecker ordered the books stripped from library shelves. Two weeks ago, Ecker returned both books to high school libraries, but said he would restrict them from middle schools.

    "I'm not going to accept a [committee's] decision that is stacked against the values of Carroll County," said Ready, 17.

    Since Ecker's decision to remove the books, many have debated the merits of banning books and the process that allows one or two people to challenge whether a book is appropriate for schools.

    Today, a group of school librarians will meet with school board members to explain how they select books and how people can object to them. The public is invited to attend the 3 p.m. meeting at the Board of Education's central office in Westminster.

    Ready is unwavering in his belief that there is a wide gulf between banning a book and keeping it off a public school system's library shelves. But others argue that it's not fair to allow one or two people the power to remove materials from an entire school system based on individual values. To do so, they say, is unconstitutional.

    "I believe in Joel's right to do what he did, but he and Dr. Ecker don't have the right to dictate [their values] to an entire county," said Saul Clark-Braverman, a Westminster parent whose four daughters attended Carroll schools.

    Mackler's and Elish's books chronicle the experiences of teenagers coming to terms with their appearances and other self-esteem issues.

    "If there's a process that we go through here where librarians approve the book, and then a reconsideration committee approves the book ... [then] the process is a sham," Clark-Braverman said. "Everybody approved it, but then Dr. Ecker, on his own, said no based on one family's complaint."

    Ecker said this week that he sees nothing wrong with one person having the power to remove a book from the system.

    "One person [the librarian] puts the books on the shelves, one person can take them off," he said. "If people don't like my decision, they can appeal to the school board. If they don't like the school board's decision, they can keep appealing until it reaches the courts."

    Last year, the reconsideration committee received a complaint about Mackler's book from Cindy Young, whose daughter attends Shiloh Middle School in Hampstead.

    "My daughter brought the book home and said turn to page so-and-so," said Young, who was upset when she discovered profanity and sexual references in the book. "It's not appropriate material for middle school kids."

    Young said she called the school's principal and found out she could appeal to the reconsideration committee. After the committee read and discussed the book, it decided to keep Mackler's book in middle and high school libraries, according to Irene Hildebrandt, the district's media supervisor who oversees the committee but does not vote.

    Ready is one of three high school students on the reconsideration committee, a dozen students, parents, administrators, media specialists and teachers who review challenged books.

    He said he broke from the committee's majority decision and wrote the letters because he was determined to keep the books out of school libraries.

    "These books are not the best we can do," he said. "I'm not going to accept a committee that passes on books that are immoral."

    Ready said he does not agree with the argument that profanity and sexual references are used in teen literature to help readers relate to the stories.

    "The phrase we keep hearing is, `This is a good book for the reluctant reader.' Write a book for the reluctant reader and don't include profanity," he said. "We don't have to come up with books and include vulgarity and hope [kids] get hooked on them."

    Ready said his efforts don't amount to censorship because the books are available in local bookstores, public libraries and online. He said his goal is to help set a standard that recognizes a community's moral values.

    "We have freedom of speech, but you can't yell fire in a movie theater," he said. "You have to draw a line somewhere."

    David Rocah, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, said his group is concerned about what it sees as a pattern of book banning.

    "It's fine that they have a process for allowing people to complain, and it's fine to have a review committee," Rocah said. "What's wrong is the substantive decision that the superintendent made. What's striking is the superintendent overturned the decision of the committee and he overturned the decision of professional [librarians]."

    Hildebrandt said she hopes today's meeting will give board members greater insight into how librarians pick books and the process of challenging books.

    "What we're trying to do is not necessarily deal with a particular book or clump of books, but what we're dealing with is a process," she said.

    Ecker said that if board members have suggestions for amending the processes, he will establish a committee of parents, students, media specialists and teachers to consider changes.

    Ready said he hopes people will not be deterred by charges of censorship and will continue to object to books they believe are inappropriate for schools.

    "I'm not convinced there is an ultimate slippery slope," he said. "Just because we're not sure where this could end doesn't mean we should do nothing. We're never going to stop drug use or end violence, but that doesn't stop us from trying."


The Censorship Challenge
Every year; public school librarians across America face questions from parents and even students seeking to ban controversial books

Date: Sunday, February 12, 2006

The title alone makes some adults squirm.

    But Carolyn Mackler's The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things, a novel about an overweight girl struggling to come to terms with her poor self-image and self-worth, has a message that resonates with teens.Those squirming adults and reading teens were at the heart of a recent debate over book banning in Carroll County that mirrors a passionate national argument: Are profanity and sex appropriate literary tools to reach worldly teenage readers, or should books containing such material be barred from school libraries?

    Just getting teens to read is a challenge, education experts say. Studies show that the more teenagers read, the more they want to read, officials at the American Library Association note. So it's not surprising that writers want to produce books with teen appeal.

    "Kids want things that are realistic," said Beverly Becker, deputy director of the American Association of School Librarians, a division of the library association. "The language is not what readers take away; they take away the story, and the language makes it realistic."

    "Most writers want to depict characters and situations as realistically as they can," said Deborah Taylor, coordinator of school and student services at Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library. "They are very often including what they've heard - the way young people speak around each other rather than how they speak when they are around adults and teachers."

    But Bob Waliszewski largely disagrees with the argument that young adult literature needs to be peppered with profanity and sex to teach and appeal. As a leader of the nonprofit religious group Focus on the Family, he monitors popular culture and media for teens.

    "If this is the kind of stuff we don't want kids to emulate, then why put it out there?" Waliszewski asks. "Let's raise the bar higher for our teenagers. They're trying to form a lot of values right now, and we need to give them solid examples to follow and try to keep out the garbage."

    Clearly, many Americans agree.

    Joan Bertin, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, describes a "very steady drumbeat" of challenges to books like Mackler's.

    "There's a lot of activity, and most of it is focused on young adult novels," said Bertin, whose organization helps defend books against courtroom challenges. "Most of these cases largely focus on sex and language issues. The life challenges that kids are starting to see and understand are the principal issues in [these novels], and those are the very things that seem to trigger the censors."

    The American Library Association logged 547 book challenges last year, most of them at school libraries, though some came from public libraries. However, the group estimates that this figure represents only about 20 percent of challenges because they don't hear about every objection.

    Judith Krug, director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom at the library association, said she has witnessed a recent surge in attempts to ban books, but that these efforts have generally been less successful. She notes that book protesters no longer feel stigmatized by expressing what might be considered an unpopular opinion or a singularly held position.

    In responding to those protesting teen book content, she often resorts to an analogy.

    "I tell them if you want to keep your kids safe around the swimming pool, you can put up fences, you can provide a lifeguard," she says. "But the best way to protect them is to teach them to swim."

    Stephen Mooser, president of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, said that although the public outcry about books such as Mackler's continues unabated, there has been a recent change in tone.

    "People are less willing to urge the outright ban of books, but there is a place for compromise," Mooser said. "As in Carroll, where the book was restored to high schools but not middle schools."

    Krug said, "language has always been a problem. I find it amusing, and sometimes amazing, that normal bodily functions and the language used to describe them become profane and sexual to those who challenge these books. But a girl starting her period is not sexual. It's a part of growing up, and you talk about it the way kids would talk about it."

    But others argue that teenagers should not be reading such language in books that are available in their schools.

    "These are not books that model strong character. We should be training [students] and we should be presenting things to give them more of a view of character. They'll find [books like Mackler's] on their own," says Rebecca Ready, the mother of the 17-year-old student who led the effort to get Mackler's book banned.

    "It is really derogatory toward girls. The title isn't even appropriate," said Ready, who teaches Spanish at Westminster High School. "We're not talking about censorship here. We're talking about what do we want young minds formed by."

    Waliszewski also challenges the assertion that efforts to limit access to such materials amount to censorship.

    "If by censorship we mean keeping it out of a library, most school libraries don't have Penthouse on the shelves," he said. "If you're honest about it, you have to draw the line somewhere. Everyone agrees we don't want to bring child pornography into the classroom, so we draw the line there. But when we say we're going to draw the line at premarital sex, they say that's being way too conservative."

    Joel Ready, a junior at Westminster High, serves on the Carroll school system's 12-person committee that reviews books that are challenged. When that group supported retaining Mackler's book in the school libraries, Joel prevailed upon the superintendent and the school board to overturn that decision.

    "The F-word is not a literary device," he said. "I don't think the language adds anything to the book. Books that talk about and encourage premarital sex are wrong. We need a better standard than that."

    Other students, however, say that what they have read in Mackler's book and other young adult novels is nothing new to them.

    "We need to deal with reality," said Crystal Gardner, an 11th-grader at Winters Mill High School in Westminster. "We're in high school and have been exposed to [profanity and sexual references] in middle school already."

    Ramona N. Kerby, an education professor at McDaniel College in Westminster who teaches a course on literature for children, maintains that books - and libraries - are a reflection of a diverse and multicultural society.

    "As readers, as learners, as librarians, we model tolerance for all kinds of ideas - and kids," she says. "By modeling tolerance for all kinds of books and stories and ideas, we are showing our students that we trust them. We trust them to handle the idea and put it into perspective, no matter how scary the idea."

    Rather than aiding moral corruption, Kerby said, books like the ones to which the Readys object are the building blocks of character.

    "The reason we need to have books like that on the shelves is that it gives people like Joel fodder for his own thought," she said. "Because of [Mackler's] book, he gets to clarify his own morals for himself."

    Even the Carroll County schools superintendent, Charles I. Ecker, who several months ago had Mackler's book stripped from his district's libraries, said he wishes he could require parents and students to read together. He recently returned Mackler's book to high school libraries only, along with Dan Elish's Born Too Short: Confessions of an Eighth-Grade Basket Case, a book from a boy's perspective that is similar to Mackler's.

    Ecker said that although he still objects to the book's language, the story's positive message outweighs the negatives, and high school students are probably mature enough to handle it.

    The young adult fiction movement that sparked the long-running teen literature controversy was born in 1967 with S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders . The book was published during Hinton's first year of college, but she had started writing it when she was 15 and disturbed by the tensions at her Oklahoma high school between the privileged and the unpopular kids, many of whom were her friends.

    Before The Outsiders, "realistic teen fiction" didn't exist, said the Pratt library's Taylor, who teaches young adult literature at the University of Maryland.

    "The Outsiders had pretty frank language. That was the beginning of the modern young adult novel," she said. "That's when people began to really try to depict the voice of the teen characters."

    Taylor likens the evolution of this edgier realism in young adult fiction to what has happened in the movies, with industry executives less likely to rate a movie G "unless it's a cartoon" because society has become increasingly accepting of depictions of violence and sex.

    She said she understands the motives of people who question the value of profanity and sex in teen literature.

    "People want their kids to be safe morally, but there's so much more you get if you talk about it," she said. "There's an increasing amount of this kind of literature. It's a big change, but it's more of a reflection of what is happening in society. If it was totally out of left field, it wouldn't go far."

    But for some, the line between what offends and what enlightens becomes blurred.

    When Judy Blume wrote Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret in 1970, the principal at her children's elementary school refused to put it in the library because of the book's discussion of menstruation, she writes on her Web site, The book chronicles Margaret's sixth-grade year and delves into girl talk of menstruation, religion and kissing boys.

    "I wrote Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret right out of my own experiences and feelings when I was in sixth grade," Blume recalls at the Web site. "Controversy wasn't on my mind. I wanted only to write what I knew to be true. ... If someone had told me then I would become one of the most banned writers in America, I'd have laughed."

    In an interview published with the 2003 edition of The Outsiders, Hinton said she was pleased that reviewers were shocked by what they read in her first book.

    "One of my reasons for writing it was that I wanted something realistic to be written about teenagers," she said in the interview. "If you didn't want to read Mary Jane Goes to the Prom and you were through with horse books, there was nothing to read."

    Hinton said her book - which has sold more than 10 million copies, according to the Bookreporter .com Web site - has remained popular because teenagers have always felt that adults don't understand them.

    "Even today, the concept of the in-group and the out-group remains the same," she said in the published interview.

    For writers such as Hinton and Mackler, young adult fiction helps teenagers who have long struggled with societal norms and self-esteem issues.

    Mackler said she has been inundated with letters and e-mails from girls who thank her for writing about someone like them. They see themselves in her characters and learn from their experiences, the New York author says.

    "Over the past three years, I have received piles of letters from teenage girls telling me that since they've read my book, they feel better about themselves as they are, they've stopped hurting their bodies, they've sought help for bulimia and depression, they respect themselves more, and they've stood up to people who are treating them badly," she said in an interview.

    Mackler has said she writes books to help teenagers "make sense of their changing world" and that she uses profanity and sexual references as instruments to help readers see themselves in her stories.

    "As an adult writing for young people, I am aware of my responsibility," she said. "I don't just throw in sexuality casually or irresponsibly."



    10 most challenged books of 2004 Sexual content and offensive language remain the most frequent reasons people seek to remove books from schools and public libraries, according to the American Library Association. Three of the books on this list were cited for homosexual themes - the highest number in a decade.

    1. The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
Sexual content, offensive language, religious viewpoint, being unsuited to age group, and violence

    2. Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers
Depictions of racism, offensive language and violence

    3. Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture by Michael A. Bellesiles
Inaccuracy and political viewpoint

    4. Captain Underpants series by Dav Pilkey
Offensive language and modeling bad behavior

    5. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
Homosexuality, sexual content and offensive language

    6. What My Mother Doesn't Know by Sonya Sones
Sexual content and offensive language

    7. In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak
Nudity and offensive language

    8. King & King by Linda de Haan and Stern Nijland

    9. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Depictions of racism, homosexuality, sexual content, offensive language and unsuited to age group

    10. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
Depictions of racism, offensive language and violence

Most frequently challenged classics (1990-2000)

    1. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

    2. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

    3. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

    4. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

    5. The Color Purple by Alice Walker

    6. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

    7. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

    8. Beloved by Toni Morrison

    9. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

    10. Lord of the Flies by William Golding

    [Source: American Library Association]

Posted by Gina Davis at 3:47 PM | | Comments (9)
Categories: Around the Nation, Around the Region, Parents

Few good answers for Towson parents

“Absolutely, probably.”
That was the response from Erin Roberts, the county executive’s education liaison, when asked if the county would begin funding a construction project now to help alleviate Towson’s overcrowding problem.

Former Sun reporter Kris Henry posted this on her blog, The Forge Flyer, where she chronicles issues of interest to the Rodgers Forge, Towson, community and fellow moms. Her blog has also become one of two sites I've been frequenting as I've been following the story of Towson's crowded elementary schools and parents' push to get the school system to bring relief.

Another blog that I've found useful is one created by a grassroots group called Towson Families United. Cathi Forbes, a Rodgers Forge Elementary mom, uses the blog to track the crowding issue, community suggestions to resolve it, and the results of often fruitless meetings between residents and school and county officials.

Check them out and let me know what you think.

Posted by Gina Davis at 12:31 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Baltimore County

Confronting nature-deficit disorders

Got an e-mail that might interest some of you. There's a conference next week (Wed. Feb. 20) in Baltimore to discuss how schools, local government groups and non-profits can help urban schoolchildren better learn about nature and the environment. The Greater Baltimore Children & Nature Conference, to be held at the Waldorf School of Baltimore, will be the official Maryland launch of the "Leave No Child Inside" campaign.

The campaign to encourage children to spend more time outdoors started spreading across the nation in the last couple of years after Richard Louv's 2005 book "Last Child in the Woods" that diagnosed American children with severe "nature-deficit disorder." In this era of video games and Internet chatrooms, Louv observed that too many American children lack adequate unstructured learning and playtime outdoors. Cities from Chicago to San Francisco are looking to these campaigns to improve child development (through unstructured play) and reduce childhood obesity rates (by encouraging physical activity outside).

The conference in Baltimore has invited more than 150 leaders in local schools, businesses, city government offices and non-profits to come up with ways to beef up outdoor activities for children. The event will hold up examples of children-and-nature work already happening in Baltimore. Take Barclay Elementary/Middle, for example. The school is in the heart of the city -- surrounded by lots of gray and not much green. Recently, the school (with some help from the city) ripped off the concrete once on its playground and replaced it with grass. The school also planted lots of trees and bushes on their property to create a pasture-like habitat that draws birds, butterflies, bees -- a space where children can learn about ecosystems and plant life cycles while playing outdoors.

Conference organizer, Mary Hardcastle, the coordinator for the Maryland chapter of Hooked on Nature, a national environmental education non-profit, says she hopes programs like the one at Barclay's will spread across the Baltimore region. The conference is open to invitees only, but Hardcastle says she and the groups involved plan to develop a host of children-and-nature programs over the next several months that would be open to the greater public -- so keep your eyes peeled!

If you want to know more about the Leave No Child Inside Campaign in Maryland, you can e-mail Hardcastle at



Posted by Ruma Kumar at 6:01 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Around the Region, Baltimore City

February 15, 2008

Are teachers overpaid?

A reader who doesn't support giving Baltimore County teachers a pay raise called this morning with a common assertion: Teachers already earn too much money because they work only 180 days a year, 6 hours or so a day.

This reader was calling because he had just read my story from today about last night's school board meeting, where the board voted for a budget that doesn't include pay raises. Teachers are now considering job actions, such as picketing and refusing to do extra work.

In Baltimore County, starting pay for a teacher with a bachelor's degree is $42,000. Starting pay for a teacher with a master's degree is just over $43,000.

According to Cheryl Bost, who heads up the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, the system's teachers make considerably less than those in neighboring districts. For example, teachers who have a master's degree and have worked in the county for 15 years are ranked 19th out of the state's 24 school systems, Bost has said.

What do you think? Are the county's teachers asking for too much? Or do they deserve a pay raise? And what about this reader's claims that teachers have posh assignments because they work 6-hour days and only 180 days a year?

Posted by Gina Davis at 12:09 PM | | Comments (94)
Categories: Around the Region, Baltimore County, Teaching

The residency policy debate

Because a few people have asked, and just because it's Friday, here is a transcript of the debate at Tuesday's Baltimore school board meeting over a policy giving preference to city students in admission to city high schools. As I said in my post the other day, the discussion between Buzzy Hettleman and Andres Alonso got pretty animated. Hettleman was upset that there were last-minute wording changes to the policy that neither the board nor the public had a chance to review before the vote. He wanted feedback from the Legal Aid Bureau, which had specfic concerns about how the policy would impact vulnerable students in transitionary living situations. But when he started grilling a staff member in public, Alonso let him have it. (Hettleman, by the way, is usually one of Alonso's strongest supporters on the board.)

Warning: The following contains bureaucratic language and educational jargon.

Buzzy Hettleman: I move to table the third reader from consideration on the grounds that the community has not been notified via BoardDocs or any other way of proposed revisions to the policy, nor did the board receive the revisions until 6 o'clock this evening and has not had proper opportunity to consider them and I do not believe that the delay of two weeks will in any way affect the implementation of the policy.
(Anirban Basu seconds the motion. It goes to a vote, with four in favor and five opposed. The motion does not carry. Alega Scriber-Penn from the student placement office presents the proposed policy, which gives Baltimore City students preference in admission to citywide high schools. In nonselective schools that use lotteries to determine admissions, noncity residents can only apply for slots that city residents do not fill. Scriber-Penn asks for board questions before the vote.)
Hettleman: Could we have the full policy put on the screen, please?
Scriber-Penn: I’m not sure if they have the entire policy on the PowerPoint.
Hettleman: Well, has the full policy that we’re voting on tonight, has that been made available to the community in any way, shape or form?
Scriber-Penn: Yes.
Hettleman: When?
Scriber-Penn: It’s been on the policy, the Baltimore City policy review Web site.
Hettleman: Not the revisions, the revisions that we have before us, that we received at 6 o'clock this evening, have not been put on BoardDocs, and the board only received them at 6 o'clock this evening without any explanation. I fully support everything you have introduced as part of this policy. I’ve been for it all along. I think the whole board is for it. But the board set forth a procedure and the procedure is that we have three readers and that there be community input and feedback. We received feedback from various people, in particular the Legal Aid Bureau came here three weeks ago and presented to us detailed, thoughtful comments. As far as I know, some of them were incorporated, some weren’t. The point is, as far as I know, Legal Aid didn’t learn what was being planned and may still not know. I didn’t know and so, while I don’t think anybody disagrees, we have broken faith with the integrity of this three-reader process. It seems clear that when you have three readers that if there are changes between what we had on second reader and what we had on third reader, that those proposed changes should be public. We’re voting on a document that’s not public. And I don’t believe any of us want to do that even though we fully support the policy, and that’s why I sought to get this tabled because I’ve been told that no harm will be done if we approve this in two weeks and then we will have kept faith with the integrity of this process. I’ve sat on this side of the table and when people come and present comments, they have a right to expect that the process will be followed. We did not follow the process.
Scriber-Penn: Well, to the best of my knowledge, the policy review updates that were provided to the Web site and all the comments received from the community stakeholders were forwarded back in an expeditious manner, meaning the responses they received, the Bureau of Legal Aid’s questions that were posed, all of those agencies in addition to parent advocate groups were provided with responses surrounding the policy.
Hettleman: I know how dedicated and able you are, Ms. Scriber-Penn. This is not directed at you but to the integrity of the process. Legal Aid Bureau did not receive a copy of these amendments until possibly, and I don’t even know, until late this afternoon, if they received them at all, so I don’t know what Legal Aid thought about them. The response that was sent to Legal Aid last night at 6 o'clock, they presented these three weeks ago, they were presented with a memo at 6 o'clock last night that did not include the proposed revisions. That’s simply not fair. This board is too sensitive to relationships with the community to not adhere to a process that we’re trying to bring some credibility to.
Scriber-Penn: I think we’re speaking of two different points of references. One point of reference is, the changes, the majority of the changes would be verified in the administrative, CEO administrative regulations. And I think the point to reference that, that’s where the operational procedures and functions will occur. Mr. Hettleman, the changes that you’re referring to, many of the changes in the stated said policy, there were not many changes at all. 
Hettleman: I asked you to put them on so everybody could see. Why are we voting on something that people don’t know what we’re voting on? And the board can hardly know because we only received this, maybe you don’t know what’s been put into it at the end.
Brian Morris: This is where we are. The CEO, by way of Ms. Scriber-Penn, is putting forth the recommendation for the residency, non-residency and tuition policy. Commissioner Hettleman, I hear your concerns and knew of your concerns and you have had the opportunity to express your concerns. Those concerns were what prompted you to put forth a motion to table the vote. It did not carry. And so what we have before us is a decision on a recommendation. We have not asked for a vote yet but we will ask for a vote because the motion to table did not carry.
Hettleman: I would urge my colleagues on the board to vote against this third reader at this point. It can always be brought back in two weeks and maintain faith with the community in this process because we set... Look, this policy is fine, but we set a terrible precedent in future in terms of the integrity of the policy developing process.
Morris: Is there a motion in support of the recommendation? Is there a motion in support of the recommendation from the CEO?
(Bob Heck makes a motion. Jim Campbell seconds.)
Campbell: Mr. Chairman, just a point of order. If we do pass this, could we send it to Legal Aid and get their opinion? We could make a change if that was required?
Morris: That is possible. It is our policy.
(The board votes on the policy. Three members are opposed and six are in favor. Policy passes.)
Hettleman (to Scriber-Penn): Before you leave, would you please explain to me what an implementation strategy is? Is that a policy? Is that a regulation? What is it? What is it that we passed? Because you spoke to administrative regulations, but everything that you said was going to be in administrative regulation is in this policy as an implementation strategy.
Morris: What I’m gonna ask Commissioner Hettleman is, for the purposes of the discussion, if you could forward your questions to Dr. Alonso, so that we don’t put Ms. Scriber-Penn in an unfavorable position.
Hettleman: Well then, Dr. Alonso could answer the question right now. I’d like to email it to him. I’d appreciate if he would answer the question.
Alonso: Would you rephrase the question?
Hettleman: This policy that we passed, that personally no one has seen, contains detailed implementation strategies. Now, are those, in your memo last night you referred to administrative regulations. What are these implementation strategies? Are they policy? Are they administrative regulations or are they something new that somebody figured out we would call implementation strategies, whatever that means, which also sets a bad precedent?
Alonso: Well, two comments before I answer your question. The first comment is that the policy was posted in two separate readers. The public was given the opportunity to respond with comments to the twice posting of the policy. One group, Legal Aid, responded, among many, responded with comments on the policy. We sought to address the comments as we sought to incorporate much of the feedback that came from other groups. There is absolutely no legal or process requirement that requires that before we post the policy for the third time, we need to have personal conversation with any group or we need to have any group approve that third iteration of the policy. That is for the board to decide, whether the third iteration of the policy meets the standards of the board. There is a requirement that is being created on the go that is in no way a part of any board regulation or policy that I have seen, and I invite other board members to corroborate what I just stated. So there’s a standard being created that is problematic because until Monday, yesterday, we were fielding comments from the public that we were trying to respond to. So at which point does the clock stop? Does it stop at 5 o'clock in the afternoon in Monday, on Monday, in which case we might not have been able to put things on paper that are a part of the policy? Does it stop at 6 o'clock? We waited for as long as possible partly because it is the gist of the policy that ultimately matters to the CEO. The gist of the policy is that no qualified Baltimore City resident should be denied entrance to a Baltimore City citywide high school when that citywide resident meets the requirements for that high school. That’s the gist of it. That’s what matters to me. That is what I put in front of the public and I believe that it’s been an injustice that that hasn’t been remedied in the past. I commend this board for having passed the policy in the past few minutes. I truly commend because the board has understood that this has to happen and, quite frankly, it better happen now rather than later because we want to give people notice of whether they’ve gotten into the citywides or not as quickly as possible. Otherwise, they go look for other placements, elsewhere.
Hettleman: As you know...
Alonso: Can I finish, Mr. Hettleman? So, that being the point, you have just introduced into the discussion the question of what is policy and what is regulation, which as you know we’ve been debating over for the past seven months. I consider it to be problematic in the context of this discussion. It is something that we should be discussing in executive board meeting or in a public meeting where we are discussing the question of what should be policy and what should be regulation. But quite frankly, what I’m hearing you now state is dissatisfaction with the outcome of a vote, which is putting an unfair burden on staff, which I consider to be unacceptable. The policy that was put in terms of the board is fundamentally the same policy that has gone to us on different occasions. If the board has concerns with the final language in that policy, it can always come back to the CEO or come back to the discussion and ask that particular pieces be changed. In the meantime, quite frankly, Mr. Hettleman, we’re wasting our time.
Hettleman: If I may, as you know, as Dr. Alonso and members of the board know, we were led to believe that a two-week delay would not jeopardize anything. And you’re quite right, Dr. Alonso. First of all, as I’ve made clear every time, I support this policy 100 percent. The problem is that we may have set a precedent for future policy development and approval, which means that where we don’t have unanimity behind the thrust of the policy, that in the future, we may be voting on other policies that are debatable where we don’t know what we’re voting on and I don’t think you’d really, that that supports the integrity of this process.
Morris: Commissioner Heck?
Heck: I respectfully disagree with you, Commissioner Hettleman, and I’ll just leave it at that.
Morris: Further comments?
Neil Duke: I believe we’ve had a motion that’s been carried right now and additional argument we have at this point is probably superfluous. I would suggest we move on and carry forth. Any other discussion or debate we have would probably be addressed internally at this point regarding the mechanics of how we go forward in the future, as far as public notification and how to deal with public input.
Posted by Sara Neufeld at 8:03 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Baltimore City

Should superintendent get a raise?

Baltimore County schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston was recently reappointed as chief of the 105,000-student school system, but at least one local legislator is hoping Hairston isn't in line for pay raise.

Republican Del. Pat McDonough, who represents parts of Baltimore and Harford counties, says "these are tough economic times," and it would be irresponsible to give a raise to Hairston, who earns about $260,000 annually. In a recently circulated letter, McDonough asked fellow Baltimore County legislators to support this "hold the line" approach.

No doubt many of the county's 9,000 teachers might favor McDonough's suggestion -- Hairston's recently proposed $1.18 billion operating budget for the coming school year included no raises for teachers.

Posted by Gina Davis at 6:01 AM | | Comments (11)
Categories: Baltimore County, School Finance

February 14, 2008

AP or not AP?

It appears that my Advanced Placement story has stirred up a little discussion on The Sun’s Topix message board. 

In a nutshell, I wrote about the success that Maryland students have had in the national program.

Many on the message board are using the recently released results as ammunition in the Grasmick vs. O’Malley feud.

Through the course of reporting this story, I was struck by the fact that the AP program seems to be doing something that NCLB has not been able to do — encourage college-level curriculum. While some have argued that many states have begun to water down curriculum in order to meet NCLB growth requirements, the College Board, which administers the AP program, has beefed up its standards. This year, AP teachers were required to submit their course syllabuses to the College Board for review.

Can you provide me with examples of NCLB encouraging college-level courses? And please do not spurt out the term “highly qualified” teachers. I’ve covered education long enough to know that this is a laughable label…

Posted by John-John Williams IV at 4:05 PM | | Comments (6)
Categories: Around the Region, Testing

Study says NCLB is increasing dropout rate

There is an interesting new study out from Rice University and the Unversity of Texas-Austin.

Researchers found that the state that was the model for No Child Left Behind -- Texas -- loses about 271,000 students a year. And most of those students are African-American, Latino and students for whom English is a second language.

The researchers said pressure on principals and teachers to have high pass rates on state tests has led to higher dropout rates.

"High stakes, test-based accountability doesn't lead to school improvement or equitable educational possibilities," said Linda McSpadden McNeil, director of the Center for Education at Rice. "It leads to avoidable losses of students. Inherently the system creates a dilemma for principals: comply or educate."

A full copy of the study is here.


Posted by Liz Bowie at 11:07 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: NCLB, Study, study!

Fordham grades school districts on their labor agreements

Remember that planning time dispute between the Baltimore Teachers Union and Andres Alonso? No, it hasn't gone away, and rumor has it that a decision from the arbitrator will be out sometime soon.

Meanwhile, the Fordham Foundation -- a conservative think tank -- releases a new report today in which researchers analyzed the union contracts in the nation's 50 largest school districts to see how much freedom the contracts give principals to run their schools with autonomy. The report finds that most of the nation's largest districts have ambiguous agreements, giving principals and school leaders more autonomy than they actually use.

In Baltimore, giving principals autonomy in exchange for accountability is at the heart of Dr. Alonso's plans for school reform. In a meeting with The Sun's editorial board yesterday, Alonso talked about the need to give principals training in how to use their autonomy once they get it. Next year, principals are expected to have considerably more authority in deciding how to spend their school budgets. The dispute with the BTU centers on whether principals should have the discretion to be able to require teachers to spend 45 minutes a week on collaborative planning.

Fordham's report includes analysis on Maryland's five biggest districts: Montgomery, Prince George's, Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties, plus Baltimore City. Since this is a conservative foundation, it naturally views autonomy and flexibility as good things and rates the districts as such. Each district is given a "GPA" rating its labor agreement and its compensation package, rewarding such factors as pay for performance and increased pay for working in needy schools. Guilford County schools in Greensboro, N.C., ranked highest. Fresno Unified School District in California ranked last.

The results in Maryland are surprising. Read on to find out what they are ... and for a copy of the full report, "The Leadership Limbo," go to Fordham's homepage.

Anne Arundel County: seventh place out of 50. Labor agreement earned a 2.28 GPA, called "somewhat flexible." Earned a 3.75, or A-, for compensation, the highest score among the 50 districts. The report mentions the county's flexibility in giving teachers credit for previous experience.

Baltimore City: eighth place out of 50. Labor agreement earned a 2.18 GPA, called "somewhat flexible." Earned a 2.75, or B-, for compensation. The report commends the policy of rewarding teachers for working in shortage-area subjects and needy schools.

Montgomery County: 10th place out of 50; tied with Cobb County, Ga. Labor agreement earned a 2.11 GPA, called "somewhat flexible." Earned a 2.0, or C, for compensation. The report says Montgomery County is in the middle of the pack for all areas studied.

Baltimore County: 22nd place out of 50; tied with Chicago. Labor agreement earned a 1.86 GPA, called "somewhat restrictive." Earned a 1.63, or D+, for compensation. The report criticizes the district for failing to reward teachers for working in subjects with shortages.

Prince George's County: 47th out of 50. Labor agreement earned a 1.18 GPA, called "highly restrictive." Earned a 1.63, or D+ for compensation. The report criticizes the district for failing to account for student test scores in teacher evaluations.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 9:01 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Baltimore City, Baltimore County, Study, study!

February 13, 2008

Happy (early) Valentine's Day!

Members of the Maryland House Ways and Means Committee might find some glittery valentines today mixed in with their piles of paperwork on pending bills. The folks at FairVote, a Takoma Park-based nonprofit for voting rights, had dozens of 16-year-old students at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring send notes pleading, "don't break my heart" to lawmakers on the Ways and Means committee and the Senate's Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee today and tomorrow.

The notes lobby legislators to support two bills that would allow all 16-year-olds to pre-register to vote. The bills would allow their registrations to become effective whenever they reach legal voting age.

Current law limits pre-registration to only those 16-year-olds who will turn 18 by the next general election. The valentines blitz follows an effort by hundreds of students earlier this year who fought against a State Board of Elections decision to stop 17-year-olds from voting in primaries. Last week, the state Court of Appeals agreed with the youngsters, ruling that 17-year-olds should be allowed to vote in partisan and non-partisan primary elections.

Officials in Annapolis are getting a real taste this session of youth activism. This week it's valentines. Last week, it was banners, coffins and handcuffs. Hundreds of students from Baltimore and Washington rallied for more adequate education funding and threw a coffin on the steps of the State House to illustrate how depleted state aid kills their futures. Some lawmakers and aides watched stunned as two dozen students were detained by handcuffs. Del. Frank Conaway of Baltimore was one of the lawmakers watching the scene unfold. "I think it's great to see the youth get involved like this," he said. "This is how you learn about the political process. This is how you get involved."   

Posted by Ruma Kumar at 11:36 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Around the Region

Icy outside... and inside the board room

As ice pelted and coated our cars in the North Avenue parking lot last night, things got pretty chilly inside the city school board meeting, too. And I'm not talking about the physical temperature (though, this being Baltimore City, that wouldn't be surprising; seven schools closed Monday due to either lack of heat or water).

Highlights of the chilly confrontations:

1) The Rev. Dr. Cecil Gray takes on Brian Morris et. al.
Board members frequently voice their annoyance when one group takes us all or most of the 10 slots allotted for public comment, preventing others from being able to speak. Last night, the folks at Northwood-Appold Community Academy (NACA) signed up for seven of the 10 slots, protesting -- ultimately successfully -- Dr. Alonso's recommendation that the board extend the charter school's contract for two years. They wanted, and got by a 5-4 vote, a five-year contract renewal.

The meeting had started, by board chair Morris's watch, 23 minutes late (the closed session preceding the open meeting ran late, presumably because the board members were debating the charter issue). Morris wanted to speed things along and tried to persuade the NACA group to speak all together in one five-minute slot, rather than individually in seven three-minute slots. Gray, NACA's founder and president of its governing board, wasn't having it. "Our theme at NACA is freedom and democracy," he told Morris. Alrighty then....

Gray was the last of the seven speakers, and he paid no attention to the time limit. He vented about the nonsensical process for evaluating charters. He claimed that NACA's test scores last year were the highest in the history of Baltimore for a school taking the MSA for the first time.  He gave a laundry list of prominent names supporting the school, from City State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy to former U.S. Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders to former city schools CEO Walter Amprey. When he started comparing NACA's low suspension rate with that of other charters, it was enough for board member Neil Duke, who said it was "time to move on" and Gray had gone "too far astray."

2) Buzzy Hettleman takes on policy process, and Andres Alonso takes on Hettleman
Hettleman wanted to table the policy to give city students preference in admission to city schools because of some last-minute wording changes that he said neither the board nor the public had a chance to review. His motion to table lost by one vote, but he kept at it. "We're voting on a document that's not public," he said. He was upset that the Legal Aid Bureau, which submitted suggestions on the policy a few weeks ago to make sure that it didn't involuntarily discriminate against vulnerable students in transitionary housing situations, hadn't had a chance to review the final language. "The policy is fine but we set a terrible precedent in the future in terms of the integrity of the policy development," he said.

Alonso, coming to the rescue of a staff member being grilled by Hettleman, said that the wording changes were minor and could be adjusted in the future if necessary. In the meantime, current eighth-graders are waiting to hear what high schools they've been accepted to, and it's the gist of the policy that ultimately matters. "I believe it's been an injustice that ... hasn't been remedied in the past," Alonso said. When Hettleman started interrupting him, the CEO interrupted right back: "Can I finish, Mr Hettleman?" And if you saw my story today, you already got the most memorable quote of the evening, when Alonso told Hettleman he was wasting their time.

3) Administrators play the title name game
The board approved Alonso's first Harvard hire last night: Jonathan Brice, who is a doctoral candidate at Harvard's Urban Superintendents Program (where the CEO got his doctorate), was named executive director for student services and school intervention. His new position sounds an awful lot like the job called student support services officer, currently occupied by Everene Johnson-Turner. But Johnson-Turner hasn't been to work in a few weeks, and several sources have told me she's out on medical leave. The system isn't confirming anything, only saying that the two titles are different.

Brice, a Mervo grad who did his Harvard internship under former Anne Arundel Superintendent Eric Smith, is currently an administrator for the schools in Duval County, Fla.

If that's not enough school board news for you, keep reading to get the names of the new Parent and Community Advisory Board (PCAB) members who were appointed or announced last night. Michael Carter, the chair who's been saying goodbye for months now, can finally retire.

PCAB members representing parent and community groups:
Dennis Moulden, a parent at Roland Park Elementary/Middle and Western High, reappointed to a second term
Tammatha Woodhouse, a parent at Thomas Jefferson Elementary/Middle and a BCPSS employee

Representing students and families in Title 1 schools:
Theresa Bailey-Gwynn, a grandparent and BCPSS employee
Tony S. Jones, a parent at Harford Heights Elementary and William C. March Middle, also a BCPSS employee

Representing the Baltimore Council of PTAs:
Chequita Lanier, reappointed to a second term, a parent at Baltimore City College and the Claremont School, a BCPSS employee
Pat Muhamed, reappointed to a second term, a parent at Northeast Middle
Leslie Parker Blyther, a former PCAB member and a parent at Baltimore City College

Community representatives:
Susana Barrios, a parent at Patterson Park Public Charter School
Ori Shabazz, an employee of Baltimore City Community College

Alternate community representative:
Reba Hawkins, a parent at Digital Harbor High and Govans Elementary

Representing the plaintiffs in the Bradford school funding lawsuit:
Helena Napper and Michelle Green (named by the ACLU)
Shirley Mills-Dower, Susan Takemoto and Genevieve Cooper (named by the Maryland Disability Law Center)

PCAB appointments are good for two years, and members can serve up to two consecutive terms. All candidates were interviewed by Alonso and went through a background check.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 10:37 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Baltimore City

February 12, 2008

A Bermuda Triangle for Charter Schools?

I'm not sure when or how this happened, but it seems that Anne Arundel is the place to come if you want to close charter schools. 

Last summer, KIPP Harbor Academy closed. The charter school in Edgewater was part of a highly touted national network for raising scores among minority and low-income students. It has survived (and succeeded) in some of the toughest urban environments -- Philadelphia, Houston, the Bronx, not to mention Baltimore. But not here in Anne Arundel County. The school, which was beginning to register gains among its troubled student population, closed because it could not get the district's help finding a larger space to house its growing enrollment.

And this week, I've learned that another charter school, Chesapeake Science Point in Hanover, has scrapped its plans to add high school grades. The move has sent families of about 60 students scrambling to find other schools for next fall. Officials at the school said they abandoned plans for an expansion after continued probation of the school derailed negotiations with the landlord of a new space. Without a new space, the school won't be able to get a lease and budget documents related to the move in the district's hands by Feb. 23, a strict deadline set by Supt. Kevin M. Maxwell. Without those documents, Maxwell has been clear he would consider closing the school. Rather than risk closure, Chesapeake Science Point has chosen to remain a grades 6-8 school, much to the chagrin of the rising ninth and tenth graders at the school who thought they would finish their high school careers there. The school has some of the top state test scores in the district. The middle schoolers work two and three years ahead of their peers in other public and private schools. They have a 100 percent pass rate on the state algebra test. And yet, Chesapeake Science Point is struggling to stay alive.

I continue to be perplexed by the struggles faced by Anne Arundel charter schools. School district officials say KIPP and now Chesapeake Science Point are troubled because they're run by inexperienced educators who are often unaware of the academic and financial expertise it takes to run a school. Others have pointed to a weak state law that confines charter schools' autonomy. But the officials at KIPP and now at the one remaining charter school here, say they have been victims of a district that sees them as competition and is looking for ways to keep them from succeeding. What do you think is going on here?

Posted by Ruma Kumar at 1:13 PM | | Comments (2)

Would raising the dropout age to 18 do any good?

Ruma's article yesterday talked about proposed legislation to raise the minimum dropout age in Maryland from 16 to 18. A statewide task force has recommended raising the age for compulsory attendance in public schools. It was depressing to read that efforts to do so have stalled in the past because of the projected cost of having more students in school for an extra two years. In the current budget climate, the legislation may not do any better this year.

I don't think anyone would argue in favor of students dropping out of school at 16. But my question to those of you in the trenches is, would raising the compulsory attendance age have a real effect? Or are students who drop out going to do so regardless of whether or not they're in violation of the law? Clearly, any kid at risk of dropping out is going to need a lot of interventions. But is it common for students to drop out when they turn 16 just because they can? 

Many other states have decided that it's worth requiring students to be in school until 18. Check out this list of the attendance policies around the nation.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 12:41 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Around the Nation, Around the Region

February 11, 2008

A Guide to Howard County School Board Candidates

Need a last-minute biographical sketch about the candidates in the Howard County Board of Education primary? Then check out their comments in this election preview I recently wrote.

The election features a mix of familiar faces – two current board members are trying to extend their stint on the board – and a few new names. Check out this tidbit about how race is playing a factor in this school board primary.

Posted by John-John Williams IV at 3:21 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Howard County

Lies land Nevada high school football player in hot water

Here are the nuts and bolts of this story: A high school senior in Nevada lied to school officials and to his parents about getting recruited to play football at several Division I colleges.

Questions were raised when the colleges claimed that he was never recruited by them. The student, Kevin Hart, then claimed that a middle-man recruiter conned him into thinking that he was being courted by these college football programs. Hart even went so far as to file a report with local law enforcement.

The story gained national attention. With a seasoned bunch of reporters on the story, Hart began to crack, and eventually admitted to making up the story.

Now Hart may face serious trouble. The NCAA, the Lyon County sheriff's office and the local school system have opened investigations, according to the story.

Hart is 18, so he will likely be charged as an adult. (Can you say filing a false police report?)

There is plenty of blame to go around. Once again, schools have misplaced their priorities. They were wrong to  give this much attention to one student’s athletic achievements. It borders on favoritism. I doubt that the school would have held an assembly for a student who got a full academic scholarship. I thought that academics was still a priority at the high school level?

In this case, the school, and Hart, have major egg on their face, and rightfully so. I can’t say that I’m sorry to see them both embarrassed. Hart should be embarrassed for lying. The school should be embarrassed for not checking its facts.

What about the high school coach who was pictured standing right next to the student at the press conference/pep rally? Didn’t he ever question why he did not receive any phone calls from the football programs?

And what’s up with Hart’s parents who appeared to have been aware of an “exchange” of money between their son and this mysterious recruiter?

Now Kevin Hart’s name is mud, and his lies have potentially gotten him into hot water. Hope he can fall back on the “education” he received in high school. [I think he missed the lesson on telling the truth.] One thing is for sure, this is a lesson he will not soon forget.

Posted by John-John Williams IV at 11:00 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Around the Nation, Trends

Another BCPSS departure: Barbara Wheeler

The city school system confirms that Wheeler, a former Cecil County schools official hired in September 2006 by Charlene Cooper Boston to the newly created position of deputy officer for academic achievement, is no longer employed. As usual, no comment about why she left.

Entries on earlier administrative departures are here and here.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 10:37 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Baltimore City

Gangsta rap: freedom of speech or bad influence?

Students from the Baltimore Urban Debate League will argue both sides of that question on Tuesday morning at Eastside District Court. District Court Judge Jeannie Hong is among those who will provide a legal response to their arguments. And Joanne Martin, president and co-founder of the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum, will provide historical context on the role of rap and its influence on youth.

Wondering what to do with yourself while schools are closed for Election Day? The event is free and open to the public. It starts at 10 a.m. in Courtroom #6 at 1400 E. North Ave.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:03 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Baltimore City

February 8, 2008

In the Bronx, an unlikely success story

There's a good article in today's New York Times about a principal -- who happens to be a Hasidic Jew -- who's had surprising success turning around a middle school in the Bronx. Shimon Waronker was met with a lot of skepticism when he arrived at Junior High School 22, which had been on a list of the 12 most dangerous schools in New York City. The overwhelming majority of the school's students are black and Hispanic; Waronker surprised them with his ability to speak Spanish. Over the past three years, he has replaced more than half the school's teachers and earned his fair share of critics. But NYC schools chancellor Joel Klein (who was Andres Alonso's boss when he was deputy chancellor there) is quoted in the article saying he'd clone the principal if he could.

Finding great principals, giving them autonomy and holding them accountable for the results: That's the heart of school reform efforts in New York, and now in Baltimore. The question, when these principals are successful, is what lessons can be learned for all schools?

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 12:36 PM | | Comments (3)

The Algebra Project and student incentive pay

Thanks to Jay Gillen and everyone who commented on my post about the Algebra Project protest in Annapolis this week. In a comment last night, Jay talked about the Algebra Project's primary role as an after-school student tutoring organization. He said that "students, mostly low-income, have earned more than $1 million over the past six years teaching math." And he talked about a plan "that would lower teacher-learner ratios by employing thousands of older peers in all subjects to help younger peers learn."

A couple times in the past few weeks, I've heard Dr. Alonso say that he got the idea for his controversial student incentive package not from the reform already underway in New York City, but from a meeting he had last summer with Algebra Project members. The $700,000 that Alonso has designated to pay students for peer tutoring is directly based on the Algebra Project model. The $1 million he's using to offer incentive money to the 5,000 students who have already failed one or more of the High School Assessments takes a different structure, but it has the same premise: that money, even a small amount, may make it possible for low-income students to stay after school (or come in on a Saturday) for extra tutoring.

The money that students earn in the Algebra Project in some cases prevents them from having to spend their time working in dead-end jobs. In some cases, it probably prevents students from getting into trouble after school, either because they don't have anything better to do or because they're desperate for cash and selling drugs seems to be the easiest option. It shows young people that there are opportunities for them to be paid using their minds.

Because the Algebra Project was supposedly the inspriation for the school system incentives, I found it curious that at least a couple students out protesting Wednesday cited opposition to the incentives as the reason they were there. (I'm guessing these were not the group's core members, who are focused on their mission to secure more school funding.)

I'd love to hear from the Algebra Project students directly on this one: Is the school system's incentive package in keeping with the reforms you advocate? And how does student pay factor into the larger picture of school reform?

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 10:08 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Baltimore City

February 7, 2008

Education's role in the election, or lack thereof

I don't know about you, but I've been pretty frustrated about the lack of debate over education in the presidential campaign. Presumably, it's too hot a topic, and candidates don't want to touch it, which is why many in the education world believe that No Child Left Behind won't get reauthorized until after the second Tuesday in November.

Now with Maryland's primary just a few days away, I figured I'd provide links to the education platforms of the major candidates still in the race:

Barak Obama
Hillary Clinton
John McCain
Mitt Romney
Mike Huckabee

Not surprisingly, the Republicans all voice support for school choice, while the Democrats criticize No Child Left Behind (Clinton wants to end it; Obama wants to put money behind it so it's no longer an unfunded mandate). Huckabee caught my attention with his promise of music and art education for all, saying he wants to provide every child these "weapons of mass instruction."

Of all the candidate Web sites, Obama's includes the most detailed education platform, 15 pages for K-12 initiatives alone, mostly involving expanded early childhood education, NCLB reforms, and incentives to recruit and retain teachers in the nation's toughest schools. But because of there hasn't been much debate on schools, neither he nor Clinton has won the endorsement yet of the nation's largest teacher's union, the National Education Association (which, naturally, will back a Democrat). The NEA issued a press release yesterday saying its support is still up for grabs.

"There have been dozens of debates but less than a handful of questions about the future role of the federal government in public education," NEA President Reg Weaver said in the release. "Both Democratic candidates have strong records on education, but our members want to know about their visions and their plans for the future, and we haven't really heard that yet. If they haven't made education a central part of their campaigns, how can we feel confident that they will make education a central part of their administration?”

The blog Education Election (put out by the Education Writers Association, of which I am a member) has been chronicling the role of education, or lack thereof, in the campaign.

What are your thoughts on the candidates' education platforms? Do you think you have enough information to make an informed decision on Tuesday?

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:02 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Around the Nation

February 6, 2008

What the Algebra Project was protesting

I hate to put down my competitors at other media outlets, but this line in the Associated Press story about today's Baltimore Algebra Project protest in Annapolis made me laugh:

"It was unclear what exactly the students were protesting. They mentioned cuts to an educational funding formula known as Thornton, possibly referring to a phase-in to a portion of that formula. Others mentioned protesting a recent Baltimore City Schools proposal to pay students for high test scores."

Ruma covered the protest -- which resulted in two dozen arrests -- for The Sun (her story will be in tomorrow's paper; an early version is here). But I have been following the Algebra Project for awhile and can provide a bit of context about what the fuss is about. I hope that all of the students who got out of school yesterday to take a field trip to Annapolis also understand what they were supposed to be fighting for.

The Algebra Project is a civil rights organization. Its members believe that education is the fundamental civil rights issue of our time. Its slogan is "No Education, No Life" because members believe that when our society fails to provide children with an adequate education, it's equivalent to giving them a death sentence. For years, the Algebra Project has been involved in a lawsuit charging the state with unlawfully underfunding Baltimore's schools. Its members have taken officials to task for failing to comply with a court ruling that found the state had unlawfully underfunded the city schools by $400 million to $800 million between 2000 and 2004. The group estimates that, by now, the state owes the school system at least $1 billion.  

Making matters worse, Gov. Martin O'Malley -- who as mayor met with the Algebra Project and supported its quest for more state funding -- has now frozen the inflationary increases provided to school systems under the Thornton legislation (a statewide education funding initiative that grew out of the school funding lawsuit in the city). In Baltimore, that freeze will amount to a $50 million budget shortfall for next school year.

So all that was reason enough to protest. And then last month, Zachariah Hallback -- an 18-year-old Algebra Project member who had planned on participating in the "die-in" today -- was murdered, the victim of a foiled robbery attempt. To his Algebra Project colleagues, his death represented exactly why they are fighting, because when young people don't get a decent education, it's all too easy for them to turn to a life of crime instead.

UPDATE: For more info on the cool protest photo above, plus a link to more protest pictures, check out this post on the Photo Edge blog.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:19 PM | | Comments (15)
Categories: Baltimore City

Bit by bit, the bureaucracy shrinks

Gerry Grant, director of labor relations for the Baltimore school system, was let go this week. The school system confirms that he's no longer employed.

Last week's departure was Maryanne Ralls. Who will be next?

As the system braces for $50 million in budget cuts, it seems to me that officials are getting rid of administrators who a) aren't protected by a union, b) aren't deemed essential and c) aren't in a position to be transferred back to a classroom job or don't want to be. Dr. Alonso has made it clear that some North Avenue administrators will be sent back to schools, and he doesn't view that as a punishment.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:02 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Baltimore City

February 5, 2008

O'Malley and Grasmick make up

Few would have predicted that Nancy S. Grasmick would survive a few rounds with Gov. Martin O'Malley. But she not only survived, she appears to have won. The swirl around yesterday's press conference has been interesting. Some insiders wondered whether there was more to the deal than was announced. Did Grasmick agree to leave by a certain time in exchange for O'Malley's promise to quit trying to get her out of a job she has held for nearly 16 years? 

But many legislative and education sources said they believe it may not be any more complicated than what we can see.

Apparently, there was little support in the legislature for bills that would have nullified the four-year contract she will begin in July. The legislature has already gone along with O'Malley with some hard-to-swallow legislation during the special session. Now he was asking for them to take a position against Grasmick, who has gathered a lot of friends around the state over the years.

Legislators may have told O'Malley they weren't enthusiastic or wouldn't support it, so he decided to back down.

Grasmick did agree to take over some education initiatives the governor feels are important, including more career and technology education in high schools.

What are your thoughts on what may have happened? And how do you feel about four more years of Grasmick?


Posted by Liz Bowie at 1:20 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Around the Region

What do Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, Oprah Winfrey, and Marilyn Monroe have in common?

According to a survey of high schoolers, these Americans are among the most influential. The students “overwhelmingly” choose African-Americans and women, according to a soon-to-be-released study, which will appear in the March issue of The Journal of American History.

The study suggests that the "cultural curriculum" most students learn in school has increased the emphasis on Americans who are alive, non-white, and female.

According to the article, the study says that the emphasis on African-American figures by schools leaves behind 18th- and 19th-century figures, figures like Cesar Chavez, Pocahontas, Sacagawea, and labor leaders such as Samuel Gompers and Eugene V. Debs.

Check out the USA Today article for the top 10 influential Americans.

This article about the study got me thinking. Are there any people on the list that surprised you? What does this list say about what students are being taught in school? And, has cultural curriculum been a good or a bad thing for students?  

Posted by John-John Williams IV at 8:01 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Around the Nation, Teaching, Trends

Pushing for elected school boards... again

Advocates in various counties across Maryland are teaming up to lobby for elected school boards in their respective systems.

The newly created Maryland Coalition for Elected Boards of Education includes representatives from Baltimore County, Caroline County, Harford County and Baltimore City.

In a press release: "Only 7 out of 24 school boards in Maryland are still appointed by the governor. The group maintains that the time has come for all Maryland citizens to have the right to elect their own board of education." (Baltimore's board is jointly appointed by the mayor and the governor.)

Last year, Republican Del. Barry Glassman drafted a bill that would have phased in a blend of elected and appointed board members in Harford County, but that measure was stymied in committee. This year, Sen. Glassman has introduced a bill requiring that all members of the Harford County School Board be elected.

We debated the pros and cons of elected vs. appointed boards here not too long ago... which structure do you prefer?

Posted by Madison Park at 6:01 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Around the Region, Baltimore City, Baltimore County

February 4, 2008

Never underestimate the power of Nancy Grasmick

They don't call her Teflon Nancy for nothing... Her nemesis, Gov. Martin O'Malley, announced today that he will work with the state superintendent, and he's asked members of the General Assembly to call off their efforts to oust her through legislation. The Sun's initial story is here; more to come in tomorrow's paper.
Posted by Sara Neufeld at 3:20 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Around the Region

Is your school getting a metal detector?

Read on to find out ...

The Baltimore school system has released the list of 40 schools scheduled to have walk-through metal detectors installed this month. These are all schools where the principals requested metal detectors, supposedly after gathering community input. The list is subject to change if more principals decide they want metal detectors or if principals who have requested the devices change their minds.

Employees from the 40 schools are scheduled to undergo training in a few weeks, at which point installation will begin (starting, I'm told, with the Walbrook campus, which is top priority). In the weeks and months ahead, I'll be interested to hear from those of you in these schools about how the metal detectors work out.

And now for that list ...

Baltimore schools scheduled to get metal detectors, as of Feb. 1:
#434 Homeland Security Academy (Walbrook campus)
#435 Entrepreneurial Academy (Walbrook campus)
#418 W.E.B. DuBois High
#420 Samuel L. Banks High
#424 Thurgood Marshall High
#181 Southside Academy
#426 Doris M. Johnson High
#429 Vivian T. Thomas Medical Arts Academy
#78 Harlem Park Middle
#130 Booker T. Washington Middle
#430 Augusta Fells Savage Institute of Visual Arts
#419 Reginald F. Lewis High
#406 Forest Park High
#425 Heritage High
#450 Douglass High
#400 Edmondson-Westside High
#413 Harbor City High
#413 Youth Opportunity Center
#416 Digital Harbor High
#451 Central Career Center at Briscoe
#42 Garrison Middle
#46 Chinquapin Middle
#49 Northeast Middle
#80 West Baltimore Potomac Community
#82 Dr. Roland N. Patterson Sr. Academy
#209 Winston Middle
#230 Canton Middle
#263 William C. March Middle (formerly Harford Heights)
#372 Woodbourne Day
#488 Alternative Learning Center located in Lemmel
#488 Alternative Learning Center located in Lombard
#4 Steuart Hill Elementary/Middle
#51 Waverly Elementary/Middle
#75 Calverton Elementary/Middle
#95 Franklin Square Elementary
#223 Pimlico Elementary/Middle
#254 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary
#89 Rognel Heights Elementary/Middle
#201 Dickey Hill Elementary/Middle
#205 Woodhome Elementary/Middle

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 9:49 AM | | Comments (12)
Categories: Baltimore City, School Safety (Or Lack Thereof)
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