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April 30, 2008

In Canton, any school unwelcome

My day yesterday started out at a press conference for what seemed to be a pretty straightforward, positive story about the city's launch of six new middle/high schools (called "transformation schools" by BCPSS). By the afternoon, the story had morphed into something completely different, as I got call after e-mail after call about the outrage among Canton residents that one of the transformation schools will be located in Canton Middle, a building that was supposed to be vacated by the summer of 2009. (The school is still closing, but the building will be used for a new school.) City Councilman Jim Kraft is so angry he's threatened to hold up the school system's budget, which is before the council now.

It's clear that there's a serious problem now involving Canton Middle School students -- most of them poor and black -- behaving badly in a neighborhood that's increasingly occupied by affluent white people. Clearly, they're not learning proper conduct from their school or from home. But are they unteachable? The neighbors I talked to seemed to think so, saying they opposed the creation of any new middle/high school even though it will be run by entirely different people, even though the school's operator has had success with similar populations in Washington. I e-mailed Dr. Alonso about the reaction I was hearing. His response: "For the system to be what it should be there has to be a belief in the community that the schools can improve – that the children will improve."

In the course of my reporting, I had forwarded to me several e-mails from a community listserv about alleged attacks by Canton Middle students after classes dismissed. I'm pasting one that is particularly troubling -- on multiple levels -- below. I've deleted the poster's e-mail address but otherwise have not edited the message at all.

Patterson Park Attack
Posted by: "C"
Fri Apr 25, 2008 1:19 pm (PDT)
Just wanted to give everyone a heads up...
We were walking our dog in the park at approximately 3pm and were near the corner of Linwood and Baltimore when we saw a group of 10-15 boys (middle school aged) and 5-7 girls start throwing sticks and verbally threatening two young women strolling a young child...they backed off the women and the women walked past us. Less than 5 minutes later they ran down and beat a man (40-50 years old) with a large stick, while punching and kicking him...he was able to run towards us, and by then I was already on the phone with the police, so the kids took off down Lombard. He was bleeding profusely from his head and was taken to the hospital by paramedics. As we were giving our statement to police another man came running up and said his neighbor was in front of his house and was also beaten with a stick in the head by the same group and she needed an ambulance as well. The police then reported to us that they have had numerous calls around this time concerning this particular group of kids walking home from school...but they have not been able to catch them and can't post a squad in the area because it is "shift change"...they advised us to voice our concerns at the SE community meeting. The kids seemed to be afraid of dogs, (even a yellow lab that runs from cats) so I for one will be out in the park around 3pm with the dog and pepper spray!

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 10:38 AM | | Comments (39)
Categories: Baltimore City

April 29, 2008

Hot off the presses: "Attacking Our Educators"

Great timing after the highly publicized attack on Baltimore art teacher Jolita Berry: A new book about assaults on educators. The press release in my inbox says it's "a perfect end of the school year gift for any teacher." Because any teacher would want to spend the summer vacation reading about getting beaten up...

According to "Attacking Our Educators," teacher assaults is not a problem that's unique to Baltimore or even the United States. The release says it's an "epidemic" happening all over the world. In American schools, around 1.3 million teachers were victims of nonfatal crimes at schools between 1997 and 2001, the book estimates. In Ontario, 40 percent of teachers report "being bullied by students." In the United Kingdom, a third of teachers "have faced physical aggression from students." And the UK's National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women’s Teachers found that a teacher is attacked every nine minutes.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:03 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Baltimore City, School Safety (Or Lack Thereof)

April 28, 2008

Would-be parent volunteers, if not for the criminal background

I went to a PTA meeting last week at a city school with an interesting predicament: Some parents who want to volunteer in their children's classrooms can't because they have criminal backgrounds. The audience was thrilled to learn that the principal can apply to the CEO for a waiver for a particular parent. Dr. Alonso said he's willing to sign off on the waivers, provided that volunteers with certain crimes on their record never be left alone with children and that those with a history of drug abuse undergo periodic testing to demonstrate that the behavior is truly in the past. One mother at the meeting who said she's been clean eight years was so happy to learn about the waiver process that she broke down in tears.

As the city school system strives to recruit 500 volunteers in two weeks, it faces a delicate balancing act. On one hand, officials need to do everything they can to protect the safety of the children. On the other, children are better off when their parents are involved in their education, and many parents in the city have criminal histories.

If, in some neighborhoods, letting the community into a school means letting in people with criminal records, what's a principal to do?

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 11:01 AM | | Comments (6)
Categories: Baltimore City, Parents

April 25, 2008

So many choices, so little money

I dropped by the city school system's Professional Development Center on Northern Parkway yesterday for the "Student Support Expo," a two-day event where principals and others can meet with the many vendors and program operators who want to sell their services.

There were 132 organizations registered, each with a table set up in a hallway or classroom: textbook vendors, museum representatives, professional development providers, mental health care providers, arts program providers, violence prevention program providers, after-school programs... the list goes on. There was even a magician/ventriloquist whose flier helpfully points out that he's available for hire at Bar Mitzvahs.

One principal I talked to seemed to have a good strategy to navigate the maze. Before the event, she wrote down the areas where her school needs help and stopped only at the booths that might help fill those gaps. But clearly, for a principal who's not used to having budgetary discretion and suddenly has hundreds of thousands of dollars at his or her disposal, the situation could feel overwhelming.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:02 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Baltimore City

April 24, 2008

Another assault at the Lewis/DuBois complex

This time, the victim is ... a photographer from the Baltimore Examiner. The photographer was outside on the W.E.B. DuBois side of the building that also houses Reginald Lewis, scene of the infamous Jolita Berry beating. She was allegedly pushed to the ground by a student who didn't want his picture taken.

I wish I were joking. The Examiner story is here.

Meanwhile, Marc Steiner is back to work. He interviewed Dr. Alonso on school violence yesterday. You can listen to their conversation here.


Posted by Sara Neufeld at 5:56 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Baltimore City, School Safety (Or Lack Thereof)

April 23, 2008

Assaulted teachers aren't pressing charges

Interesting letter to the editor in The Sun today by Baltimore state's attorney Patricia Jessamy. In response to the highly publicized attack of Jolita Berry at Reginald F. Lewis High a few weeks ago, Jessamy began investigating the issue of teacher assaults in city schools. She was surprised by the statistic that the school system has expelled students 112 times this academic year for assaults on staff, since very few cases have resulted in criminal prosecution.

Under Maryland law, Jessamy writes, "if a second-degree assault occurs outside a police officer's view, it is up to the victim to file a citizen's complaint or charges against the perpetrator, depending on his or her age, either with a judicial commissioner or with the Department of Juvenile Services." Since most teacher assaults are not witnessed by a school police officer, it's up to the teacher to navigate the juvenile justice or criminal justice system to file charges. And most teachers who are victims don't. Some have told prosecutors their schools discourage them from filing charges, or they are worried about the time and energy a court case would require, Jessamy's letter says.

As of today, Jessamy's office has no record of Jolita Berry coming forward to press charges against the girl who allegedly assaulted her.

UPDATE, 4:15 p.m.: I've just learned that Berry filed charges today.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 12:28 PM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Baltimore City

April 22, 2008

A White House endorsement of Teach For America and The New Teacher Project

I was watching the Today show this morning and Teach For America, The New Teacher Project, and charter schools got huge plugs from First Lady Laura Bush and her daughter Jenna.

The pair were on the show promoting the new children’s book they co-authored entitled Read All About It! 

The book is about a second-grader, Tyrone Brown, who does not think its cool to read. Laura Bush said the character is based on a composite of students she taught during her days as a school teacher in Houston.

A portion of the money from the book will be donated to Teach For America and The New Teacher Project.

The two spoke about: the importance of literacy especially among males; the good things that TFA and TNTP are doing for American schools; and the fact that the president enjoyed reading to the two Bush twins growing up. (Who knew?)

It turns out that Jenna is quiet the scribe. She already penned last year's non-fiction Ana's Story, which is about a teenage mother living in Panama with HIV. (Baltimore’s newest resident keeps surprising me day by day!)

Posted by John-John Williams IV at 2:55 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Around the Nation

Seattle teacher refuses to administer standardized tests

A lot of teachers complain about the state standardized tests mandated by No Child Left Behind, but how many refuse to administer them? Carl Chew, a sixth-grade teacher in Seattle did, and found himself suspended without pay for two weeks.

Here is his account of his experience, along with an essay he wrote about the reason for his decision.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:03 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Around the Nation, NCLB, Testing

April 21, 2008

Report: 3 Md. colleges eliminate minority "achievement gap"

Towson University; the University of Maryland, Baltimore County; and Frostburg State University were singled out yesterday in a national report highlighting U.S. colleges that graduate black students at about same rate as white students – bucking the so-called "minority achievement gap" that has long plagued American higher education.

At Towson, only 45 percent of black freshmen graduated within six years in 2001, compared with 65 percent of white students. By 2006, during a period of increased black enrollment, the gap had been entirely eliminated, with both black and white students achieving a graduation rate of about 65 percent.

Towson officials attribute the change to lowering emphasis on SAT scores in college admissions, and putting more weight on high school preparation.

Nationally, black students in a given college tend to graduate at significantly lower rates than their white peers, according to the report published by Education Sector, a Washington think tank. African American students are also more likely to attend colleges with below-average graduation rates in general, the report said.

Other colleges that substantially improved the graduation rates of black students were Florida State University and Northeastern University. Among the campuses with the largest minority achievement gaps were the flagship campuses of the University of Michigan, the University of Wisconsin and the University of Colorado.

Education Sector researchers say the success at Florida State and Towson defies the "prevailing wisdom that low minority college graduation rates are regrettable but unavoidable." Among their policy recommendations is improved need-based financial aid and linking education funding to graduation rates, and not merely to enrollment.
Posted by Gadi Dechter at 12:08 PM | | Comments (0)

What would you say if the principal wasn't listening?

Mayor Dixon and Dr. Alonso are hosting a forum this afternoon for city teachers to voice their concerns about school safety and suggest solutions -- no administrators allowed. Fliers for the session stress that it will be confidential, an apparent recognition of the culture of fear of retaliation that pervades the city school system. The forum comes after two weeks of repeated incidents of violence in and around Baltimore's schools.

UPDATE, 8:30 p.m.: By my count, about 300 teachers attended. I spoke to Dr. Alonso after the forum (which went until 7:30, an hour and a half past the time advertised), and he said he wants to start meeting with teachers on a monthly basis, like he does with principals. The purpose will be to get feedback on the system in general, not only on the issue of school violence. So to those of you who didn't know about this meeting or weren't able to attend, maybe there will be other opportunities.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 10:33 AM | | Comments (8)
Categories: Baltimore City, School Safety (Or Lack Thereof)

April 18, 2008

A more visible role for Andrey Bundley

The former mayoral candidate and Walbrook High School principal is faring well under the new administrative reorganization at North Avenue. Bundley is now the unofficial deputy to Roger Shaw, executive director of secondary schools.

Bundley was suspended and removed from his job at Walbrook after an audit of student transcripts in the summer of 2004 found that students had been allowed to graduate that spring without all the necessary credits. Officials rushed to arrange a special summer session for some of those students; others were told they had to repeat a grade. Bundley was reassigned to the central office and allowed him to keep working on secondary school issues. He stayed under the radar for awhile but has become more visible recently.

Despite the graduation fiasco at Walbrook, Bundley was well-liked by parents and students. I'm told his new responsibilities involve community outreach, the area where his strengths lie.

Still, some people are concerned, especially in light of what happened this year at Maritime Industries Academy, one of the schools created after the breakup of Walbrook. Marco Clark, the former principal of Maritime who previously worked under Bundley, is now suing the school system. Among the allegations against Clark at the time of his departure in December: He let a student graduate without meeting the necessary requirements. Clark, too, was beloved by the families at his school, and Maritime erupted into chaos after he left.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:03 AM | | Comments (10)

April 17, 2008

An intern match

Despite the media frenzy surrounding the Baltimore school system last week in the wake of the teacher assault video, Dr. Alonso reports that Steven Harris enjoyed his stay and will be back in August to intern for him for six months.

At least he knows what he's in for.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 1:44 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Baltimore City

What if the teacher strikes first?

The city school system is refusing to release the incident report on the altercation at Mervo last week that left both a student and a teacher hospitalized. Why? Other students in the class are alleging that the teacher started the fight.

This is a tricky situation. In a case where students and a teacher are the only witnesses, it could be easy for the students to band together and make up a story to protect one of their own. And in reporting on teacher assaults the past week, I've talked to more than one teacher frustrated that attacks on staff go unreported for lack of evidence. I also knew a teacher who once spent months out of his job waiting for the school system to conclude that, no, he did not assault a student as the child alleged.

But what if the teacher at Mervo really did strike first? What if it's the teacher's word against the students'? How do you know which side is telling the truth?

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:03 AM | | Comments (8)
Categories: Baltimore City, School Safety (Or Lack Thereof)

April 16, 2008

Connecting the dots on school/city violence

Both yesterday and today, there have been lockdowns at Calverton Elementary/Middle School after shootings in the neighborhood. Yesterday, Alexander Hamilton Elementary was locked down as well, after a city police officer was shot just outside its walls. Nearby Empowerment Academy had already dismissed at the time, but today there was a lockdown there, too, after a 15-year-old boy outside was shot in the face. The shooting victim, who is expected to survive, is a student at Frederick Douglass High, where another student was arrested and charged with attempted murder this week in connection with a stabbing in a school bathroom.

A second thread: Our story Sunday reported that Booker T. Washington Middle has expelled students for teacher assaults eight times this academic year, more than any other school in the city. The 14-year-old girl who was fatally shot this week, allegedly by her 18-year-old boyfriend (who told police it was a mistake), was in seventh-grade at Booker T. Washington.

Under circumstances like these, how are students supposed to learn? And is it any wonder that violence is spilling over into school walls?

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 5:30 PM | | Comments (8)
Categories: Baltimore City, School Safety (Or Lack Thereof)

School volunteer update

The city school system reports that 142 people signed up yesterday to be volunteers. Starting the week of April 28, schools will hold training sessions for the recruits, outlining the specific things they want and general information on volunteering.

UPDATE, 4/17: As of Wednesday night, the number of volunteers was up to 190.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 11:43 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Baltimore City

Outcry over vacant teaching positions

The letters have been coming in a steady stream for three weeks. Hundreds of them. To local media outlets, the school board, the county council -- anyone who will listen. "Fund the schools budget immediately," they demand.

Parents are protesting a controversial proposal in Anne Arundel County to leave 200 teaching positions vacant to help the school system save $12 million and weather a particularly austere budget year. It's Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell's proposal, but county council members here are miffed that they've received the brunt of the criticism. The council's chairwoman blasted district officials yesterday for running "one hell of a PR scam" and accused them of using dirty tactics (i.e. rueful parent and student letters) to manipulate and pressure the county government to fully fund the district's request for a $100 million increase.

Check out my story in today's Anne Arundel section to see more of the sharp exchange. Also, this list shows how many teaching positions some schools would lose if Maxwell's proposal becomes reality. Parents are most worried that the empty teaching vacancies would lead to larger class sizes. The schools that would lose staff have the number in parentheses.

Post a comment and tell me what you think of the bureaucratic bickering and of the possibility of lost teachers in Arundel schools.

Posted by Ruma Kumar at 6:58 AM | | Comments (0)

April 15, 2008

Board approves budget

The city school board voted tonight to make school decentralization, principal autonomy and 310 central office job cuts a reality. Seven of the nine board members voted in favor of approving the budget. Jim Campbell and George VanHook abstained, citing concerns about the rapid pace of change and the system's capacity to handle it.

The budget book, an 89-page document, is now posted online along with all the other budget documents here.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 7:38 PM | | Comments (6)
Categories: Baltimore City

Calling for 500 volunteers

Some people may be skeptical that the city school system will find 500 volunteers in the next two weeks. (I report on the campaign in today's paper.) But whether the initiative is successful may depend less on the number of people who step up to the plate than on how they're received at a school. System officials say the schools where they'll be deploying volunteers en masse will all have to ask for the assistance, and they'll have to give the volunteers something specific to do.

Historically, though, it's clear that some schools have struggled with parent involvement because they haven't made parents feel welcome. Letting parents into a school means more eyes on the adults running the place, as well as on the children.

If you haven't read Dr. Alonso's email to the community yet, I've pasted the text below.

Dear friends and colleagues,

I am writing to speak directly with you about safety in our schools, to share some important facts with you and to ask for your help.  There has been a great deal of attention in the media over the past week about an altercation at one of our high schools, a disturbing cell-phone video of which was posted on the internet. As we have explained in the press, by law we are prohibited from commenting publicly about a specific incident involving a specific student or staff. 

But beyond a specific incident, it is critically important that we communicate together about how to make our schools safe. This is fundamental to our work together of creating a system of great schools for our great kids.

A school must first of all be a safe and supportive place to learn.  This is a fundamental commitment to our students, teachers, and parents and a major focus of our reform efforts. We take any disruption of the learning environment extremely seriously and must respond immediately and forcefully to any disruption. Certain behaviors should be and must be unacceptable, when they endanger adults and other children. I have made it clear over the past year that administrators in schools should follow the protocol which outlines the disciplinary process for our schools. There is a quite specific directive that when students engage activities that trigger persistently dangerous status (and they are specified by law) then they MUST be suspended.  This year there have been 112 expulsions for incidents involving assault on staff, compared with 98 last year at this time.  When students are not engaging in those types of activities, then schools should do everything possible to provide interventions that keep students in school, as opposed to pushing them out of school. 

The evidence indicates that schools are following this guidance. Extended suspensions—a consequence for serious, violent disruptions-- are up by 7% over last year (1,254 compared to 1,173 last year at  this time) while total suspensions for all conduct are down from 13,943 last year at this time to 10,502 this year. 

The answer to the question of what makes a great school is not an automatic reaction that moves to throw a kid out of school for any inappropriate behavior. Earlier in the decade, the school system had over 26,000 instances of suspension, while outcomes were those abysmally low graduation rates you've also read about in the past week.  The outcomes have improved as the number of incidents of suspensions has been reduced.  That might have to do with this simple fact – you cannot teach children when they are not in school. Similarly, you cannot teach them to value themselves if the reaction to any mistake is to exclude them and to push them out.  We cannot go back to practices that haven't worked because we still face challenges in our classrooms.

Schools are safe when there is:

A clear vision for the school that the entire school community supports and owns.
Instruction that reaches all kids, with their many different needs.
Support and interventions for students who –like many of our students—are dealing with serious challenges in their homes and communities.
Training to give our teachers, staff and students the tools to solve conflicts peacefully and respectfully.
Clear norms that everyone in the school understands and enforces, about what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior.
Support from parents and community.  
Please know that we are taking specific steps in each of these areas –in professional development, student support and re-emphasizing school norms. But, this essential work of making safe schools cannot be done by the administrators, teachers, staff or students at each school alone. I cannot say strongly enough how important it is for families and community members to rally around our schools, our teachers, and our students. To volunteer to take specific action to help our schools and students feel safe please click here. Please do all that you can to help.

We have taken critical steps toward making ours a system of great schools.  We are shifting resources and responsibility to schools and away from the central bureaucracy. We are creating new options for students that address critical needs. And we are engaging parents and community in a much deeper way.

There is a great deal of good work still to do. Thank you for being steadfast in insisting that all our great kids get what they deserve: great schools. 


Dr. Andres Alonso

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 7:25 AM | | Comments (10)
Categories: Baltimore City, Parents, School Safety (Or Lack Thereof)

New arrival on Carroll school board

The Carroll County Board of Ed is going to have a new face join its ranks come Friday, when Virginia Harrison is sworn in. Harrison, chairwoman of the county's Human Relations Commission, was appointed by the governor last week to fill the seat recently left vacant by Jeff Morse.

Morse resigned after a controversy surrounding a comment he made at a school construction site – a comment that, he acknowledged, included a racial slur.

Harrison steps onto the board as its sole member of color – a presence the panel has not had for some time.

What difference, if any, do you think it makes to have a person of color – or some other type of diversity – on a school board? Does it matter?

Posted by Arin Gencer at 6:01 AM | | Comments (1)

April 14, 2008

Wasted potential

With all the hullabaloo last week about teacher assaults, I didn't have a chance to blog about Dr. Alonso's proposal to give principals $2,200 for each student performing above grade level (in both reading and math in elementary school, and in either one or the other in middle and high school).

The statistics are staggering: More than 800 of last year's first-graders were performing above grade level, compared with only 83 seventh-graders. There's a common perception that kids in Baltimore come to school unprepared and already have a disadvantage going into kindergarten because their families haven't given them basic tools for academic readiness, such as reading to them regularly. These numbers throw that theory out the window, suggeting that the city is doing something right when it comes to early childhood education.

So then what happens?

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 9:02 AM | | Comments (7)
Categories: Baltimore City

April 11, 2008

Are schools doctoring discipline statistics?

The recent assault of a teacher by a student at Reginald F. Lewis High has highlighted a number of serious concerns facing schools right now. I have been most disturbed by the claims that administrators are not reporting certain disciplinary incidents to alter school statistics.

I must stress that the student in this recent case was suspended from school immediately following the incident. I am focusing more on the teachers union's claims that incidents like this are frequent and often unreported.

Marietta English, co-president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, said her office has been receiving two or three complaints a day of assaults on teachers, many of which are not reported to the school system or police, according to Sara Neufeld’s story.

The union has long claimed that administrators aren't reporting violent incidents or doing enough to punish children who are violent, for fear their schools will be labeled "persistently dangerous" under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, Sara’s story says.

A persistently dangerous school is defined in Maryland by the number of suspensions for violent offenses, not the number of offenses itself.

This isn’t just a problem in Baltimore.

My mother – a retired principal in Syracuse, New York – last night said she discussed this matter with some of her former peers, and it is common knowledge that some schools to not report certain disciplinary actions. (For the record, my mother detests this practice.)

Dr. Alonso has threatened to fire anyone in Baltimore city schools who does not report these incidents, Sara told me when I talked to her a few minutes ago.

The system says it has expelled students for assaults on staff members 112 times this school year, compared with 98 at this time last year.

School officials point to the slight increase in expulsions as a result of Dr. Alonso's policy, Sara told me.

Are schools are doctoring their discipline numbers to avoid: a negative community reaction, or an “unsafe schools” label?

April 10, 2008

Maryland students with disabilities will get increased access to high school athletics

Just in case you missed it, the General Assembly unanimously approved a bill Monday night requiring schools to provide disabled students access to sports programs, either among themselves or with able-bodied students.

 Under the measure known as the Fitness and Athletics Equity for Students with Disabilities, schools have three years to fully implement the requirements.

The legislation, which takes effect in July, requires local school systems to submit their plans to the state education department, which would investigate complaints and could sideline noncompliant teams or withhold money from schools or school systems. 

Not everyone is pleased with the law. I received a number of e-mails from angry readers since this story ran.


Needless to say there was a lot more of the same in this e-mail.

I wonder if this was the same opinion shared by some when women and people of color attempted to break down athletic barriers in the past?

Supporters of the new legislation say that it will essentially level the playing field for all students.
 What do you think?

Posted by John-John Williams IV at 2:45 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Around the Region, School Diversity/Segregation

When students assault teachers

My e-mail box was flooded this morning with messages from people outraged by my story today about a teacher assault at Reginald F. Lewis High that was captured on video on a student's cell phone. People are stunned by the statistic: the school system has expelled students 112 times so far this academic year for assault on staff, compared with 98 times at this time last year. And the teachers union is charging that more assaults were not reported.

In reporting a story like this, my fear is that the public will view all city students as "running wild" (as Dr. Alonso said at the board meeting last month, when he asked the union to talk in specifics rather than generalizations). My perception is that at many schools, a few disruptive kids can make the numbers look bad for everyone. It's also important to keep in mind that if a teacher or other staff member tries to break up a fight and a student hits that adult accidentally, that's grounds for expulsion, and those incidents are included in the 112 figure.

At the same time, I hear from a lot of folks who believe that our schools are sending kids the message that inappropriate behavior won't be punished. Now there's a school system-teachers union task force to address the issue of teacher assaults in particular and school violence in general. Members will try to come up with strategies to improve the situation.

Any ideas?

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 9:48 AM | | Comments (49)
Categories: Baltimore City, School Safety (Or Lack Thereof)

April 9, 2008

Does staff replacement improve a school?

Two recent studies raise doubts, but -- as I report in my story today -- the strategy has emerged as the option of choice for Maryland schools that are required to restructure under No Child Left Behind.

This report by the Center on Education Policy looked at 10 restructuring schools in Maryland. While much of the report deals with restructuring by hiring a "turnaround specialist," an option the state no longer allows because it was not effective, it also discusses the disruption on instruction when a school is "zero-based," or the entire staff is required to reapply for their jobs. This month, Education Sector released a report on a successful school reform initiative in Chattanooga. The most successful teachers were veterans who went through extensive professional development.

In reporting my story yesterday, it was interesting to compare the difference in the staff replacement plans in Baltimore and Prince George's County. Both are long-troubled districts with (relatively) new superintendents instituting a lot of changes. In Baltimore, the schools are zero-basing. This was the option selected by school improvement teams, and city school officials believe it's only fair for everyone on a staff to be on equal footing. It seems Baltimore County has the same rationale. 

But in Prince George's, the staff replacement is selective, with the only given being that teachers in restructuring schools who are not "highly qualified" and aren't close to getting there will be moved elsewhere. Superintendent John Deasy said he's worked with the state to develop an instrument to evaluate a school's capacity. In schools where only one subgroup isn't making AYP, there will be less intervention than in schools where every subgroup is falling short. In some cases, Deasy explained, the principal won't be asked to reapply; the principal will simply be replaced. This approach leaves more room for subjective evaluations, but Prince George's County officials believe it will also be less disruptive than zero-basing.

April 8, 2008

An intern for Dr. Alonso?

Steven Harris, a doctoral student in Harvard's Urban Superintendents Program (Dr. Alonso's alma mater), is spending three days with the CEO this week. If they decide at that time that they're a good match for each other, Mr. Harris will be back for six months starting in August to intern with Dr. Alonso. 

I met Harris in December when I spoke to students in the Urban Superintendents Program and also got a copy of his bio. Like Alonso, he comes from a legal background: He worked as an assistant attorney general in Missouri, where his caseload included the Kansas City school desegregation case. He then went to work as a lawyer for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Like Alonso, he left the law to become a teacher. He taught high school math in both New York City and Springfield, Mo. Before enrolling at Harvard, he was on the education faculty at William Jewell College near Kansas City.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 12:02 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Baltimore City

"A Nation at Risk," 25 years later

This month marks the 25th anniversary of "A Nation At Risk," a major report issued by the Reagan administration charging that a failing educational system in the United States was causing the country to lose its competitive edge in the global marketplace.

The Cato Institute, a non-profit research foundation with a libertarian bent, is hosting an online debate about the legacy of the report. Former New York Times columnist Richard Rothstein wrote an essay charging that A Nation At Risk was misleading and "set the nation on a school reform crusade that has done more harm than good." In the next few days, other leading education commentators will be posting responses to Rothstein. On April 16, the site will open for public debate.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:07 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Around the Nation

April 7, 2008

Florida attempts to overhaul sex education curriculum

Some Florida high school students believe that drinking a cap full of bleach will prevent HIV/AIDS, according to results from a new survey that has politicians in the state scrambling to overhaul sex education classes. Some Florida students, the survey says, believe that smoking marijuana and drinking Mountain Dew will prevent pregnancy.

Some advocates of a bill that would require a more comprehensive approach in the state’s sex education believe that these myths have spread because of the state’s reliance on abstinence-only sex education, according to the article.

Under a bill currently under consideration, schools would begin teaching about condoms and other methods of birth control and disease prevention in addition to abstinence.

What do you think? Should abstinence-only supporters take responsibility for the growth of these dangerous myths? Is a more robust sex education class the answer? 

Posted by John-John Williams IV at 2:30 PM | | Comments (4)

Budget vote postponed

As it turned out, it was overly ambitious to expect the Baltimore school board to vote on next fiscal year's budget at its April 8 meeting. The item has been pulled from tomorrow night's school board agenda.

The board can't approve the budget until it has resolved the issue of student "weights" -- in designating money per pupil, how much extra to give to kids who are struggling and to kids who are gifted, and how to define what kids are in what categories. It will hold a special work session on Thursday afternoon (12:30 to 2:30 p.m. noon to 2 p.m. in room 301 at North Avenue, if anyone wants to sit in). It's sounding likely that there will be another special meeting next week to adopt the funding formula and the budget, as well as an accountability structure spelling out the consequences for principals if their schools aren't successful under the new autonomy model.

For more on the budget and its implications, see earlier entries here, here, here, here and here.

UPDATE, 4/8: There will be a special board meeting at 6 p.m. April 15 to vote on the budget and the student weights. To clarify what some of the commenters have said: There isn't any doubt that decentralization and school-based budgeting is where the district is going. The delay is over the finer points of how much money to designate for particular students, not the overall direction. Also, because the student weights aren't set yet, the amount of money that schools will receive per pupil isn't set, either. So it's premature for schools to be finalizing their budgets because they don't know yet how much money they'll be getting. 

In response to the commenter who said Dr. Alonso is entertaining other job offers: I asked him about it this morning and his response was a laugh. He wondered where in Florida he's supposedly thinking of going. He thought a more likely rumor would be that he's going to become superintendent in Newark, since the job is open and his family is in New Jersey. But he insists none of it is true and says he's committed to being in Baltimore for a decade.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 11:52 AM | | Comments (9)
Categories: Baltimore City

April 4, 2008

Would national standards fix NCLB?

There's an interesting article in Slate this week outlining a series of ideas about how to fix No Child Left Behind. The article isn't as radical as another published this winter in The Atlantic called "First, Kill All the School Boards." But both make the case for national standards and exams as a way of reforming NCLB.

The law in its current form allows states to create their own standards to measure and their own standardized tests. As a result, the authors argue, there's incentive to water down the standards and the exams so that all children can meet the goal of proficiency, and it's unfair to compare states against each other.

I think some of Slate's recommendations would be widely welcomed among the educators I know: administering fewer tests, placing more emphasis on science and social studies, paying teachers more. Others, like creating a system of ranking schools, seem more controversial. And The Atlantic's idea of scrapping local control of education altogether is clearly out of the realm of possibility.

So how to keep the ideal that all schools will be held accountable no child will be left behind while ridding the federal law of its many problematic components? There aren't any obvious answers. But in a year when reauthorization has been put on hold so as not to create waves in the presidential election, it's nice to at least see people throwing out ideas.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:07 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Around the Nation, NCLB

April 3, 2008

Super superintendents

A recent article in the Christian Science Monitor reports something many of us have heard before --- good superintendents are hard to find; harder yet is keeping them. The current trend of fewer qualified candidates, especially minorities, to fill the vacancies has created what is called the "rock star superintendent." And apparently there is one in our own backyard:

"Successful 'rock star' superintendents, including Rudy Crew of Miami-Dade in Florida and Joe Hairston in Baltimore, show that the right fit can be helpful for improving academic performance and reducing discipline problems, experts say. Mr. Crew was named superintendent of the year in 2007 by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS)."

To read more, click here.

Posted by Gina Davis at 6:03 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Around the Nation, Baltimore County, Trends

April 2, 2008

Teachers work-to-rule

Hundreds of Baltimore County teachers yesterday participated in a work-to-rule job action to demonstrate how much the system relies upon the time they put in beyond their contracted hours.

One teacher, Natalie Avallone of Patapsco High School, wrote an open letter to her fellow teachers about why she decided to work-to-rule. Here's her letter, which she has given us permission to share:

"Why I will work to rule.

What’s the point? It’s not like it will make any difference to lawmakers, right?

I’ve heard this opinion from my fellow peers too many times to count. The sad thing is that it’s true. Jim Smith isn’t going to care one way or the other if I walk in at 7:00 am, when I usually arrive, or 7:30 when I am contractually required to be here. No delegates or board of education members will be watching as I leave the building at 2:30 with a stack of papers still to grade on my desk.

But, I wouldn’t be writing this now if I thought working to rule was totally useless. In fact, I think it is essential that we commit ourselves to this symbolic gesture because it isn’t the lawmakers we are trying to educate. Sadly, the only lesson they seem to be interested in learning is how to get re-elected.

As teachers we are dedicated to the lives and education of our students. Who among us would truly jeopardize that in the name of money? We came to this profession because we are passionate about learning, not about the paycheck. We are willing to accept a sub-standard professional salary because we believe in what we do and that it makes a difference. Yet, we deserve better. It is not fair that children should have to pay the price for the fiscal woes of the education system or the government that funds it. Most of our students do not even have the ability to control what their teachers make, not having the franchise to elect officials that would better support our teachers and educational system. And maybe that is why schools, year after year, struggle financially through fundraising to support the “extras” like publishing the school paper or purchasing athletic uniforms.

So, if I can’t sway the lawmakers by working to rule, who exactly am I trying to influence, you may ask? The voters. Yes, it all comes back to democracy. And you can thank your 8th grade social studies teacher because you knew my answer already – didn’t you. When I walk in at 7:30 am on April 1st, I hope the community surrounding my school is watching because it is them that I am trying to educate. And if there are teachers walking in to every Baltimore County school at 7:30 am on April 1st it isn’t just the neighbors that will notice, but the media. The parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends and neighbors of our students need to understand why we deserve a fair salary so that when they step into that election booth each November, America’s future is first and foremost in their minds.

I want the voters of Baltimore County to realize that despite that “seven hour contract day,” there are teacher’s cars parked in the lot long before 7:30 am and well after 2:30 pm, every day, and not just on week days. That even though our contract grants us a half an hour duty free lunch, most of us spend it with our students. That even though we work ten months of the year, school runs through the summer and many teachers must work in order to offset the fact that for two months we don’t get a paycheck. That even if I pull out of the lot at 3:30 pm on a typical day to pick up my daughter at daycare, I do so carrying a bag of papers I still have to grade. That even though I have nine years of experience, a Master’s degree and National Board Certification, I have chosen to remain in Baltimore County because I love my school and not my paycheck.

With the third highest turnover rate in the state, quality teachers are leaving this district for better pay and more respect. My hope is that our “students” are paying attention on April 1st, because it is the state of the Baltimore County School System that is on the line. And as a teacher in that system, I want it to be the best school system that it can possibly be.

That is why I will work to rule on April 1st and you should, too."


Anyone else care to share whether they are working-to-rule and why? Drop us a line here at InsideEd.

Posted by Gina Davis at 10:47 AM | | Comments (7)
Categories: Baltimore County, Teaching

Hunkering down for the MSAs

For all our talk about Teach for America and kids with guns and low graduation rates, I know what's really on your minds for the next week and a half...

I have been tempted at times over the years to become a teacher myself, but I must say, I don't envy those of you who are administering the MSA. The pressure on schools to produce high scores is extraordinary, and I'm hearing there's also a lot of stress over testing security. For example, kids aren't allowed to have cell phones on them during the exams. Teachers can ask kids to empty their pockets, but they can't physically search them. Then, if it turns out a student does have a cell phone and uses it to cheat, the teacher is held responsible. But with the stakes so high and so much temptation for cheating, it's hard to blame the state for instituting strict test administration standards. 

In the districts that were closed all last week, there's also the issue of how to motivate students on the heels of spring break.

All I can say is, good luck getting through it.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:03 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Around the Region

April 1, 2008

Graduation rates may change

States across the nation may see a dip in their graduation rates after the feds require all states to use a uniform calculation to report their rates.  U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings announced this morning that she will take steps to ensure that all states use the same formula.

Speaking at a conference in Washington, D.C., she said that in some districts, students who leave school but pledge to get their GED are counted as graduates. In other districts a student has to register as a dropout to be counted.

Just as much of an issue is that until recently, there has been no way to really keep track of students who move from one school district to another, even within the same state. As I say in my story in today's paper, the state launched a new effort this fall to keep closer track of students by having schools give every student an identification number, but the process will not be complete until 2011.

Spellings believes that by making reporting of graduation and drop out rates more uniform, schools will be held more accountable. 

She wasn't specific in suggesting how this new rule would be calculated, which is crucial, but one suggestion has been to look at who enters a school in ninth grade and who gets a diploma four years later.

That number will make things look worse for some urban school systems where many students take five years to graduate from high school because they are so far behind academically that they may have to take remedial classes.

In 2005, 50 governors signed a pact agreeing to create the uniform identification number. Across the nation, about half of African-Americans are believed to have graduated from high school, a rate that is considered unacceptable.

There is debate within the state about how many students are graduating from city high schools. Some say it is as few as a third, while others say it is as high as 60 percent. The numbers are essentially all guesses, that vary depending on what formula is used.

The fact is that no one will really know until about 2011.

Posted by Liz Bowie at 11:13 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Around the Nation

Boy, 7, brings loaded guns to Randallstown Elementary School

A 7-year-old boy at Randallstown Elementary School was caught yesterday with two loaded handguns in a classroom, Baltimore County police said this morning.

The guns, which were fully loaded, were discovered after a 9mm Kahr handgun fell from the child's pocket about 10:30 a.m. The gun that fell had one round in the chamber.

A search of the boy's backpack revealed a second weapon, a 40-caliber Glock handgun.

The boy was detained and then turned over to his parents, according to The Sun's article. It is unknown whether or not the boy will face any charges.

This isn’t the first time that an elementary student has brought in a loaded gun to school. In October 2006, an 8-year-old at Grove Park Elementary in Baltimore accidentally discharged a loaded revolver in a desk in his third-grade class. Another 8-year-old had brought the gun to school. Since then, the city schools have allowed principals to install metal detectors in schools where the community wants them. 

I’m beyond shocked this most recent incident occurred. I can only assume that the boy got the weapons from home. If that is the case, what punishment/responsibility do the parents face?

In addition, what do you do with the kid? I certainly would be extremely apprehensive to allow the kid back into my classroom. Do you put him in an alternative education class? Do you simply sweep this situation under the rug? And, what about metal detectors? Are they the answer?

Posted by John-John Williams IV at 10:08 AM | | Comments (13)
Categories: Baltimore County, School Safety (Or Lack Thereof)

How is the city-state partnership working?

The 1997 legislation creating a city-state partnership to oversee Baltimore schools required that the partnership be evaluated every five years. This is one of those years, and the city and state school board will be holding four joint public hearings in the coming days. BCPSS and MSDE also had to hire a consultant to write this rather dense evaluation (available here along with the hearing schedule) of how the school system functions under its current governance structure.

Under that structure, the mayor and the governor jointly appoint the city school board. Critics, most vocal back in 2004 amid the school system's financial collapse, charge that the partnership leaves neither the city nor the state accountable. But yet again this year, the General Assembly hasn't shown much appetite to change things, despite the latest in a series of bills that would provide for a partially elected board.

What are your thoughts on the city-state partnership? Is it the best way to govern Baltimore's schools?

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:05 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Baltimore City
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