« April 2008 | Main | June 2008 »

May 30, 2008

Week of the school safety forum

Want to talk about school safety? You'll have plenty of opportunities next week.

Nancy Grasmick and Elijah Cummings are co-hosting a daylong school safety summit at UMBC on Tuesday, an event planned in response to the Jolita Berry incident. Then on Tuesday night, the city school system hosts the first of three "Safe and Supportive Schools Family and Community Conversations." (Times and locations are below.)

Will any good come out of these forums? There surely have been a lot of them over the years, and the same problems remain. And yet, there's clearly still a strong appetite for more.

School system forums on school safety
6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday, June 3 at Digital Harbor High, 1100 Covington St.
6 to 8 p.m. Thursday, June 5 at Mervo, 3500 Hillen Road
9 to 11 a.m. Saturday, June 7 at Frederick Douglass High, 2301 Gwynns Falls Pkwy.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 10:59 AM | | Comments (16)
Categories: Baltimore City, School Safety (Or Lack Thereof)

May 29, 2008

The school year's not over yet... or is it?

Technically, the last day of school in Baltimore isn't for another two and a half weeks. But I heard from one city teacher yesterday who said it might as well be over now. With testing complete, this teacher says, the last few weeks of the year are consumed by non-academic field trips, designed to keep kids under control behaviorally. The school administration has given up on engaging them academically.

I recently visited another city school where eighth-graders are staying in the same classroom all day for the last few weeks of school, with teachers changing rooms instead to cut down on year-end disruption in the halls.

We all know that, when the temperature outside goes up, so do violent and disruptive incidents in our schools and in our city.

So, teachers, how are you spending the last few weeks of the school year? Are you even attempting to keep students focused on academics? Or would you be satisfied with simply keeping the peace?

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 8:01 AM | | Comments (25)
Categories: Baltimore City

More data on citywide high school retention

I received some data from the city school system too late to put into my article Monday (my fault, not theirs: I had to go out of town for a few days), but I thought I'd post it here to add to the discussion about retention at the citywide high schools.

The system looked at this year's senior class -- the students who started as freshmen in 2004 -- to see how many who began at Poly, City, Western and Dunbar are still enrolled. About 30 percent are not.

Here are the figures broken down by school:

Poly: Of 351 freshmen in 2004, 268 -- or 76.4 percent -- are still enrolled as seniors.
City: Of 421 freshmen in 2004, 295 -- 70.1 percent -- are still enrolled as seniors.
Western: Of 220 freshmen in 2004, 154 -- 70 percent -- are still enrolled as seniors.
Dunbar: Of 123 freshmen in 2004, 86 -- 69.9 percent -- are still enrolled as seniors.
Total for the four schools: Of 1,115 freshmen in 2004, 803 -- 72 percent -- are still enrolled as seniors; 82.2 percent are still enrolled somewhere in the city school system and, within that group, 97.9 percent are 12th-graders.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:03 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Baltimore City

May 28, 2008

Florida boy allegedly voted out of class

Here's a troubling education story that's made national news in the past few days: In Port St. Lucie, Fla., a kindergarten teacher allegedly allowed her students to vote on whether to kick a boy who was misbehaving out of class. The children voted 14-2 to remove their 5-year-old classmate, who is in the process of being diagnosed with autism, according to this article in the Sun-Sentinel newspaper. The children were purportedly allowed to say in front of the class what they did not like about the boy. His mother tells the media she's considering legal action.
Posted by Sara Neufeld at 2:28 PM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Around the Nation, SpecialEd

May 26, 2008

Keeping kids in citywide schools

Poly, City and Western are jewels of the troubled city school system, providing an outlet for middle class families to send their children to public urban high schools and an opportunity for smart inner-city kids to get a top-notch education.

But the schools have historically been able to transfer out students who are struggling. They've also admitted non-city residents paying tuition over city kids if their grades and test scores are higher.

Under the Alonso administration, both those practices are changing. Earlier this year, the school board approved a policy change to give city residents preference in admissions to the city's magnet high schools. And as I report today, the system is also making it tougher for schools to kick students out for academic reasons. They now need to prove that they've provided multiple interventions, and they need to be able to explain how they've exhausted their other options. Alonso says the schools are already getting the city's brightest students, and they must do everything they can to make them successful.

Some parents and alumni worry, will the schools' prestige suffer? Others question the value of that prestige if students who have shown they have potential can be easily written off.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:12 AM | | Comments (27)
Categories: Baltimore City

May 23, 2008

Next up: a hunger strike

I knew the campout last week wouldn't be the last we heard from Peer to Peer Enterprises, the coalition of youth advocates led by the Algebra Project. The group is lobbying for $3 million in city money to support knowledge-based youth employment. Mayor Dixon didn't budge after students camped outside City Hall for two days last week. So next week, the students are staging a hunger strike. They'll be stationed at Pratt and Light streets starting the night of May 30.

I saw a few of the Algebra Project's youth leaders at a meeting earlier this week. They said that, when the mayor came out to talk to them before their camp site was disbanded last Thursday, she suggested that they get jobs at the new Target in Mondawmin Mall. They were frustrated because the point of Peer to Peer is give youth employment using the knowledge they gain in school, whether through tutoring, debating or producing an educational video. I'm seeking clarification from City Hall on the mayor's remarks.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 9:54 AM | | Comments (7)
Categories: Baltimore City

West Middle: A green school

Westminster's West Middle School has been named a Maryland Green School.

The green school awards program is sponsored by the Maryland Association for Environmental and Outdoor Education.  According to its Web site, it recognizes public and private schools that:

1. Use their school site and curricular instruction to prepare students to understand and act on current and future environmental challenges facing all Marylanders.

2. Model environmental best-management practices in building and landscape design, operation and maintenance.

3. Build and maintain partnerships with the local community to enhance environmental learning and to design and implement projects and programs that result in a healthier environment.

West Middle Principal Tom Hill said the school's effort began by bringing together several environmental programs that had been running separately.  Their environmental contributions include "bluebird boxes" - birdhouses - that students (with some help from William Winchester Elementary and others) built, to be donated to the community; collecting old cell phones to be given to battered and abused women for emergency situations; and a school recycling program for electronics, paper and plastic.

The distinction comes after two years of documentation of their green efforts, said Nancy Merrill, executive director of the association.  This has been a banner year for the awards, she said, with an unprecedented 36 schools selected.  West Middle and the others will be certified as green for the next three school years.

To read more about students' efforts at West Middle, check out their green school page.

Curious about other Maryland green schools?  Check out the list on the association's Web site

Posted by Arin Gencer at 7:00 AM | | Comments (0)

May 21, 2008

School board member shunned?

A curious advertisement ran in The Sun last week, seeking candidates for the Baltimore school board. Three terms on the nine-member board are up this summer, and all three of the incumbents -- Anirban Basu, Bob Heck and Buzzy Hettleman -- want to be reappointed.

Yet the ad sought applicants for only one position, that occupied by Hettleman. While it didn't mention him by name, it said candidates "must possess knowledge or experience in the education of children with disabilities." The 1997 legisltion creating the nine-member city school board requires various interest groups to be represented, and Hettleman occupies the seat representing special education students.

The board is jointly appointed by the mayor and the governor, with applicants vetted by the Maryland State Department of Education. But I'm hearing from multiple sources that Gov. O'Malley is essentially leaving the decisions to Mayor Dixon this year, and Dixon wants to look at candidates to replace Hettleman. A spokesman for the mayor has not responded to my requests for comment.

Hettleman has been an outspoken youth advocate in the city for decades, and he's ruffled plenty of feathers along the way. But what the issue is with him in this case, I don't know. Along with chairman Brian Morris, Hettleman, Basu and Heck are seen as Dr. Alonso's strongest supporters on the board. If the mayor had a problem with the CEO and the reforms he's bringing to Baltimore, it would make sense that she'd want to look at replacements for all three open board seats, not just one.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 4:03 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Baltimore City

An uneven road to NCLB proficiency

It appears that 23 states -- Maryland not among them -- might have been banking on No Child Left Behind going away by now, or at least lessening its mandate that 100 percent of public school students be proficient in reading and math by 2014.

A new report by the Center on Education Policy reviewed the pace with which states require their schools to improve each year as they work towards all kids being proficient. Maryland is among those that increase schools' targets incrementally each year.

But in almost half the country, states only required small improvement in the early years of the law, making it relatively easy for schools to make AYP. But as 2014 approaches, schools in these states now have to show big improvements every year. In California, for example, reading proficiency must increase by 11 percentage points a year for the next six years, a goal viewed by many as unrealistic.

The challenge "is about to become much more difficult for 23 states that generally set lower expectations for the percentages of students reaching proficiency between 2002 and 2008 in contrast to much steeper expectations later on," the report says. "The higher goals are now becoming a reality."

The report concludes that, while it will be harder for schools in the 23 states to make AYP than for schools in places like Maryland, almost no one is on track for 100 percent proficiency by 2014.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:04 AM | | Comments (7)
Categories: Around the Nation, NCLB, Study, study!

May 20, 2008

Newsweek ranking of high schools

The latest Newsweek rankings of the top 1,000 schools in the nation are out, and, predictably, county school districts are sending out news releases announcing how many of their high schools are in the top 5 percent of schools nationwide. Maryland has 77 high schools on the list. The top seven are in the Washington suburbs. Then come Broadneck, Towson, Centennial and River Hill high schools in that order. Baltimore County has 10 high schools on the list, and Montgomery County has 23.

But perhaps the real question is not who is No. 1 or No. 352, but whether the rankings are relevant to parents whose children attend those schools. The list seems one way to consider the quality of a high school, but it is not the only measure of how successful it is.

The list is put together by Jay Matthews, a Washington Post reporter who developed the system for the rankings a number of years ago. He develops a number for each high school by taking the total number of Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate tests given at a school in May, and dividing by the number of seniors graduating in May or June.

About 5 percent of 27,000 high schools make the list.

What the list doesn't calculate is how the students do on the exams. So at times schools appear on the list that don't have very high pass rates but give a lot of the tests. A number of people have argued with Matthews about this over the years, saying that the quality of the classes may be poor but that the school could get a high rating.

On the other hand, Matthews argues back, giving schools credit for high test scores would only encourage them from weeding out less strong students from the courses or the exams.

"The Challenge Index honors schools that have done the best job in persuading average students to take college level courses and tests. It does not work with schools that have no, or almost no, average students. The idea is to create a list that measures how good schools are in challenging all students, and not just how high their students' test scores are," Matthews writes on the Newsweek Web site.

For a list of the Maryland schools and how they rank, go here. 

Posted by Liz Bowie at 2:36 PM | | Comments (2)

Debate over how to fix Baltimore County's high school overcrowding issue

Today's article about growing opposition to a proposed 400-seat addition at Loch Raven High School mentions a study conducted five years ago that recommends building a school to alleviate crowding in the county's northeast and central areas -- namely at Perry Hall and Towson high schools.

Here's a link to that study, called the Comprehensive High School Facility Utilization Study/DeJong Report  (which is in PDF form and is posted online at the school system's Web site,

Posted by Gina Davis at 11:59 AM | | Comments (0)

Report: Baltimore metro disproportionately strong in health, computer, art and bio degrees

The Baltimore metropolitan area is a national leader in health, computer, art and biology education, according to a report released today by the Atlanta Regional Council for Higher Education.  

The Baltimore-Towson region is the nation's 21st largest in terms of overall student enrollments but ranks 6th in production of health and clinical science degrees, 7th in computer and information sciences, 10th in visual and performing arts and 12th in biological and life sicences, the report found.

Thanks largely to Johns Hopkins University, a research powerhouse, Baltimore ranked 3rd among all U.S. metro areas in higher education-related research expenditures.

With more than 25,000 black students enrolled in higher education programs in 2005, the region also ranked 8th among America's metropolitan areas for education of African Americans.



Posted by Gadi Dechter at 9:25 AM | | Comments (0)

Using sports to escape the streets

Thanks to InsideEd reader Bill for bringing to my attention the video below about the Tender Bridge, a non-profit that provides vulnerable Baltimore students with sports activities and weekend excursions. The video, called "A Fighting Chance," won first place in Loyola College's 2008 film festival. It highlights not only the work of what seems to be a valuable program, but also the incredibly difficult lives its participants lead. "Hope I make it, if I don't die early," says one boy, describing his goal of going to college.

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

May 19, 2008

If you build it, they will come

The story that The Sun ran yesterday about parents and kids competing in a lottery for admission to the region's first public boarding school illustrates a phenomenon I see a lot in Baltimore. When a new school promises to offer a free alternative to the failing public schools that surround it, families will flock there. And if their children aren't admitted, parents will be devastated.
The city's so-called innovation high schools learned that lesson when they opened their doors about four years ago. This month, the school system announced that, in less than a week, it had gotten more than 1,000 applications to its six new middle/high schools, which will collectively have 900 spots open this year. It doesn't matter that the schools haven't opened yet and don't yet have a track record.
Once a track record is established, the demand grows greater still. I remember hearing a few months ago about parents leaving in tears after their children did not win the lottery for admission to Crossroads, an excellent charter middle school in Baltimore.
The boarding school, SEED, offers something even more attractive than a way out of a failing school: It's also a way out of a failing neighborhood. No wonder there's a huge demand, not only in Baltimore, but around the state.
The clamor for admission to these public schools of choice helps combat the common stereotype that inner-city parents don't care about their children's education. More accurately, parents of children in failing schools often feel they have no way out -- until there's the hope that maybe they do.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 9:05 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Around the Region, Baltimore City

Same principals, different survey results

Are Baltimore principals satisfied with this year's budget process? It depends on whose survey you're reading.

Jimmy Gittings, president of PSASA, said at the school board meeting last week that his union surveyed 54 principals. Only 36 percent said they could maintain their current level of staff with the money they're receiving; 44 percent said they'd received adequate training in the budget process; and 43 percent said they could maintain their schools' extracurricular activities. But shortly after presenting the findings at the meeting, Gittings had to discount a survey question asking if principals have received an adequate response from the school system's budget hotline. He'd reported that only 4 percent said yes, but as it turned out, they were calling the wrong phone number, he said. Also curious: some response rates didn't add up to 100 percent. Gittings said he's revisiting the figures and would reissue the survey (which was passed out in its original form to the school board but not the public; I'm basing my figures on what was read aloud at the meeting).

Meanwhile, the school system is also surveying principals after sending a team of budget analysts to meet with them. Now, granted, principals are asked to put their names on these surveys, which might skew the results, but the results do paint a far rosier picture. Ninety percent of 72 respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that the team was able to meet their needs; 90 percent also agreed or stringly disagreed that "I am as prepared as possible to create a plan for my school."

Some of the same complaints expressed by PSASA did surface in the comments portion of the system's survey. "We have cut to bare bones in staffing, and I cannot find the money for contractual custodians, instructional supplies, etc.," one principal wrote. Following up, system officials say, they've generally found principals who are uncomfortable cutting nonessential positions occupied by their friends and colleagues. Principals had no problem during a training session making obvious cuts when presented with hypothetical situations, but it's a lot harder when they're dealing with people they know.

See my story in today's paper for more on this issue.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 7:04 AM | | Comments (25)
Categories: Baltimore City

May 16, 2008

UMBC boasts three prestigious Gates Cambridge scholars


Two graduating seniors at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County are headed to England's University of Cambridge for an all-expenses-paid graduate degree courtesy of Microsoft founder Bill Gates, college officials announced.  

Simon Gray of South Africa, UMBC's 2008 valedictorian, will pursue a master's degree in chemical engineering, and physics major Phillip Graff (left) of New Jersey will study astrophysics at Cambridge. 

A third UMBC graduate, Ian Ralby, who won the selectived Gates Cambridge scholarship last year, received the award again this year, so that he can follow up a master's degree with a doctorate, college officials said.

Established in 2000 with a $210 million donation by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Cambridge scholarship is similar to the Rhodes Scholarship, which offers American students graduate opportunites at Oxford University.

About 100 students from around the world receive the award every year. This year, 45 U.S. citizens students were awarded scholarships. Among the American recipients this year were two others with Maryland connections: William Eucker of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, and Silver Spring's Jessica Shang, an engineering major at Harvard University.

Posted by Gadi Dechter at 11:24 AM | | Comments (1)

Persistent peers

Students from the Baltimore Algebra Project and other youth groups have been lobbying for weeks for Mayor Dixon to set aside $3 million that the City Council recommended in funding for Peer to Peer Enterprises, but the mayor hasn't budged. The students want to use the money to create an investment fund to pay 10- to 24-year-olds for knowledge-based work, such as tutoring, playwriting and coaching debate. The point is to show young people they can make money using their brains, that they don't have to turn to the streets and sell drugs, that they don't have to work dead-end jobs at fast-food chains.

Never afraid of a fight, the students vowed to begin camping out in City Hall Plaza on Monday and not leave until Dixon commits the money. As a result of the rain, the campout didn't begin until Tuesday, but anywhere from a half-dozen to two-dozen students at any given time were there in tents until last night. Early in the evening, Dixon finally came out and talked to them. I'm told she recommended that the students take their cause to the state. They already did that in February, and state officials told them to go to the city. Around 10:30 last night, after multiple threats, the campers were kicked off the plaza. They moved a block away, where, when I last talked to them around 11:15 p.m., they were plotting their next move.

I don't expect they'll go away quietly.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 9:25 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Baltimore City

May 15, 2008

Status quo (mostly) for the BTU

As we reported in today's paper, Marietta English overwhelmingly won re-election to another term as president of the Baltimore Teachers Union's teacher chapter. As in previous elections, only a small percentage of the union's members voted in the election: about 1,000 of 8,000. Is that because teachers think she's doing a good job or because teachers are disengaged from the union?

One change that is significant is the election of Aileen Mercado to one of four member-at-large positions. I followed Aileen for the 2005-2006 school year as I wrote a series about the experiences of the Filipino teachers here. She is someone who works tirelessly on behalf of her students and her fellow Filipino teachers without regard for politics. During our year together, the Filipino teachers' first in Baltimore, they were not made to feel welcome by the union. Ms. English, who asked Aileen to run as part of her slate, said she's trying now to make up for a past mistake. In an email to supporters this morning, Aileen wrote, "This is indeed a breakthrough for the Filipino teachers of Baltimore City."

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 11:54 AM | | Comments (8)
Categories: Baltimore City

Canton students write their councilman

Canton Middle School students participating in a civic engagement program run by the nonprofit Students Sharing Coalition have written letters to City Councilman Jim Kraft explaining why they want a new middle/high school to go in their building. While the decision is not Kraft's to make and the school system is going ahead with plans for the new school despite community opposition, Kraft has threatened to hold up the system's budget, which goes before the council at a hearing on Friday. 

In their letters, the students describe why they want a better education and what they will do to make Canton a better community. I'm posting 10 of the letters here.

Dear Councilman Kraft,
 My name is Kiyisha Thomas. I am a student at Canton Middle #230. I heard this school will become an Friendship Academy here. I am in the 8th grade. I am all for the new school I am for the new school because I can’t find a school for me. Also, I’m in a wheelchair. So, it is hard for me to find a school for me. The Friendship Academy is a good thing for me. I would like to see different things happening to this school. I would like to see cleaner bathrooms, better school books, new desks and seat in each classroom. Also, I would like to see and feel heat all over the building. Some community member say students hurt the community. I would react by letting all good behaved children (attend the new school). I brought a lot of positive things for the community. I went on mapping day. I went around my neighborhood picking up trash. I also help my mom make money for charity.
  Thanks for your time
  Kiyisha Thomas.
P.S. I hope these things can happen.

Dear Councilman Kraft
 My name is Tywon Johnson I am in the 8th grade I think the canton middle school time is up but I am in favor of getting a Friendship Public Charter School. Some people say that students at this school hurt the community but it’s not all. students like me who are good deserve a chance so the charter school would be good. Actually I think students help the community with ms. Molly [an Americorps Vista who teaches the civic engagement curriculum at Canton]. Thank you ... for your time.
  Tywon Johnson

Dear Councilman Kraft
  My name is Tavon O’neal. I love to act. I wanna be a actor when I grow up. I’m a good student. I want to be an actor, but I can’t If I don’t get my education. I want you to make Canton Middle School, clean, fresh and into a new school with good attitude. I Really want my future. I know you will do this for us... Hope you do it in a dash. My future is Acting. I’m not giving up... Because when the time come, Trust me, I’m going to make it.
  Thank you Councilman Kraft
    Yours sincerly
    Tavon Oneal

Dear Councilman Kraft,
 My Name is Keona Wright I AM A 7th grade student At CANtON Middle School. I would Like to see CANtON Change into a good school for the community And for students who Actually want to Learn. I think that friendship charter school will be a good school for the kids who want to Learn and for the community. Yes I would say that some of the kids here at canton middle school hurt the community by throwing desk And chairs out of the window I think that kids Like that does not deserve to be in a school if All they do is destroy the property. One positive thing that I brought to this community is respect. I don’t really no what I can do to help the community but I would do whatever it takes. Thank you for your time.
   Keona Wright

Dear Councilman Kraft
 My name is Elizabeth Cano I’m in the 8th grade at Canton Middle School what I want Canton to look like is nice, clean, and all things that are broken they need to get fixed. I want the friendship public charter school to be in this building because I want to be here and believe that it will be a nice clean school and people might follow the rules and actually do their work. Some people do hurt the community b/c they might have no idea of what to do if to do good or to do bad and they choose to do bad and say that they are bad but they know that they want to do good be excellent and have good grades. What I can do in the community to make it better for everyone is give people a chance b/c they can change and maybe give prizes to the kids that do well in school.
   Elizabeth Cano

Dear Mr. Councilman Kraft
 My name is Abdikadir... I want the Friendship public charter school to be here. The school is going to be greater and no bad student. im just here to learn and do my best and All student in canton are not the same. I will help the community to clean and pick trash and it will be better... thank u for your time,

Dear Councilman Kraft
 My name is yamece Coleman I go to school at Canton Middle School. This will be my last year here at Canton my years here 6th-8th have been okay. But when I leave the 7th grade will have no place to go... Well by me going to Canton I would treat this like my home by being respectful to others that live in the property of my school building... I think that it would be greatif Canton could stay open.
    Thanks so
    Much yamece Coleman

Dear Councilman Kraft
Hi my name is Deana and I am in the 7th grade. What I want to see happen to this school is for it to be a good highschool/Middle School and for all the students to get a good education. I am in favor of the Friendship public Charter School because I want a good education and I do want to learn.
    Deana Morgan

Dear Councilman Kraft
 My name is Brittany Collins. I am a 8th grader at Canton Middle School. I would not like you to close this school Because I have a little Brother that is in 4th grade at general wolfe academy and instead of him going to dunbar or Lombard (I) would want my little brother to go to Canton Middle Because he would be safer here than at Lombard or dunbar i think Same with everyone elses Brother.
      A Student at Canton
      Brittany Collins

Im in the eigth grade and I go to canton middle school. Yes I think it’s better then closing it down we already have Highlandtown closed down then we will have to go far away to go to school. We don’t hurt the community that’s how they judge us because we might get loud or walk in big crowds but some of us are nice and they shouldn’t Judge us because we don’t judge them. The thing I could do to help around heat is to keep it clean and respect them if they give me respect.
       Thanks for your time.
       Keon lemon

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:06 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Baltimore City, School Diversity/Segregation

May 14, 2008

To school, not just another homicide

All the news reporters at The Sun are required to participate in a weekend work rotation, and last Friday, it was my turn to work the night police shift. Around 10 p.m., I heard from a city police department spokesman that a black juvenile male had been shot in the head. It didn't sound good, but we didn't know for sure if he was alive or dead. As midnight approached and with it the deadline for the paper's final edition, I was able to get enough details from the spokesman (some of them wrong, it later turned out) to squeak out a couple of sentences: A 17-year-old Baltimore resident was killed shortly after 9:30 p.m. at 28th Street and Hillen Road. As I left work early Saturday morning, I wondered about this boy: where he'd gone to school, what his life was like. I wondered, as I often do while writing homicide briefs on weekend shifts, how we would have treated his death if he were white and lived in Howard County.

At Tuesday night's school board meeting, I learned a bit more about him, about David Henderson, who was 18 and shot in the chest (or so the police later said). He was a student at Doris M. Johnson High School, where -- coincidentally -- I spoke to a few freshman English classes earlier this spring about how to write a newspaper profile. The students were writing profiles of the presidential candidates. To give them practice gathering information, I let them interview me about myself and my job. Their teachers were embarrassed when they asked how much money I make, how old I am and whether I'm married, but I told them that reporters have to ask uncomfortable questions and I answered everything they asked. They were a fun group.

The seniors at Doris Johnson were dancing at their prom Friday night when they learned their classmate had been murdered. And if that wasn't enough, four kids leaving the prom were in a car accident when their vehicle was struck by a drunken driver. One was injured seriously.

Speaking at the board meeting, a social worker from the school said David was a "really wonderful kid" who fell victim to senseless street violence. She said it would mean something to his mother that the school board had acknowledged his passing.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 11:13 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Baltimore City, School Safety (Or Lack Thereof)

Towson group vows to keep close eye on school construction

This morning, I spotted this note from Cathi Forbes, whom I profiled in yesterday's paper, pledging the group's continued vigilance. After last week's victory convincing the Baltimore County school board to build an elementary school in Towson to help ease crowding, Forbes said the group will continue to keep a close eye throughout the process.

Read Cathi's note, which I came across on The Forge Flyer blog:

A number of people have been asking what Towson Families United plans to do next, now that a new elementary school has been approved for Towson. 

The first thing we're going to do is stay together.  Our group, more than 500 strong, has been incredibly effective.  We've united people from different parts of Towson who might never have known one another.  We've put their talents to work.  And together, we've made a difference.

But there is still a lot to be done.

We're going to be closely following the plans for the new school on the grounds of Ridge Ruxton.  Some have questioned whether the $18 million the county executive has set aside is enough to build a new school.  If it isn't, we'll have to press the county executive to find the money to build it.

We're going to be aggressively pushing the school system for a solution to the remaining 400+ elementary school seats we need in Towson.  Remember, this new school is just part one of a three-part plan the school system envisions.  What are the other two parts?  They haven't said yet.

We're also expanding our horizons a bit and looking toward the future.

We've been meeting with parents who are advocating for a new high school to be built in the northeast corridor of the county, which would alleviate the overcrowding at Towson, Perry Hall and Loch Raven high schools.  The county executive is trying to get away with a 400-seat addition to Loch Raven, instead of the new high school the Board of Education approved.  (Sound familiar?)

We're also exploring what can be done to get the school system thinking about another middle school for our community. We're hoping by now they have figured out that our overflowing elementary schools will be turning into overflowing middle schools before you know it.

We hope you will continue to stay a part of Towson Families United.  We're going to need your help in coming months and years.  And while we may not be contacting you as often, please know we're still working to make sure our community gets the attention it deserves from county government, particularly after so many years of neglect.   We'll continue to update our blog -- -- as developments occur.  So check back periodically.

And if you weren't able to attend last week's big Board of Education meeting, you can watch video highlights on our blog at  You won't believe how distrustful the Board was of BCPS officials.  Things got rather heated.

I'd like to personally thank you for all your support and kinds words in recent days.  And yes, if you want to take down the "451" signs for now, go ahead.  Just be ready to put them back up if things change.

Cathi Forbes

Posted by Gina Davis at 9:00 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Baltimore County

Alternative school overhaul

Seatbelts buckled? The pace of reform in the Baltimore school system is getting faster still. Now, on top of decentralizing the way the system is managed and opening six new middle/high schools, Dr. Alonso and his team are going to create 1,200 new alternative school seats by August, including the creation of two new alternative schools. They're also requiring staff to reapply for their jobs at most existing alternative schools. To read more about their plan, see my story in today's paper.

The alternative school presentation was the centerpiece of last night's school board agenda, but it wasn't the only interesting development. Jimmy Gittings, president of the system's administrators union, got into a heated exchange with Alonso over what Gittings called the system's "deplorable" budget. He said he and the union's vice president had surveyed 54 principals and found that most will not have enough money in their individual school budgets to maintain current levels of staffing and extracurricular activities. Many did not feel they had adequate training. Alonso shot back that the schools that have to cut their budgets received disproportionately high levels of funding in the past. Questioning the validity of the union survey, he said the system will gather data by the end of the month showing how many schools did in fact have to cut positions under the new structure, which gives principals autonomy over their budgets instead of the central office. Gittings also threatened to sue Alonso and the school board if they transfer or terminate principals and assistant principals without documentation that their performance needed improvement. Alonso told him to go ahead; it won't stop him from making the decisions he feels are right for the kids.

Also during the public comment portion of the meeting, Shirley Cooper, a mother whose daughter attends Polytechnic Institute, spoke about a fire set at the school last Thursday. Her daughter was one of two students with asthma who were hospitalized. Amid the commotion, another student sprained an arm and another's head was hit. It's not just the "bad" schools that are having problems, Cooper said, questioning whether the incident at Poly had been reported. Alonso assured her that it had.

In spite of the controversy over locating one of the new middle/high schools at the Canton Middle building, Alonso reported that the six new schools have received 1,020 applications in the past week for 900 slots. He also reported that the system has recruited 668 volunteers since he called for 500 people to sign up. "We still want more," he said.

There were several new principal and administrative appointments last night, which I'll list below. In a few cases, principals at schools where the entire staff must reapply for their jobs were rehired.

Principal reappointments at zero-based schools:
James Linde, reappointed principal of Sharp-Leadenhall Elementary
Nancy Faulkner, principal of Harford Heights Primary, appointed principal of Harford Heights Primary/Intermediate
Roxanne Thorn-Lumpkins, reappointed principal of Sinclair Lane Elementary

Principal appointments:
Mark Bongiovanni, assistant principal at Hazelwood Elementary, appointed principal of Dunbar Middle
Eugene Chong Qui, assistant principal at West Baltimore Middle, promoted to principal of the same school
Lamarge Wyatt, area executive assistant, appointed principal of Forest Park High
Jason Hartling, resident principal at Vivien T. Thomas Medical Arts Academy, appointed principal of Northwestern High
C. Michael Robinson, principal of a school in Greenville, Ga., appointed principal of Coldstream Park Elementary/Middle
Stacy Place, resident principal of William Paca Elementary, promoted to principal of the same school
Michael Frederick, principal of Carver Vocational-Technical High, appointed principal of the Reach! School
Ian Roberts, resident principal of Heritage High, appointed principal of Friendship Academy of Science and Technology (to be located at Canton Middle School)
Joy Savage, assistant principal of Western High, appointed principal of Maritime Industries Academy
Paul Covington, managing assistant principal of New Era Academy, promoted to principal of the same school
Susan Wheeler, science curriculum specialist, appointed principal of Friendship Academy of Engineering and Technology
D'Andrea Chapman, resident principal of Mount Washington Elementary, appointed principal of Collington Square Elementary

Central office appointments:
Helen Shelton, principal of North Bend Elementary, appointed academic director of elementary education
James Drummond, area executive assistant, appointed director of elementary operations
Christine Watson, area executive assistant, appointed director of elementary operations
Lisa Tarter reappointed director of career and technology
Donna Stewart, staff associate for drug abuse and violence prevention, appointed director of health and science
Nicole Gavin, coordinator of elementary restructuring, appointed director of literacy
Brenda Kelly reappointed director of early childhood
Debra Barbour, interim director of student learning support, appointed academic director of special education and student learning support
Jay Salkauskas, interim director of special education monitoring and compliance, promoted to the permanent position

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 5:45 AM | | Comments (10)
Categories: Baltimore City

"Girls Gone Great" essay contest

Word of an interesting essay contest, "Girls Gone Great," dropped into my inbox and seemed worth sharing. The contest "celebrates young women who are making a difference in their communities and in the world, and who also have a vision for the future," according to its organizers, WomanTalk Live radio.

The contest, in its second year, is open to high school juniors and seniors. The writer of the winning essay, which is expected to be published in the February 2009 edition of On Purpose magazine, earns a $1,000 scholarship and other goodies.

For more details, read the group's recent press release.

BALTIMORE, MD (May 13, 2008) - WVIE 1370 AM's WomanTalk Live radio talk show has opened entries to its second annual Girls Gone Great essay contest. The contest celebrates young women who are making a difference in their communities and in the world, and who also have a vision for the future.

The Girls Gone Great contest winner will receive a $1,000 scholarship donated by WVIE 1370 AM, a gift basket worth over $1,500 in prizes, an appearance on the WomanTalk Live radio show which airs every Wednesday from 7-8pm and a celebration luncheon in their honor. Additionally, the winning essay will be published in the February 2009 issue of On Purpose Magazine, which is distributed bi-monthly in locations across Maryland.

The Girls Gone Great contest was created by WomanTalk Live co-hosts Ginny Robertson and Ann Quasman to provide much-needed inspiration for a generation of young women whose only contemporary role models are celebrities in the news because of issues with drug addiction, eating disorders and romantic disasters.

"We are all bombarded by less than attractive images of girls in the media," said co-host, Ann Quasman, "but the reality is that there are many more girls doing great things than girls doing wild things. We just never hear about them."

Last year's Girl Gone Great contest attracted entries from six different counties and Baltimore city and set a high bar for this year's contestants. Jessica Cottrell of Dundalk won last years contest and is using her scholarship to attend the Maryland Institute College of Art.

"The Girls Gone Great entries we received last year were beyond inspiring," said Robertson, "they showed us that the next generation of women leaders are up to the task and are ready to meet social, environmental and political challenges with vision, passion and integrity."

For more information and to enter the Girls Gone Great contest, high school junior and senior women can visit the Girls Gone Great section of the WomanTalk Live Web site at The deadline for entries is October 31, 2008.

About WomanTalk Live
WomanTalk Live is a live, call-talk radio show solely focused on topics important to women. Hosted by Ginny Roberston and Ann Quasman, the show is committed to providing its listeners with inspiration and information for every aspect of their lives. WomanTalk Live airs Wednesdays from 6 to 7 p.m. on WVIE 1370 AM. For more information, visit

About Ginny Roberston
Ginny Robertson is President of Live Your Life On Purpose, an organization that provides women with information and opportunities to help them lead richer, fuller lives. She is a keynote speaker and the founder of On Purpose Networking for Women which meets monthly in Towson, Columbia, Severna Park & Frederick. She is also the Founder, Publisher & Editor of On Purpose Woman Magazine, a free area publication.

About Ann Quasman
Ann Quasman is the founder of Living in Your Heart, LLC, a company that provides monthly basic training for loving life workshops and classes for women and men throughout Maryland. As a Quality Life & Wellness Coach and EFT Practitioner, Quasman also works with individual clients.


Posted by Gina Davis at 2:11 AM | | Comments (2)

May 13, 2008

Doodle, doodle, come out of your hole...

Zach Urtes, a senior at Patapsco High School and Center for the Arts, is in the running as a regional winner in the "Doodle 4 Google" national competition. This year's contest challenged students in K-12 to "reinvent" the homepage logo of the online search engine's Web site based on the theme, "What if ... ?"

As one of 40 regional winners --- chosen from among thousands of doodles, according to Google --- Zach moves into the "public vote" portion of the contest for one of four national finalists awards. Online voting continues through Sunday, May 18. To vote, go to, click on "Vote Now."

The winning doodle is expected to replace Google's usual logo for 24 hours on the Web site's homepage on May 22.

You'll find Zach's entry --- which appears at the top of this post and is titled, "What if Artificial Intelligence flourished?" --- under Grades 10-12, Region 3. The accompanying description, posted on the contest's Web page, asks these questions: “What does the future hold? What if artificial intelligence was allowed limitless enhancement? I believe that technology will reach a point where machines will be engineered in our image. Using our own anatomy as a stepping point, what if the pursuit of perfection results in the new age of robotics?”

The national winner will receive a $10,000 college scholarship, a laptop computer, and a $25,000 grant to establish or improve the computer lab at his or her school. Each of the other three national finalists will win laptop computers.

Posted by Gina Davis at 5:25 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Baltimore County

May 12, 2008

What should constitute grounds for suspension?

The issue of whether we are suspending too many students in Maryland schools has hit a chord with readers. Everyone seems to have a strong opinion about how to discipline children and what misbehavior should be grounds for a suspension.

Yesterday, The Sun ran two stories I wrote about the subject. I report that the state's public schools are now suspending one in 11 students every year, and blacks and boys are twice as likely to be suspended as their peers. A number of readers responded to the story on the paper's Web site, saying that they believe too few students are being suspended.  

"I get the feeling you want us to feel sorry for these kids. We need more detention centers, bring back the draft, keep them seperated from good kids. We all know if you play in dirt, you will get dirty," one person wrote.

Another comment: "That that the headline on the story was wrong. It should read:'Thousands of Md. students are suspended each year, often those who should be on death row....'"

Those comments come from people who clearly believe in harsh punishment. Many others expressed the view that it is better to sacrifice the education of misbehaving students for the good of all the students in a classroom who want to learn.

So what should schools do if they have large numbers of students who are talking back or disrespectful of authority?

It is up to parents to teach their children to respect authority and to behave correctly, but what do you do if a child doesn't have a parent who is capable of doing that? What if the parent is on drugs or abdicating his or her responsiblity? Do you throw away the child? What is the responsibility of the community in those cases?

Several school systems are using old-fashioned, common-sense approaches, and others have tried new tactics. Carroll County schools don't send students home for poor behavior; they make you come to school on Saturday. Now there is an incentive to be good! And Anne Arundel County officials are trying in several schools to focus on the students with the worst behavior, figuring that if they can help them get under control, classroom teachers will be able to teach.

It is interesting to note that the KIPP middle school in Baltimore has very strict discipline. No student is allowed to be disrespectful or to act out without a consequence, but the school suspends very few students every year. Its solution is to require students to stay late after school -- sometimes as late as 9 p.m. -- until they have written enough letters to other students or their teachers about their misbehavior.

Two years ago, I spent about five days in the school. I never saw a classroom that was out of control or students who weren't engaged in their courses.

Several administrators made the point that good instruction will keep discipline problems to a minimum. If students are interested in what they are learning and the curriculum is good, discipline is much easier.

Posted by Liz Bowie at 3:30 PM | | Comments (6)
Categories: Around the Region

Carroll County Teacher of the Year

With all of the recent posts about teacher awards, it's only fit to announce Carroll's teacher of the year: Mary Catherine "Cathy" Stephens.

Stephens teaches fifth grade at Winfield Elementary School in Westminster, and was nominated by a former student. She's been teaching 18 years, and specializes in math, science and social studies. Before working in Carroll, she operated her own preschool for a decade, and has also worked for Howard County schools.

Turns out Stephens had very early practice for her career: The fourth of 11 children, her first students were her seven younger siblings.

"I would practice my teaching skills on them daily," Stephens wrote, describing her background. "Even though times were financially and emotionally difficult, I always had a chalkboard, writing materials and a makeshift classroom."

Stephens was awarded a $1,000 check from the Carroll County Public Schools Education Foundation during a recent employee recognition ceremony.

Congrats to Cathy Stephens!

Posted by Arin Gencer at 12:05 PM | | Comments (0)

Voter engagement and the BTU election

The Baltimore Teachers Union typically only sees about 10 percent of its 8,000 members vote in its leadership elections, the next of which is to take place on Wednesday. Judging from a random sampling of teachers I talked to in the past few weeks, it doesn't sound like people are much more engaged this time around.

It's too bad, because there are some pretty interesting elements to the four-way race for president of the union's teacher chapter:

1) The revived rivalry between Marietta English and Sharon Blake, who seems ready to go to court (again) if the union doesn't keep a paper trail of ballots cast. She has a high-profile lawyer representing her: former city solicitor Neal Janey Sr.
2) The debate over the leadership of Dr. Alonso, who is praised by all the candidates but English.
3) The inclusion on both the English and Blake slates of Filipino teachers, whose arrival in 2005 was not welcomed by the union.
4) The candidacy of Bill Krehnbrink, a former Republican candidate for both chambers of Congress, who used to run a business repairing tractors and other machinery before he became a teacher.
5) The allegations by another candidate, Joseph Gwin (that's "win" with a "g" in front, he tells me), that schools are allowing the distribution of English and Blake fliers in teachers' mailboxes, but not his.

Think you know what the outcome will be? Gwin begs to differ. "Everybody thinks I’m gonna lose because I’m not part of a slate," he told me. "But I have a theory. David defeated Goliath because God wanted him to. If God wants me to be preseident of this union, I’m gonna be president of this union. If not, guess what? I love teaching math."

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:02 AM | | Comments (7)
Categories: Baltimore City

May 9, 2008

To improve the homicide rate, fix the schools

First there was the call for 500 volunteers. Now there's a collaboration with the health department to show that missing school doesn't just lead to academic failure, it can be deadly.

Dr. Alonso is pulling out all the stops to try to get the community engaged in Baltimore's schools. He's convinced that the schools can't get better until the community rallies around them. The purpose of the joint report with the health department (detailed in my story today) is to show that what are commonly viewed as school problems -- truancy, suspensions, expulsions -- are really the problems of the whole community. Want the city to have fewer homicides? Start by fixing the schools. 

Some are more receptive to the message than others. There are around 500 people who have signed up to volunteer. There are also residents in Canton who called children names and yelled at them while they stood outside for a fire drill this week.

Every day, the situation feels more dire. As if things weren't already miserable enough at poor Calverton, yesterday a mother walked into a classroom and picked a fight with a teacher.

Now that's a community problem.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:02 AM | | Comments (25)
Categories: Baltimore City

May 8, 2008

Lunch Crunch

It appears the global food shortage and the resulting spike in wheat and milk costs is hitting Maryland school lunchroom budgets hard. Area schools reported spending hundreds of thousands of dollars more for food this year than last, even as reimbursement they get from the USDA rose just about 3 percent. For more detail, read my story today on meal prices rising and some creative penny pinching in cash-strapped Maryland school systems.

But there's a whole angle to this I wasn't able to fully delve into: How does this crunch undermine schools' efforts to provide healthier meals and address childhood obesity? Since 2006, there have been increasingly strict federal standards on upping the nutritional value of food served in school cafeterias. These standards call for lower-fat, lower-sodium options, more whole grains and more fresh fruits and vegetables. Yet when I spoke to a USDA spokeswoman yesterday, she talked about how they're encouraging schools to start buying and offering canned veggies -- which are cheaper but aren't as healthy as the fresh version. The canned stuff contains lots of preservatives and is often higher in sodium. 

I wonder if the pressure to save money amid this spike in food prices will turn back the clock on the few, but precious, gains public schools have made in making meals healthier. What do you think?

Posted by Ruma Kumar at 11:28 AM | | Comments (2)

Troubling developments at Calverton and Canton

Disturbing reports from the two schools that have been in the news the past week: 

1) Calverton Elementary/Middle held a staff meeting after school yesterday. I'm told by multiple sources that it was the first time teachers were officially informed of what happened there on Sunday. I'm also told that the response by the school's administration was to blame the media for overblowing the situation. Meanwhile, teachers reported hearing a gunshot outside the building again yesterday morning, though police questioned whether the noise was something else, like a car backfiring or construction. Either way, staff, students and parents are scared, particularly the parents of the school's youngest children, whose classrooms are on the ground floor of the building and must be vacated when the school goes into lockdown mode.

2) Canton Middle had a regularly scheduled fire drill on Tuesday. Kim Kramer-Zamenski, the mother of two children at the school, says neighbors called the students standing outside "monkeys" and other inappropriate names, yelled at them to go back inside and moved their cars to get away from them. The mother wrote in an e-mail to me that, while she understands that a group of Canton students have caused problems for neighbors, "these are grown adults (and) they are asking for a problem when they act this way.  I think they are trying to get the kids to do something bad so they have something to complain about." 

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 10:01 AM | | Comments (7)
Categories: Baltimore City, School Safety (Or Lack Thereof)

May 7, 2008

Few Teacher of the Year nominees, and a sorry Sunday

It was clear from the 10 minutes I spent in Kristin Covaleskie's classroom yesterday that she is a great teacher, and her students and colleagues adore her. I don't think anyone would dispute that she is worthy of being Baltimore's Teacher of the Year.

But I must say, I was stunned to learn that out of more than 6,000 teachers in the city, there were only seven applications for the award, and two of them were disqualified. (One teacher didn't meet the requirement of having five years of experience, and another is moving into an administrative position next year.) Teachers can be nominated by principals, colleagues, community members or themselves, but their applications must be submitted with three letters of recommendation. Apparently, people just aren't taking the time.

It seems to be no coincidence that two of Baltimore's past three Teachers of the Year come from Northwood Elementary, where Covaleskie teaches fourth-grade. And the principal, Edward English, says he has more teachers on his staff who are deserving of the recognition. English is obviously someone who attracts and recognizes talent, and he lets his great teachers know he appreciates them by nominating them for this award.

Dr. Alonso often says that in every school, there is at least one great teacher. The system has 190 schools and, I'd venture to bet, several hundred teachers who would qualify as great. So why aren't principals promoting them?

On an even more discouraging note... I came back to the office after the Teacher of the Year announcement and learned that two 13-year-old boys are charged with breaking into Calverton Elementary/Middle on Sunday afternoon and attempting to rape a staff member who was there working extra hours. Both Calverton students, they showed up to school on Monday, and that's when they were arrested.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:04 AM | | Comments (22)
Categories: Baltimore City

May 6, 2008

Anne Arundel budget battle

The sky-is-falling scenarios are emerging again in Anne Arundel, as school officials battle the county executive for more money for the district. The district asked the county for $77.5 million. It got $26 million.

Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell is considering this week options for paring back his central office staff by 200 positions. He's talking about making school hotter in the summer and cooler in the winter to save on utility costs. He's considering leaving 200 teaching positions vacant, which threatens to double class sizes in some of the district's smaller schools. The local union leaders are also on edge about the possibility of the district not honoring negotiated raises -- which could cause a credibility crisis for the 74,000-student school system that's struggling to retain and recruit qualified staff.

So, as all these scenarios emerge, you'd think the superintendent and County Executive John R. Leopold would be meeting and talking about a compromise -- how to live within the county's strained budget, but still not force the schools to make draconian cuts. But no. There's no talk. In the coming weeks, both sides simply plan to lob salvos at each other through dueling columns in local newspapers. It promises to be a feisty budget battle, but I'm afraid, not a particularly productive one.

Alicia Toloczko, a parent from Riviera Beach Elementary, who's been ping-ponged around as she tried to lobby the schools and county government to deal with the budget more reasonably, summed up the cost of this protracted, petty battle like this: "In the end, it's the children who lose out. They're the ones that pay so that these two people (Maxwell and Leopold) can each try to get their own way."

Posted by Ruma Kumar at 2:40 PM | | Comments (3)

Baltimore County's "grow your own" scholarship program

Baltimore County schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston is scheduled tomorrow to award the system's second annual round of scholarship loans to three graduating seniors who are aspiring teachers.

The program, which I wrote about last year, is based on a "grow your own" concept. The hope is that these students, who must earn a degree from an approved Maryland teacher education program, will return to the county to teach. The students must pledge one year of service in a priority or Title I school for each year they receive the scholarship loan, worth $4,000 each year.

This year's recipients, according to a school system press release, are:

-- Ryan Goff, an honor student at Eastern Technical High School. He is taking Advanced Placement classes in psychology, English literature, and calculus and is a varsity track and cross-country team member. He is a member of the SAT 1300 Club (with an SAT score of 1360). (Last year, Ryan’s sister Meghan received this scholarship.) Ryan plans to teach secondary math.

-- Brittany McNeal, an honor student at Dundalk High School, where she is treasurer of the Future Educators Association and a varsity field hockey player. She takes courses at the Community College of Baltimore County in Dundalk. She is a member of her school’s Class of 2008 Steering Committee and Calculus Club, and volunteers with the Berkshire Area Community Association and Dundalk Renaissance Corp. Brittany plans to teach secondary math.

-- Malcolm Rowe, who plans to pursue technology education, has taken Advanced Placement psychology and environmental science courses and participated last year in Pikesville High School’s jazz and gospel choir. He volunteers with the Community Outreach Food Pantry.

Posted by Gina Davis at 11:09 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Baltimore County, Teaching, Trends

Where every week is charter schools week

This is National Charter Schools Week (as well as National Teacher Appreciation Week). Charter advocates are going to meet with politicians, and think tanks are releasing studies about the effectiveness of these independently run public schools of choice.

While it may be a good time to spread awareness in most of Maryland, it seems like every week is charter school week in Baltimore. (I don't know that we could say the same about teacher appreciation.) Technically, the city has about 25 charter schools, more than the rest of the state combined. There are also several "charter-like" schools, which operate independently but are not technically charters. And now, the principles of charters are spreading to the whole city. Dr. Alonso has said he wants to see every city school have a community governing board and an outside partnership, just as charter schools do. The cornerstone of his reform this year is allowing principals to craft their own budgets, just as charter principals do. The city's charter school leaders are helping to train principals at regular city schools in how to handle their new responsibilities.

Increasingly, the lines between charter and non-charter are blurring in Baltimore. The city's six new middle/high schools are not technically charter schools. Except for Baltimore Freedom Academy, which is a charter high school already but may not be considered a charter in its new middle school wing. The new school that's caused all the fuss in Canton will be run by the Friendship Public Charter School company, but it is not a charter (a point that required a correction in The Sun last week).

The differences lie in how funding is distributed, in the contract with the outside organization running the school, and in whether or not the system is required to provide the school with a facility. (Charters are often on their own to find a building.) But to parents and students who see their school choices growing, there is no difference. And to the city's charter advocates, that's a big victory.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:03 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Baltimore City, Charter Schools

May 5, 2008

The special-education debate for Towson's crowded schools

Tomorrow night's Baltimore County school board agenda includes a "special order of business," with officials from the Maryland State Department of Education expected to render an "interpretation of special education facilities accommodations."

The issue arises from the ongoing debate over what, if any, role one of the county's schools --- the Ridge Ruxton School on Charles Street --- should play in helping county school officials fix the situation of the area's crowded elementary schools.

My story in yesterday's paper took a look at some of the factors that have fueled this overcrowding situation as well as some of the possible solutions that have been tossed around.

When school officials began last fall looking at ways to ease the crowding at Towson's four neighborhood elementaries --- Rodgers Forge, Stoneleigh, Hampton and Riderwood --- one of the first suggestions involved changes for the kids at Ridge Ruxton School, a standalone special-education facility where about 125 children attend from ages 3 to 21. One suggestion has been to build a 400-seat addition onto Ridge Ruxton to accommodate regular students.

That plan, however, has drawn sharp criticism, especially from some Ridge Ruxton parents, two of whom have filed federal complaints and are considering a lawsuit. They said they believe that their children, who are "medically fragile," will have their educational rights compromised if they are forced to attend school with regular students.

The school board recently postponed a vote on the Ridge Ruxton expansion plan and ordered a feasibility study to look at all its options.

The board appears to be poised to take up the "crowded schools" discussion during tomorrow night's meeting. Under the contracts to be approved is one listed for architectural/engineering services "for the construction of a new elementary school, or addition(s), in the Towson area."


Posted by Gina Davis at 2:19 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Baltimore County, Parents, SpecialEd

May 4, 2008

Sisterhood of hope

I attended a powerful ceremony last Tuesday night in honor of the first three graduates of My Sister's Circle, a program that pairs Baltimore girls leaving elementary school with mentors to see them through their middle and high school years. As you'll see in my story today, the graduates -- Shaniqua Warfield, Antoinella Peterkin and Rickell Sheppard Briggs -- overcame incredible obstacles to finish high school, and now they're all off to college.

For Shaniqua and Rickell, beating the odds involved getting scholarships to boarding school. And Rickell was adopted by the parents of Heather Harvison, founder and executive director of My Sister's Circle. Harvison started the program at the request of Irma Johnson, former principal of Dallas Nicholas Elementary (now the city school system's executive director of elementary schools), who was tired of seeing her female students get pregnant and drop out after they left her at the end of fifth-grade.

I went to Tuesday's ceremony after a day reporting on the uproar over the new middle/high school coming to the Canton Middle School building, a controversy that is, at its core, about some residents' belief that the behavior of a group of students will never change. So it was particularly inspiring that night to meet girls who were not dealt a fair hand in life, but turned themselves around as a result of adults believing in them.

It seemed like everyone in the audience around me was tearing up as Shaniqua, Antoinella and Rickell spoke about their journeys through childhood and adolescence. (I admit I was no exception.) Rickell, who is graduating from Garrison Forest School and will attend college at University of Baltimore, has given me permission to publish her speech (as she typed it before the event) below. The photo above shows her with Harvison as she left the podium.

I was born in my home on Guilford Avenue in Baltimore. The Paramedics came and delivered me in the house. Then, I lived with my mother, maternal grandmother, and two brothers. At some point in my infancy, I moved into my paternal grandmother’s home. I had little interaction with my father while living there. When I was three years old, I moved to New York with my Aunt Mary and Uncle “Flintstone”. What I remember most about my aunt and uncle’s house is eating popcorn and watching the Price Is Right. I merely existed. I then returned to Baltimore to began school and my name was recorded as Rickell Briggs (my father’s name) although, legally, I am Rickell Sheppard. I went to McCormick Elementary School at four years old. During that time, I was living with my paternal grandmother again. She took care of me financially as well as my two brothers and cousins. Finances were tight. I think she worked outside of the home but I do not recall what she did. I would see my birth father periodically but I had no relation or connection to him.

My mother was battling a heroin addiction and was frequently incarcerated. When my mother got out of jail, I was seven. We moved in with her and my grandmother. My mother had baby girl named Jazzmyn. I then lived with my mother and two brothers and attended my zone school, Dallas Nicholas Elementary School. When I turned nine years old, my mother finally received Section 8 housing, after being on a waiting list for two years. Jazzmyn lived with us for a few months and then her father was granted full custody. When my mother got arrested again, my aunt Maxine moved in with us. Basically, no one was providing anything. Some nights, I’d go to my grandmother’s house for dinner but usually I ate at school (Title One – free breakfast and lunch). My brothers dropped out of school and they moved with our father. It was just me and mother living without any gas and electric. After school, I would stay outside. I only went home to sleep. Soon, we found an eviction notice on our door.

I did not realize it then but my life was about to change in a way I never imagined. When I was in fifth grade at DN Mrs. Johnson sent me home one day. It may come as a surprise to you that I was a little scrappy and got into trouble sometimes. So there I was when I heard Mrs. Johnson calling Rickell, why aren’t you in school? “Because you sent me home!” I will never forget what she said: “Well, I changed my mind. Come down here.” Mrs. Johnson took me back to school because she had chosen me for a brand new pilot program called My Sisters Circle. Soon I started after school meetings and trips. I also soon became a part of Heather’s life. By the following summer I became her sister. Her mom is my mom and her dad is my dad and all because Mrs. Johnson changed her mind!

Here are some of the things that have meant the most to me with MSC:
 Book discussions in 5th grade.
 Sleepovers with mentors like Michelle and Lara.
 My 4 summers at Echo Hill Camp. I developed leadership skills and toned arms from kayaking everyday.
 Girl Talk Series, where all the girls get together and discuss issues that we face.
 NYU trip when I realized that I was definitely going to college and certainly in a city.

From Guilford Avenue to Sandee Road really isn’t that many miles, but, in some ways it is far away. I have learned a lot, and I know that others have learned a lot from me. There are so many people here tonight that have cared about me, prayed for me and encouraged me. My “sisters.” Mrs. Johnson. My church family at the Gathering. The staff at Echo Hill. The staff at Garrison. All of my friends. My family. And, always, Heather.

I think the best way to sum it up is to tell you one more story. I did not attend my fifth grade graduation because I did not have a dress. I cried a lot about that. Well, on June 11th when I graduate from Garrison Forest I KNOW I will have a beautiful dress. I know because I already tried it on. It is home in my closet in my bedroom in my house. It is a perfect fit.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:02 AM | | Comments (8)
Categories: Baltimore City

May 1, 2008

The challenge of co-existence

While everyone seems focused on whether any school should be in Canton, the outcome of the debate seems to be a forgone conclusion. Despite threats that the City Council will hold up the school system's budget, the system has a right to keep a school or schools in one of its own buildings, regardless of whether a different direction was announced before.

A better question might be what will occupy the Canton Middle School building next academic year. Canton Middle isn't scheduled to close until the summer of 2009, when its last class completes eighth-grade. In that case, a new middle/high school run by the Friendship Public Charter School company would have to spend its first year operating alongside another school that's clearly dysfunctional. The system and Friendship seem to be leaning toward having Friendship absorb the eighth-grade Canton class so that, as of this summer, Canton Middle can cease to exist and the culture of the building can change.

Many new schools in the city have co-located with existing schools, and some of the new middle/high schools will be no exception. Baltimore Freedom Academy (the high school adding middle grades) has already been operating alongside Lombard Middle and at a recent meeting I attended there, the Freedom Academy parents said they can't wait for Lombard to close. The Reach! School is scheduled to operate alongside Southeast Middle for that school's final year of operation. KAPPA will share a building with West Baltimore Middle. Civitas gets to go alongside two peaceful charter schools, KIPP and MATHS, following the closure of Roland Patterson this summer. KIPP is an example of a school that has been tremendously successful despite its culture clash with Roland Patterson. But when a new school moves into an existing school with a negative environment, it becomes much harder to succeed. Remember the brawl in December between the kids from New Era and Southside?

The new middle/high schools will hold fairs for prospective parents and students from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday and from 5 to 7:30 p.m. Monday at system headquarters.

On another topic: The school system reported yesterday that it has had 340 people sign up since its call for volunteers a few weeks ago, plus about 150 who will do a service learning day in early June.

And finally... a friendly reminder that, while we want a healthy debate on InsideEd and we firmly stand by your freedom of speech, we need to keep the dialogue constructive. In the year we've been doing this blog, there have only been a handful of comments submitted that we have not published. But three times in the past day, we've chosen not to publish comments that are racist and hateful.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:28 PM | | Comments (14)
Categories: Baltimore City
Keep reading
Recent entries

2011 Valedictorians and Salutatorians
Most Recent Comments
Baltimore Sun coverage
Education news
• InsideEd's glossary of education jargon

School closings and delays's school closings database is designed to provide up-to-date, easy-to-access information in the event of inclement weather.

Find out if your school is participating and sign up for e-mail alerts.
Sign up for FREE local news alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for local news text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
Spread the word about InsideEd
Blog updates
Recent updates to news blogs
 Subscribe to this feed
Stay connected