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June 30, 2008

12-year-old wins car for good attendance

I'm a little late on this story out of Chicago that made news last week, but I thought it was worth coming back to, given our debates this past year about the use of cash for student incentives and our own recent drama about a car dealership's donation...

A 12-year-old seventh-grader in the Chicago public school system has won a Dodge Caliber for good attendance, four years before she's old enough to drive. (In the meantime, her parents are excited to use it.) Chicago students who had perfect attendance for any one of three three-month periods were eligible to win the car, which was donated to the school system, according to the Chicago Tribune. The girl, Ashley Martinez, won from a pool of 189,115 students eligible.

In the past, according to the Tribune article, the Chicago schools have offered attendance awards including "vacations to Wisconsin resorts, laptops, iPods and even paying a family's rent or mortgage for a month."

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 9:03 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Around the Nation

June 27, 2008

Failing marks for math teacher preparation

The National Council on Teacher Quality issued a report yesterday concluding that most of the nation's education colleges are not doing enough to prepare prospective elementary school teachers to teach math. The council studied entry and exit requirements, curriculum, textbooks and state licensing tests for 77 education colleges in 49 states. It found only 13 percent of the schools were giving teachers adequate math training.

Kate Walsh, president of the council, said in a statement: "As a nation, our dislike and discomfort with math is so endemic that we do not even find it troubling when elementary teachers admit to their own weakness in basic mathematics. Not only are our education schools not tackling these weaknesses, they accommodate them with low expectations and insufficient content."

But there's good news for Maryland: The University of Maryland at College Park is among the 10 schools where the council determined the math preparation was adequate. Towson University is one of five that the report said would pass muster with improved focus and textbooks. That's better than the 37 schools, among them American University, that were found to fail on all measures. Some schools, including Hampton University and University of Richmond, don't require prospective elementary teachers to take any math classes at all.

Think you're qualified to teach elementary school math? See how you do on this test that the council says all elementary math teachers should be able to pass. 

UPDATE, 6/30: See the comments for a rebuttal from the dean of Amerian University's education school, who says the report was not compiled responsibly.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:05 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Around the Nation, Around the Region, Study, study!, Teaching

June 26, 2008

Truancy program ending; mentoring program up in the air

With the end of the fiscal year fast approaching, I thought it was worth mentioning a program that fell victim to the decentralization and restructuring of the Baltimore school system and will no longer be around come July 1:

The Baltimore Truancy Assessment Center, designed to provide social services to truant kids and their families to get the kids back in school, has been the subject of much political bickering and restructuring since its founding in 2003. Originally, truancy officers who picked up students on the street during the school day dropped them off at the center in East Baltimore. Then, to target assistance to the worst offenders, officers instead began making house calls to students who had been out of school for prolonged periods. The building where the center operates had no heat and other basic necessities this year, and the executive director got fed up and retired a few months ago. The money that was used to run BTAC will instead be used toward the system's new alternative schools and programs, which serve truant kids.

Meanwhile, the fate of another program -- Blum Mentoring -- remains up in the air. Established nine years ago, the Blum program grew over time to 40 full-time mentors, who were placed in schools with a high percentage of new teachers. Under the reorganization, mentoring will still be required in schools where 20 percent or more of the teachers have three years of experience or less. But principals will be in charge of hiring the mentors, and many are saying they don't have the money in their budgets. Assuming North Avenue follows through and mandates their hiring, the question is whether the mentors will report to the principals or to a central mentorship coordinator. That's an important distinction. As one of the mentors wrote in an e-mail to me: "One of the strengths of our program was that, because we were not under the principal's control, we were able to maintain a confidential relationship with our mentees....  In addition, principals could not pull us to be substitute teachers, cafeteria monitors or test coordinators, thus taking us away from our main focus -- new teachers." There's talk that a grant might pay for a person to oversee the mentors centrally so the Blum program can continue. For now, the mentors don't know what their role will be when school resumes Aug. 25.

Keep reading to see a profile I wrote of the Baltimore Truancy Assessment Center last year.

The Baltimore Sun

February 18, 2007 Sunday


BYLINE: Sara Neufeld, Sun reporter


LENGTH: 1733 words

About 10:30 a.m. on a school day, three teenage boys in black hats, hooded sweatshirts and puffy coats are standing on a corner known for drug-dealing. Down the block, an eviction is under way, with men throwing mattresses out an upstairs window.

The blue van pulls up to one of the few rowhouses on this West Baltimore street that isn't boarded up. Charles Washington, 69, slides out of the back seat, knocks on the door and introduces himself: a truancy officer from the city public schools.

He is looking for a 12-year-old girl who has missed 31 days of classes at William H. Lemmel Middle, but she doesn't live there anymore. The man at the door says his family took in the girl as an abandoned infant, but last summer her mother came back for her. Now, he believes she's "running wild."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He sighs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"The whole block," Barnes replies.

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

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

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

GRAPHIC: Photo(s)
1. Truancy officer Charles Washington walks through Park Heights as he tries to find the home of a child who has missed a number of days this school year. 2. A Park Heights resident answers the door as truancy officer Charles Washington (left) tries to find a student who has missed school. Guardians of truant children can face fines and jail time. 3. Truancy officer Charles Washington (right) explains to Ernest Young the possible consequences of his grandson's absences in school. Young said his grandson was beyond his control.
Photos by Glenn Fawcett : Sun photographer

Copyright 2007 The Baltimore Sun Company
All Rights Reserved

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:02 AM | | Comments (11)
Categories: Baltimore City

June 25, 2008

Study shows shrinking achievement gaps

The Center on Education Policy, a Washington think tank that's become the leading non-partisan analyst on all matters No Child Left Behind, issued a report yesterday that's bound to make Bush administration officials smile. Called "Has Student Achievement Increased Since 2002?: State Test Score Trends Through 2006-07," the report analyzed state test data as well as the results of the only standardized test administered nationwide, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (called NAEP). And it concluded that, yes, for the nation as a whole, test scores are up and achievement gaps have narrowed since the federal law was enacted, though there's still a long way to go.

In Maryland, the report found that the percentage of students passing the standardized tests grew at a "moderate to large rate" in reading and math in nearly every grade level analyzed. The exception was high school math, where -- the report says -- too few years of data were available to determine a trend. 

The gap between the performance of Maryland's African-American and white students narrowed in every grade analyzed in reading. In math, that gap narrowed in elementary school but widened in middle school.

A variety of interest groups quickly issued statements reacting to the study's findings. The Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, criticized the study for not taking into account the results of the international tests known as PISA and PIRLS, which show the performance of American students declining in every grade and subject since the passage of No Child Left Behind. Meanwhile, the nation's largest teachers union, the National Education Association, said the study was proof that American educators are making an impact in spite of NCLB.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:03 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: NCLB, Study, study!

June 24, 2008

A realistic portrait of Frederick Douglass High

To those of you who work in, attend or send your child to one of Baltimore's tougher schools, last night's "Hard Times at Douglass High: A No Child Left Behind Report Card" on HBO probably didn't bring many surprises. To the large portion of middle-class America that has no direct interaction with inner-city schools -- and that includes many of the members of Congress who will be charged with reauthorizing NCLB -- it's a real eye-opener. I hope the politicians were watching.

In two hours, the documentary covers virtually every challenge facing an urban school. The boy repeating ninth grade who refused to go to his remedial reading class. The statistics on how many ninth-graders need remedial reading -- all but three or four of more than 300 tested, and most come in at a third-, fourth- or fifth-grade level. The virtually empty classrooms on back-to-school night. The tardiness, the hall wandering and truancy (200-300 absent daily in a school of 1,100). The girl who just had a baby and was feeling overwhelmed to be back at school. The frustrated, overwhelmed teacher who quit in the middle of the year. The fights. The fact that only half of the school's 500 freshmen would return for sophomore year. The fact that 66 percent of the school's teachers were not certified. The boy who told his teacher to pass him for doing "nothin'."  The dismal SAT scores (one student scored a 440 out of 1,600, and you get 200 points for writing your name; only one student in the school scored above 1,000). The students who sat for the High School Assessments but didn't write anything (this was before the tests counted for graduation, but they still counted for a school's AYP). The pressure at the end of the year for teachers to pass failing seniors: Within a few days, the school went from having 138 eligible graduates to 200. The triumph of graduation for students from unspeakably awful home lives: One boy didn't need any graduation tickets because he didn't have anyone to come.

The film also touches on the triumphs of the school, though there are fewer. It takes you inside the classroom of an excellent teacher. It features the school's award-winning music program. It follows a student on the debate team who's determined to make something of his life.

Of all the schools in America to feature in a film like this, Frederick Douglass was a symbolic choice. It is the alma mater of Thurgood Marshall, and more than a half-century after Marshall won the Brown vs. Board of Ed case, Douglass is still a school that's separate and unequal. No Child Left Behind provides the backdrop for "Hard Times," but the film could just as easily stand as a profile of the school without that context. Coincidentally (or not), after filming was completed -- the documentary was shot during the 2004-2005 school year -- Douglass became one of 11 Baltimore schools that the state tried to take over as a result of repeated years of failure on standardized tests. It was the first time a state attempted such drastic action under NCLB. The move was blocked by the General Assembly, and the school system restructured Douglass on its own, replacing the administration and implementing the Talent Development school model. I was surprised, though, that the film made it sound as though Isabelle Grant, the principal during the year the documentary was shot, was the one who was replaced. Grant was forced to resign during the 2005-2006 school year in connection with an academically ineligible student being allowed to play football and the school football team having to forfeit its first winning season since 1998. Students who looked to her like a mother were heartbroken when she left. The principal who replaced her was the one to be removed when the school was restructured.

Oscar-winning filmmakers Alan and Susan Raymond clearly spent a lot of time at the school to get students comfortable being around them and the camera. None of the scenes seemed like it would have played out any differently if the subjects weren't being videotaped. In an article in The Sun on Sunday, the Raymonds said the students were initially afraid the film would make them look dumb, and they had to spend time focusing on their successes as a result. But the overall picture is pretty bleak. I'd be interested to know (if anyone associated with Douglass is reading) the school's reaction to "Hard Times."

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 7:41 AM | | Comments (10)
Categories: Baltimore City, NCLB

June 23, 2008

Douglass High documentary to air tonight

Just a reminder that tonight is the premiere of "Hard Times at Douglass High: A No Child Left Behind Report Card," showing at 9 p.m. on HBO. The documentary, shot in 2005, features West Baltimore's Frederick Douglass High. Promotional materials refer to it as a "sobering evaluation of America’s educational crisis." A press release says:

"Produced and directed by Oscar-winners Alan and Susan Raymond, Hard Times at Douglass High: A No Child Left Behind Report Card reveals troubles and triumphs in the classrooms, hallways and offices of Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore, MD – from the celebrations of drum lines and debate teams to the worries of faculty who know that 50% of their freshman will not return for their sophomore year."

A clip from the documentary is here. The Sun's review is here, and a story about how the film was made is here.

I'll be tuning in tonight and will post thoughts on the documentary tomorrow. In the meantime, keep reading to see a story I wrote two years ago about the challenges Douglass faced during the 2005-2006 school year.

Douglass students want attention paid to school
Committee plans to continue effort begun in spring

Date: Tuesday, June 13, 2006
Section: LOCAL
Edition: FINAL
Page: 1B
Illustration: Photo(s)
Caption: 1. Ebony Peacock (right), who just graduated from Frederick Douglass High School, makes a point about issues concerning the school at a meeting of the Student Concern Committee as Dannille Foster lis tens. Seven students formed the committee.
2. A student walks past signs on the Frederick Douglass High School building in West Baltimore. Alumni of Douglass include Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and entertainer Cab Calloway.
   It's been a tough school year at Frederick Douglass High.

    In the fall, the football team was forced to forfeit its first winning season since 1998 over allegations that an academically ineligible student was permitted to play.In the winter, the West Baltimore school became a political battleground after Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele visited and accused the city school system of shortchanging Douglass students.

    In the spring, Douglass turned up on a list of 11 failing city schools that the state was targeting for outside takeovers. Then the principal was removed from her job. And some of the students decided enough was enough.

    Seven of them formed a group they call the Student Concern Committee. They want the powers-that-be to know what they can do to really help their school, and why what they've been doing is not helpful.

    Group members have gone on television and radio shows, met with administrators and spoken at a school board meeting to get their views across. They say they represent the views of students, as well as teachers who fear they'll put their jobs at risk if they speak out.

    Douglass, the alma mater of such luminaries as Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and entertainer Cab Calloway, has a proud and storied tradition in Baltimore's African-American community. But the school, with a student body that's still almost entirely black, has resources far inferior to those in the city's elite magnet high schools or in suburban schools.

    "It feels like being in segregation," said Lewis Peterson III, 17, a Student Concern Committee member who is also trying to start his own newspaper. He plans to call it The Frederick Douglass Crisis.

    Peterson, finishing his junior year, is one of the students who plan to keep the Student Concern Committee going next school year; three of the founding members were seniors who just graduated.

    Students on the committee say the school needs more books, band instruments, science supplies and an oven that doesn't burn the cafeteria food, which, they add, is always pizza. A little variety in the menu would be nice, too.

    Ebony Peacock, 17, one of the committee's graduating members, wishes that her senior English class had had enough books to go around, and that students could take books home. She had to share copies of Beowulf and The Merchant of Venice with two or three other classmates.

    Junior Ignacio Evans, another Student Concern Committee founder, plays the tuba in Douglass' acclaimed marching band. But his instrument is so old he has to tape it together. Also, the biology teacher had to buy all her own lab materials this school year, including frogs and a gecko.

    "We don't have a swim team because the pool is broken," Peterson said one recent afternoon, as the group gathered in the cafeteria.

    "If we don't have books, how are we going to have a swim team?" asked Evans, 16, who competes in debate and wrestling and was recently part of a project to build a community garden.

    The committee would also like some explanation about what happened with the football season and the principal.

    Douglass' football team had won the city's Division II championship when an allegation emerged in November that it was using an academically ineligible player. Though nearly seven months have passed since the season forfeiture, students' wounds are still raw.

    Graduated senior Edward Pullen, 17, the football team's scholar-athlete, said he's embarrassed to take a tape of himself playing to the coach at Towson University, where he plans to study computer science: "He'll say, `Ohhh. Douglass.' I wouldn't take no tape up there because it would just hurt. All that work I did. ... It feels like all that work went down the drain."

    In April, while the students were away on spring break, Principal Isabelle Grant was removed from her job a day after she appeared at an appeals hearing about the season forfeiture. Officials have declined to comment on her dismissal.

    At a school where many students have unstable home lives and look to teachers and administrators as surrogate parents, Grant's abrupt departure was a tough blow. Several dozen Douglass students protested outside school system headquarters one late April afternoon. Evans spoke at a school board meeting that night, saying the students wanted a chance to say goodbye.

    "She helped me out when my mother left me," he said of Grant. "She extended her arm and was like, `Whatever you need, I'm there.' She pushed the papers so I could become a foster child, and now I am."

    He said she believed in students who "come from broken homes or from areas where we're not supposed to succeed."

    That brings the Student Concern Committee to another suggestion: The school should offer a pregnancy-prevention program. Peacock said some girls at Douglass want so badly to be loved that they try to get pregnant while still in high school.

    "A lot of girls think their baby will love you," she said. "A child can grow up to hate you if you don't provide the right living conditions. Nobody tells them things like that."

    Then there are the things the students say officials should stop doing, such as beating Douglass up for its low test scores and making promises they don't keep.

    Until this year, the state required students to take - not to pass - four High School Assessments to graduate. At Douglass, students said they were told they needed only to sit for the exams, not do well on them. They said it's no wonder scores were so low: The pass rate on last year's algebra exam was 4.8 percent; in biology, 1.4 percent.

    "What a lot of kids did was just bubble in answers and leave when they found out it doesn't count, until we found out it makes the actual school look bad," Peterson said.

    The scores were the major reason Douglass was included on a list of 11 schools targeted by the State Department of Education in March for outside takeovers. The General Assembly passed emergency legislation imposing a one-year moratorium on the action.

    Test scores were intensely criticized by Steele when he visited the school in February. The lieutenant governor threw his support behind a proposal for neighboring Coppin State University to manage the school and made a personal commitment to turn Douglass around.

    "We were really excited because he really made it seem like he was gonna help our school," Peacock said. "We haven't heard anything since."

    Bryon Johnston, a spokesman for Steele, said the lieutenant governor maintains his commitment, but "it's been a frustrating and disappointing process so far." He blamed the city school system for being too slow to act.

    Ursula Battle, a spokeswoman for Coppin, said the university is still interested in a partnership with Douglass, but she does not know what that would entail.

    Last week, city school system officials outlined their intent to overhaul Douglass in the fall of 2007, with next school year as a planning period. Johnston said that's too long to wait.

    "To sentence these students to another year of inadequate education is totally unacceptable," he said. "This is a crisis, and it deserves to be treated as such."

    Linda Chinnia, the system's chief academic officer, said it's impossible to start a new school - and that's effectively what will be happening at Douglass - in any less than a year. She pointed out that the state's plan for an outside takeover also would not have taken effect until the fall of 2007 to allow time for planning.

    She also said she has trouble believing that Douglass doesn't have the books and other supplies it needs. "That's paid for centrally," she said, adding that the school needs only to let the central office know what it needs.

    Peacock, who is headed for Wilberforce University in Ohio, said she hopes officials will be able to stop bickering over Douglass and recognize the contribution its students are trying to make to their community.

    "We kinda feel neglected," she said. "We kinda feel used."

    Sun reporter Lem Satterfield contributed to this article.

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

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:06 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Baltimore City, NCLB

June 20, 2008

In Carroll County, a shorter work week

Carroll public school employees have the option of a four-day work week this summer, in an effort to reduce the cost of commuting to work -- the district’s own nod to rising gas prices.

Despite individual schedule changes, all county schools and offices will be open from the usual 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., five days a week.

The pilot program, which is voluntary, started this week and runs through Aug. 8, according to a memo from Superintendent Charles I. Ecker. Employees can either opt for working extended hours Monday-Thursday or Tuesday-Friday, a schedule that also accommodates three-day weekend getaways.

Posted by Arin Gencer at 6:01 AM | | Comments (0)

June 19, 2008

Problems in PTA-land

As I report today, the Maryland PTA has made the Baltimore City Council of PTAs an inactive organization. That means, for as long as the council is not allowed to operate, there will be a little more extra office space at North Avenue. And school board meetings just won't be the same.

The PTA council is one of the organizations allotted a five-minute slot during the public comment portion of each board meeting. In recent months, the president of the council, Eric White, has voiced opposition to a number of system projects. As I said in my story, he called into a local radio show recently to give Dr. Alonso a poor midterm progress report. (On the air, he was identified by host Marc Steiner as "Amos;" White said later that Steiner made a mistake. But he also didn't do anything to correct it.) 

What's unclear is whether White is presenting the views of anyone other than himself when he speaks in public. The PTA council's charter requires him to speak for the organization.

One unlikely fight involves BoardDocs, the Web site where school board agendas and exhibits are posted. White is upset that the site was developed without parental input and is demanding a public forum on the issue. But before BoardDocs, it was like pulling teeth for the public to get any school board documents at all (as I know all too well from firsthand experience). Now the system is doing what every other district in the area does, posting the documents online.

Last week, White rallied against the system's new parent engagement initiative. Charging that the board was abdicating its own responsibility by contracting with a third party to engage parents, White demanded that board members on a parent and community subcommittee raise their hands. He also insisted that the time it took to get the BoardDocs site projected on a screen in the board room not be deducted from his five minutes for public comment, and he asked that the meeting minutes note that a system employee was “blocking my access” when the screen was changed to say his time was almost up. (He wanted to highlight the procurement item on the agenda.)

As White asked Alonso to respond to his progress report on the radio, he asked the board members to respond to his presentation at the board meeting.

"The bait that you've thrown out there is not gonna be taken," said the board chairman, Brian Morris.

"This is not bait," White replied. "This is information for the public. We don’t put out bait. We put out information."

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:01 AM | | Comments (7)
Categories: Baltimore City, Parents

June 18, 2008

High-achieving students get less attention

A Fordham Institute report released yesterday says high-achieving students aren't making the same gains in test scores as the lowest achieving students. (See my story today.)

The report also has some fascinating data about what teachers think about their high-achieving students. For instance, teachers say that their schools do not make high-achieving students a top priority. And that apparently happens much more frequently at urban schools where there are high numbers of students in poverty. So that means that if you a high-achieving, minority student in an urban school, you are much less likely to have a chance to be challenged than if you go to a suburban school. That may not be particularly surprising, but it documents what has been believed for years.

In addition, teachers told the researchers that they feel guilty about the fact that their most gifted students don't get challenged enough. "I feel like sometimes we are cheating them ... cheating them out of their own personal glory.... They could be so much more magnificent in their own right and happier, because I think they feel a level of frustration that they have to sit by while we are babysitting," said one teacher who was quoted in the report by researchers Steve Farkas and Ann Duffett.

Interesting, too, is that while most teachers say the low achievers are getting more attention than others, they also don't think that is right. About half of teachers reported they thought every student should get equal attention.

In the same study, about half of high school teachers surveyed said they believe the advanced-level classes at their school are truly rigorous and challenging. Another 40 percent said they are watered down.

Teachers also said that too often parents push their children into the advanced classes they are unprepared for or don't want to be in.

Posted by Liz Bowie at 2:54 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Around the Nation

Moving out of North Avenue?

I dropped by an end-of-year barbeque held for central office staff on the steps and lawn in front of North Avenue yesterday. A few noteworthy things I heard people talking about:

1) There may be students going to school alonside administrators in 2008-2009, if the plans to put a new alternative middle school inside the central office materialize. But eventually (i.e., after another round of downsizing next year), Dr. Alonso wants to move the administration out of North Avenue entirely. The New York City school system did this in 2002 as both a symbolic and cost-saving move, abandoning the old board of education building in Brooklyn in favor of a beautiful office space in the restored Tweed Courthouse in Manhattan.

2) Reginald Lewis High, the school that got all the media attention when its art teacher was assaulted on cell phone camera, is getting a new principal. The job opening was just posted on the system's Web site.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:01 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Baltimore City

June 17, 2008

Will smaller high schools graduate more students?

Here's an interesting article about an initiative in Michigan aimed at reducing the size of high schools. It's an especially timely article for those of you who may be following the debate locally about school size, an issue recently brought into sharper focus in Baltimore County because of a failed proposal to expand Loch Raven High School.

Click here for my article from last week about the school board's decision to nix the expansion plan at Loch Raven High School. And here for my article on County Executive James T. Smith Jr.'s response to the board's action.

Posted by Gina Davis at 11:57 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Around the Nation, Baltimore County, Trends

A dose of inspiration

If you haven't already caught it, please take a moment to read today's story about Joseph Kaminski, a centenarian who has worked as a bindery technician for the Baltimore County public school system for nearly three decades and says he plans to stay as long as his "body will allow."

Joseph -- who remarks that even the doctors want to know his secret to long life -- offered this gem of wisdom: Keep busy.

"You have to continue using the brain and the body for the circulation of the blood," he said.

Posted by Gina Davis at 11:41 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Baltimore County

New food director was courted

The city school board last week signed off on the appointment of someone the system has had its eye on for awhile: Anthony Geraci, who will be the system's new director of food and nutrition.

Geraci served most recently as executive director of First Course, a program in Keene, N.H., to prepare adults who are low-income, developmentally disabled or recovering from drug addiction for careers in the culinary field. He previously was food services director in New Hampshire's ConVal School District, where he did work that was noticed in Baltimore.

In March 2006, the Baltimore Efficiency and Economy Foundation -- otherwise known (fittingly) as BEEF -- released a report called "School Meal Reform Opportunities for the Baltimore City Public School System." Its author: Jill Wrigley, wife of Michael Sarbanes, who is now the system's executive director of communications, partnerships and family engagement.

The report recommended that the city school system hire Geraci as a consultant, saying he had "developed a successful entrepreneurial model for food services." His initiatives in ConVal, as outlined in the report, included:
-- an increase in on-site cooking and use of locally grown produce,
-- student menu contests, where kids were asked to design a meal and the winning one was served, and
-- the establishment of a catering business to provide meals at school events and to school staff, to raise money to offset the increased costs associated with serving higher quality food.

At the time the report was released in 2006, Eric Letsinger, then the chief operating officer of the Baltimore school system, was planning to overhaul food services to provide kids with healthy food they'd actually eat. (He used to say he wanted to hire a guy in a chef's hat to run the operation; Geraci had a long career as a chef and restaurant owner.) But after an unfortunate incident involving questionable billing practices for a boating trip, Letsinger didn't last in his job long enough for his plans to come to fruition. And the quality of school lunches in Baltimore remained suspect. This past school year, students at City Neighbors Charter School began a campaign for edible lunch. They and others are hoping Geraci will deliver.

In a statement released yesterday by the school system, City Neighbors student Alice Sheehan, a sixth-grader, said she hopes that Geraci's appointment "will mean the end of food that kids just throw in the trash." In the same statement, Dr. Alonso called Geraci a "critically acclaimed chef, restaurateur, and businessman, with a clear vision to make the school system’s food services and nutrition program one of the top urban programs in the country while engaging students throughout the entire process, from purchasing food from local farms to designing and cooking nutritious menus."

For an article I wrote in January on the City Neighbors lunch campaign, keep reading.

The Baltimore Sun
The pursuit of edible lunch
Students campaign for decent cafeteria food

Date: Saturday, January 19, 2008
Edition: Final
Page: 1A
Byline: Sara Neufeld
Illustration: Photo(s)
Caption: 1. Jared Naquin demonstrates the gravity-defying nature of the mashed potatoes served at City Neighbors Charter School.
2. Students from City Neighbors Charter School taste-test food at Hamilton Elementary/Middle: Ryan Becker (front), Tra Holley and Alice Sheehan (right). The City Neighbors cafeteria committee also lunched at Elmwood Elementary in Baltimore County.
3. The visitors were favorably im pressed with food at Hamilton. They said their milk is sometimes frozen, bread moldy.
   The cafeteria pizza at Hamilton Elementary/Middle might not seem like anything special to the students there. But to Morgan Dean, it's heavenly.

    Biting into her piece of the pie yesterday, the 12-year-old noted the warm, soft crust and the fact that the cheese on top was fully melted. At City Neighbors Charter School in Northeast Baltimore, where she is in seventh grade, "the cheese tastes kinda like plastic," she said.Morgan and her City Neighbors classmates are on a mission for better cafeteria food.

    They've complained. They've protested. Students of the U.S. Constitution, they've drawn up a Cafeteria Bill of Rights, saying they deserve to have fresh fruits and vegetables and more than one meal selection a day.

    Yesterday, six kids piled into their social studies teacher's minivan and traveled to two neighboring schools - another in Baltimore City and one in Baltimore County - to see whether those lunchrooms had anything better to offer.

    As a charter school, City Neighbors operates independently from much of the Baltimore school system's central bureaucracy, but it's still stuck with regular school system food. And as a small school, operating in a church with only 120 students, City Neighbors isn't big enough for a full-fledged cafeteria kitchen. It's one of 57 city schools that receive all food frozen and prepackaged.

    The food quality has been a problem ever since City Neighbors opened in 2005. In January 2006, a group of students brought one of their meals to a school board meeting to show officials how "nasty" it was. They talked that night about how their meatloaf stuck to the plastic and their milk was sometimes frozen solid.

    Time went by, and nothing changed. Then a few months ago, the sixth- and seventh-graders in Peter French's social studies classes started studying the Constitution. They talked about how they could exercise their First Amendment rights to advocate for better cafeteria food - not only for themselves, but for all 57 schools with pre-made food.

    And so a cafeteria committee was born. The six members (the children who went on the trip yesterday) have been meeting almost every day during lunch in French's classroom.

    They're gathering menus and information about school meals around the region. They've met with Kathleen Wilson, the head of food services for the city schools, and with a food services official in Baltimore County.

    They've e-mailed city schools chief Andres Alonso to request a meeting (or tried to, anyway; Alonso's office says he didn't get the message).

    The committee is calling for every school to get its own cafeteria and kitchen staff so that "pre-plate" meals can be abolished - a request that officials suggest might not be particularly realistic, given that the school system will face $50 million in budget cuts for the next academic year.

    Although Wilson has corresponded with the students by e-mail, she declined their invitation to the cafeteria tours yesterday. So at 10:20 a.m., they were on their own as they climbed into a turquoise Toyota Previa.

    The first stop was Hamilton Elementary/Middle, two miles away. Though Hamilton is also a city school, it has more than 600 students and therefore is large enough for a cafeteria that makes at least some of its own food.

    In the office, French met Hamilton Principal Bill Murphy, who escorted the group to the cafeteria. The kids dropped their coats and backpacks at a table and got into line, the only ones not wearing school uniforms.

    The first item on the counter was 1 percent milk: regular, chocolate or strawberry. It's the same milk that's offered at City Neighbors, but the students admired the expiration dates. "We get this, but sometimes the dates are a little off," said Morgan, who wore brown fuzzy boots and had not had time to eat breakfast.

    The best parts of the lunch were deemed to be the crispness of the tater tots, the crust and cheese on the pizza, and the fruit option: cinnamon apples.

    At 10:55, the first lunch of the day was done. The students were thanking their hosts and talking about how full they were.

    That wouldn't stop them all from eating two more meals over the next hour.

    Next, it was back to City Neighbors for their own school lunch. The choice of the day was also pizza, but this pizza came in a box. Some friends of the committee members started making a list of all the kids who have thrown up after eating fish nuggets.

    "The mashed potatoes don't move, and the bread is sometimes moldy," said Ethan Maszczenski, 12. To prove his point, a classmate peeled the plastic wrap off the top of a dish of mashed potatoes and turned the container upside down. Nothing happened. The potatoes were solid.

    At 11:20, the minivan was on its way to the four-star cafeteria of the day: Elmwood Elementary in Baltimore County. Morgan was looking forward to trying her first fish hoagie.

    In line, the kids couldn't believe their eyes when they saw, not only fresh orange slices, but also peaches (granted, peaches from a can) with whipped cream on top.

    They were also impressed that an extra 50 cents would get them a double Popsicle stick. French was paying, so why not? City Neighbors has no desserts.

    The hoagie didn't disappoint, particularly because the roll it was served on was nice and fluffy.

    The meal was particularly satisfying for Ryan Becker, 13, who used to attend Elmwood and dashed through the halls to say hi to his old teachers.

    But the others on the committee agreed with his ratings of the three meals: Hamilton, good. City Neighbors, bad. Elmwood, excellent.

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

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:04 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Baltimore City

June 16, 2008

Baltimore County joins the crowd on raising lunch prices

Lunch prices in Baltimore County are set to jump nearly 20 percent when students return to school in August.

The county is among many around the region that are planning such increases, at a time when the price of everything seems to be on the rise.

The county’s school board approved the increase during their meeting Tuesday after school officials explained that rising costs for food and supplies are the reason they need to charge more. Without the increase, staff members said, the school system stands to lose 46 cents on every lunch.

Lunch at the county’s elementary schools would increase from $2.50 to $2.90 per meal. At middle and high schools, lunch prices would go from $2.60 to $3 per meal.

At least one board member, Ramona Johnson, said she worried about the increase causing a financial hardship on families. She voted in favor of the increase.

Board member Joy Shillman, who said it didn’t seem fair that middle and high school lunches are only 10 cents more than the presumably smaller-portioned meals at the elementary school level, abstained from voting.

The cost of lunch in a county school remained unchanged from 1992 to 2004, according to school system records. For the 2004-2005 school year, the price was increased 20 cents. And for the 2005-2006 and 2006-2007 school years, the price was raised 40 cents each year.

During the school board meeting, officials from the system’s Office of Nutrition Services outlined various items that are included in the price of school lunches, including the cost of the food, employee salaries and benefits, equipment repairs and replacement, cleaning and paper supplies, staff training, office and food warehouse expenses and administrative costs.

Baltimore County school officials said they expect to spend nearly $30 million to produce about 8.5 million lunches in the coming school year.

Read on for The Sun's recent coverage of lunch price increases around the region.

A crunch hits lunch
Baltimore-area school cafeterias raise prices, change menus amid global economic woes

Thursday, May 8, 2008
Sun reporter
Ruma Kumar
   Anne Arundel County students who eat breakfast at school may soon have to do without whole-grain cinnamon rolls. In Carroll County, school cafeterias are stretching their vegetable supply by making more soups. And in Montgomery County schools, tomatoes are being replaced in lunch salads by less-pricey carrots.

    The global food shortage and the resulting spike in the cost of milk, grains and fresh fruits and vegetables are squeezing school lunchroom budgets in Maryland and across the nation.A convergence of factors - a sharp rise in food prices not seen since the 1970s, climbing transportation costs as oil tops $120 a barrel and growing labor costs - has cash-strapped schools doing some creative penny-pinching and raising meal prices.

    Anne Arundel County school board members voted yesterday to raise school lunch and breakfast prices next school year by 25 cents and charge 5 cents more for a half-pint of milk. It's the first price increase the county has adopted for lunches in three years. School officials said costs for food have increased 15.5 percent in that time.

    Even with pricier lunches, school nutrition officials in the 74,000-student Anne Arundel school system warned that they will face a $1 million deficit next year and will likely be forced to raise prices again next spring.

    "We hope that by raising prices in small increments, it won't be as hard on families," said Jodi Risse, supervisor for food and nutrition services in Anne Arundel County. "We don't want to see a drop in participation and have Mom and Dad packing peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches because they can't afford to pay for school lunch any more."

    The pinch caused by higher fuel prices, transportation surcharges and rising costs for bread and milk caused Harford County schools to raise lunch prices this school year by 20 cents.

    Carroll County schools are spending $107,000 more on food this year than last and are considering a 25- to 50-cent increase to cover rising food transportation costs coupled with a sharp drop in meal purchases. Gwen Ruskey, food service accountant for Carroll schools, said the county has seen its meal-buyers drop by 100 students a month since November. On top of that, she's hearing from food suppliers that they're upping their fuel surcharges to the district from $8 to $14.

    "With everything that's been happening, it's been extremely hard on us," she said.

    Howard County school prices are staying put for now, but only after the county adopted increases that raised the cost of meals by 75 cents since 2005. Baltimore County school officials say they won't be considering meal prices until summer. School officials in Baltimore City, where nearly nine out of 10 meals go to low-income students, say they're looking to trim costs rather than raise prices. Among the options: buying their own trucks to cut food transportation costs.

    The price increases affect only students who pay the full, though subsidized, price for lunch. School nutrition officials said they're concerned about the squeeze middle-class families will feel, and Anne Arundel is bracing for a 3 percent drop in the 5 million lunches a year that it serves as a result of the raise just approved.

    Low-income families who qualify for reduced-price or free lunches will not be affected. In Anne Arundel, that's two-thirds of the 6,000 breakfasts served daily and about two-fifths of the 32,000 daily lunches.

    "It just feels like everything's going up," said Anita Owens, president of the Anne Arundel Council of PTAs. "I think parents are just going to start packing more lunches, making more sandwiches because we're getting hit at the gas pump, at the grocery store. It's hard all around."

    Economists and other experts say that grain shortages have been aggravated by record-high oil prices, which have driven a push for ethanol, a biofuel made from large quantities of corn. Meanwhile, demand for wheat has jumped as it is substituted for less-available corn.

    And that demand means that suppliers have warned Anne Arundel school officials that the whole-wheat muffins and cinnamon rolls that cost the district 30 cents apiece this school year are likely to cost about 50 cents each next year. Officials say they aren't sure how they'll deal with that - though the response in Broward County, Fla., has been to replace the wheat baked goods with ones made from cheaper white flour.

    Local officials say they're squeezed because federal funding to keep meal costs low hasn't kept pace with food prices - going up just 3 percent in the past year while bread and milk have soared 12 and 17 percent, respectively.

    The U.S. Agriculture Department gives schools $2.47 per lunch to serve free meals to children from needy families, up from $2.40 last year, according to the agency's Web site. Yet the average lunch costs schools $2.70 to $3.10 to produce, says the School Nutrition Association.

    For students eligible to buy a reduced-price lunch, the federal government provides $2.07 per meal but just 23 cents a meal for students who pay full price. Schools also receive lower-priced "commodities," such as meat, cheese and canned goods from the federal government.

    Kate Houston, deputy undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services with the USDA, defended the federal support, saying that a 2005 study showed reimbursements on average kept pace with inflation.

    She said her department is tracking prices to adjust reimbursement rates for next year. Rates likely will increase more than last year's 3 percent boost, she said, but probably not significantly.

    School meal programs run on tight margins, so the gap between federal reimbursement and meal costs has school officials scrambling to respond. Adding to schools' challenges are increasingly stringent federal nutrition standards that require systems to purchase lower-fat dairy products, whole-wheat foods and more fruits and vegetables - options that are healthier but more expensive.

    One North Carolina school system struggling to break even has begun offering Yoo-hoos in addition to the more nutritious milk because the chocolate drink company gives the system a portion of the sales to help cover mounting fuel and food bills.

    "We're truly struggling, especially with reimbursements just not keeping up," said Mary Hill, president of the Alexandria, Va.-based School Nutrition Association and food services director for Jackson, Miss., schools.

    "We're dealing with the early phases this year of the food prices going up, and it's frightening to even think about what next year will be like."

Sun reporters Gina Davis, Sara Neufeld, Madison Park and John-John Williams IV contributed to this article.

Posted by Gina Davis at 8:00 AM | | Comments (0)

North Ave. school proposal

A few months ago, I reported that, with all the downsizing at North Avenue, Dr. Alonso wants to open a school in the building to operate alongside the administration.

Now, officials confirm that they are investigating the possibility of placing the new alternative middle school for overage students at the central office. They're still trying to figure out whether it would work logistically. The Rising Star Academy is scheduled to open when classes resume Aug. 25, serving 200 overage middle school students in the morning and 200 in the evening.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:02 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Baltimore City

June 13, 2008

The end of an eventful year

One year ago today, I heard the name Andres Alonso for the first time. I had been chasing erroneous tips that an administrator in Philadelphia was a top candidate to be the next Baltimore schools CEO. On the morning of June 13, 2007, my phone began ringing off the hook as the well-kept secret of Alonso's pending appointment was broken.

Since then, his name has appeared in 218 Sun stories and 118 blog entries (not counting this one). Whether you like his administration's policies or not, I think we can all agree that it's been an eventful year. Dr. Alonso has hired and fired more central office administrators than I could keep up with (tried as I might), paid students for improving test scores, bagged school water fountains in favor of bottled H20, created six middle/high schools, overhauled the system's alternative schools, discouraged suspensions for non-violent offenses, decentralized the system's budget, given principals autonomy, closed a $50 million budget shortfall, eliminated 310 jobs, made it tougher for elite magnet schools to kick kids out, clashed with the teachers union over planning time, and contracted with community-based organizations to improve parental involvement.

He has said repeatedly that he's committed to being in Baltimore for a decade. So, one year down, nine to go.

To those of you in BCPSS, congrats on the completion of another school year (and a belated congratulations to those in other systems that have already let out). We hope over the summer to keep up the terrific dialogue we've had this year on InsideEd. As the news (presumably) slows down for the next few months, let us know what issues you'd like to see debated on this forum.


Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:04 AM | | Comments (7)
Categories: Baltimore City

June 12, 2008

Things are heating up in Towson

Parents in the Towson area are hot under the collar after Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. decided yesterday that $12 million that had been budgeted for the expansion of Loch Raven High School will instead go toward other projects after the county school board unanimously voted to rescind its approval of the proposed addition (as reported in my story today).

Some have questioned why the money wouldn't instead be put toward adding air condition to the many schools that lack it. On Monday, Baltimore County closed all its schools three hours early because of the heat. While other counties closed a school here or there, Baltimore County closed all its schools because so many --- about half of them --- lack air conditioning that it made little sense to keep any of them open.

One community activist, Laurie Taylor-Mitchell, whose son attends Ridgely Middle School (which recently completed a $13 million renovation, but still lacks air conditioning), drove home this point in a WBAL radio interview this week:

"They need just $900,000 to add air conditioning," she said. "They now have windows that don't open at all or that open only six inches. The temperatures are 10 degrees hotter than it is outside."

On Smith's role, she added that his decision to put the $12 million into other projects without seeing whether the school board might support adding air conditioning to some of these school, "creates resentment."

"There's a feeling he is not thinking about the people in these schools, about the students and the teachers that are suffering much more with the lack of air conditioning, which is a health issue as well as an education issue, rather than repaving parking lots, loading dock replacements and footbridge replacements," Taylor-Mitchell said on the WBAL radio show.

In an interview yesterday, Smith said he is directing the $12 million toward these "site improvement" projects because the school board wants them done. He said the projects, part of a list that totals $20 million, were requested early in the budget process and only $2 million was able to be allocated for them. Scrapping the Loch Raven addition frees up that money, he said.

I have a call into the school system officials to find out if it would have been an option for the school board --- had they been consulted yesterday before Smith's decision --- to suggest using that freed up $12 million toward air conditioning projects in the coming year. Are there logistical or technical constraints? Is it as simple as, If only he had first asked the board what they wanted to do with the "found" money?

I'll update this post later with whatever response the school system is able to offer.


5:56 pm. Thursday --- I just finished talking to Kara Calder, spokeswoman for the school system. She confirmed that, to her knowledge, the county executive did not contact school system officials before announcing his decision yesterday.

As for whether the money could've instead been targeted at adding air condition to schools, Calder explained that before any changes (such as adding projects not previously equested) could be made to the school system's capital improvements program list of projects for the fiscal year that starts July 1, all parties --- meaning the school board, county executive and county council --- would have to agree.

About the projects that Smith has recommended, Calder said, "The site improvements are much-needed projects. Some have been carried over for two or three years. There are definitely some significant needs there."

Posted by Gina Davis at 12:48 PM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Baltimore County, School Finance, School Safety (Or Lack Thereof)

Harry Fogle retires; the lawsuit doesn't

It's funny how what seems like big news one day fades from the public consciousness over time. Three summers ago, I wrote several front-page stories about a federal judge's order for the state to send in a team of administrators to manage special ed in Baltimore. The school system made it sound like a partial state takeover was about to happen. Harry Fogle, the head of the team, might as well have been wielding an ax when he arrived from Carroll County, from the way some people characterized the situation.

Then the gubernatorial election passed, and the warfare between MSDE and BCPSS subsided. Dr. Fogle is retiring today, and in the past three years, he never became a household name. His style was friendly and collaborative, and he seemed to enjoy working behind the scenes more than he did being in the spotlight. During his time in Baltimore, services to special education students have improved, and as he leaves, the state is scaling back on its intervention.

But the special education lawsuit continues, and so do the bills associated with it. Even with fewer state managers, the school system next year will pay about $725,000 for the intervention, plus (as I reported yesterday on this blog) at least $425,000 for its own lawyers, plus the salaries of the lawyers for the plaintiffs, plus the cost of the special master's office. Before the lawsuit can end, the system must show improved outcomes for students with disabilities, and those outcomes (i.e., the graduation rate) are still dismal. For Vaughn G., the child for whom the suit was named in 1984, retirement is still a ways off.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:48 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Baltimore City, SpecialEd

Never too late to graduate

Frances Yancey-Olaifa, a 71-year-old great-grandmother who lives in Upper Marlboro, has earned a high school diploma and will graduate today in a ceremony held by the Literacy Council of Prince George's County.

And she's a youngster compared with John Lawrence Locher, who is 90 and received his high school diploma this week in Detroit.


Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:03 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Around the Nation, Around the Region

June 11, 2008

New test-sharing Web site




A new site,, out of San Diego, is urging university students to upload paper exams to a free online database of college tests.

So far, the tests available appear limited to sunny Southern California, but the site's interface suggests national, even global, ambitions.

Thanks to for alerting us to this exciting new development in student cheating -- er, studying -- technology. Check out their story for details and a lively discussion.



Posted by Gadi Dechter at 6:02 PM | | Comments (3)

Engaging parents, retaining lawyers

Of all the reforms unveiled by the Alonso administration this school year, the one presented last night -- a large-scale effort to improve parent involvement -- might be the most ambitious yet. And if it's successful, it could yield the biggest payoff. That's because getting parents involved in large numbers in schools around the city doesn't just require a change in the educational system; it requires changes in homes and communities. For details of the plan, see my story today. 

Beyond the parent initiative, there's a lot to note about last night's school board meeting. Two unions complained that, with three weeks to go before the new budget year, some employees still don't know whether they'll have jobs come July 1. One of the places where a union leader said jobs are still up in the air is near and dear to me: the communications office, which handles media relations. Dr. Alonso reiterated that, in all offices, displaced employees will be offered positions in schools, but they may not be jobs the employees like (and they may involve a pay cut).

Administrators packed the board room and the lobby to support Jimmy Gittings, president of the administrators union (PSASA), as he spoke about a variety of concerns, from displaced employees to budget cuts at the school level. Gittings said he's so stressed about what's happening that he plans to retire from the system Dec. 31. Currently, he's the only leader of the city schools' four major unions who still works for the system and does his union position as a volunteer. He said, if PSASA can afford to pay him after his retirement, he'll stay on there.

Interesting items on the procurement agenda: The board approved its annual round of contracts with lawyers to represent the system on various matters, despite the frustrations expressed by member Anirban Basu that two of the three firms are raising their hourly rates faster than the pace of inflation. Miles & Stockbridge P.C. got a $110,000 contract to represent the system in contesting a federal Medicaid audit that could result in fines of up to $12 million. Hogan & Hartson, which represents the system in a quarter-century-old special education lawsuit, got a contract for $425,000 for the next year, but officials said the firm has also requested more money. Whiteford, Taylor & Preston had its contract renewed for $110,000 to continue representing the system in the Bradford school funding case. 

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:01 AM | | Comments (7)
Categories: Baltimore City

June 10, 2008

Waning days, shrinking classes

This is a guest post from The Sun's multimedia editor, Mary Hartney:

Today was my last day at a city elementary school, which I visited an hour a week to either read to third-graders or be read to (depending on the kids' moods) as part of a volunteering program.

And though I was delighted at the cards the kids had written and decorated for me today as a goodbye (including a heart-shaped one from the classroom bully), I was mostly struck by how sleepy the school was. The parking lot was half-full, the middle-schoolers were wandering around aimlessly and my classroom had five kids in it. Five! Out of, oh, 20-something. It was hot, but that can't be the reason: The classroom had better air-conditioning than my apartment. The teacher told me the group of students had dwindled down slowly each day, to today's pathetic number. And what can she really do?

Maybe it's because my parents never let us off the hook with school and we attended every day until the end (which, to be honest, at the time I thought was unfair), but I believe if school's in session, kids should go. Parents have to be responsible for making sure their children attend, but teachers and administrators have to provide a reason for school to be in session. Half-days mean movies, coloring books and cleaning blackboards. I certainly don't think kids need any more tests to bring them in, but there's no reason school can't be school until the end.

It feels like a wicked cycle, like the "Field of Dreams" line, "If you build it, they will come." If you teach them, they will come. If you don't teach, they have no incentive to come, and there won't be a critical mass of kids and a reason to teach. Surely someone can break this cycle.

I get that kids need a break from what we demand of them; they need field days and recess and plays. Teachers, too. But just skipping out on school days because everyone else does it seems counterintuitive.

Today was only Tuesday. How many kids will there be on Friday?

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 4:53 PM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Baltimore City

A uniform code of conduct

Much of the debate on suspensions in Baltimore this year stemmed from the fact that different schools -- and different people within the same school -- doled out different consequences for the same offenses. Cutting class could lead to a phone call home at School A and a suspension at School B. Then Dr. Alonso said he didn't want schools suspending students for non-violent offenses, raising several questions: What is grounds for suspension? What other responses are appropriate and when?

Now we have some answers. The school system has released a proposed code of conduct outlining four categories of offenses, which offenses fall into each category and what punishments are appropriate at each level. Appropriate responses to a Level 1 offense (examples include an unexcused absense and minor bullying) include parent notification, a seat change or an in-class time out. Level 2 (say, cheating or habitual truancy) could mean in-school suspension. Short-term suspension out of school doesn't come into play until Level 3 (attack on student with bodily injury, drug possession), while Level 4 (attack on student with serious bodily injury, bomb threat) could involve long-term suspension or expulsion. There's also a list of offenses where it's mandatory for school police to be contacted.

Despite the code's specificity, many offenses could fall into multiple categories. Classroom disruption could be a 1, 2 or 3, but at its most extreme, Level 3, the proposal says that out-of-school suspension can be only for one day.

The 19-page proposal is posed on the system's Web site. There's also an e-mail address for the public to provide feedback: The code will need to be approved by the school board.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:02 AM | | Comments (27)
Categories: Baltimore City, School Safety (Or Lack Thereof)

June 9, 2008

Soulja Boy for the homework set

For an end-of-school-year treat, check out this adorable video. It's called "Homework Boy!" -- a G-rated remake of the smash yet profane hit "Crank Dat (Soulja Boy)."

The video features students from Baltimore's Govans Elementary School, and it was made in collaboration with electronic media and culture students at the Maryland Institute College of Art. The Govans music teacher rewrote the lyrics of the song. The MICA students taught the Govans students multimedia skills: video recording and editing, sound recording and editing, lighting, set design and makeup, and narrative structure. The result, as MICA professor Jenna Frye put it, is "several minutes of happy, smiling children, extolling the value of doing your homework."

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:04 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Baltimore City

June 6, 2008

Patterson scholarship update

As of this morning, the school reports, it's raised $26,219 in scholarship money, more than three times what was promised by Castle Toyota/Scion.
Posted by Sara Neufeld at 10:29 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Baltimore City

Student argues for removal of struggling classmates

Keith Gordon, who graduated Saturday from Baltimore City College, wrote an essay for his senior English class arguing against trying to keep struggling students at his alma mater. He is frustrated that a few students with academic and behavioral problems are damaging the experience of others at City. In light of our discussion last week on the retention rates at Baltimore's prestigious magnet high schools, I asked Keith's permission for us to post his essay here.

A refresher on the topic: The city's elite high schools -- City, Poly and Western -- historically have not kept about a third of the students who enter as freshmen. Dr. Alonso says that's unacceptable, that the schools are already starting with the most academically able students in the city and must do all they can to help them be successful. The schools must now document the steps they've taken to provide assistance before they can kick a student out.

For a teacher's perspective, see the Epiphany in Baltimore blog.

For Keith's essay, keep reading.

Keith Gordon
Reassignment Essay

Students at Baltimore City College should be reassigned for poor grades or behavioral problems because those students plague this proud institution of academic vigor with their impotence. It seems illogical to keep students around who spoil and infect the learning experience for those who want to learn and do what is expected of a Baltimore City College student. I feel outraged that people who continue to receive poor grades or who continue to misbehave after disciplinary actions have been taken should return year after year. A change should occur because it is only for the better that we remove those who don’t follow the “City College Way”.

Before attending this school, I heard nothing but good things about it which led me to choose it over the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute. But after a year and a half here, I see that this once rigorous, strict institution is falling apart right before our eyes. Fights, cruel pranks, arson attempts occurring day after day — things have changed since the days when you could proudly name your alma-mater without people making snarky remarks about how the school has gone to hell. And who is to blame for this calamity? A small bunch of delinquents and degenerates who don’t appreciate the opportunities offered by one of the best institutions in the city of Baltimore and who, consequently, ruin the learning experience of others who do appreciate the opportunities. In Chinua Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart, there is a proverb that states, “The finger that brings oil soils the others” and it is easy to see how this adage is applicable to City. So why keep those people here?

Now you may think, “Yes, these are serious problems which need to be solved properly, but these things happen in other schools all around the country.” I agree, but understand that this is not just any other school — this is Baltimore City College. This is one of the most revered schools in all of Maryland — one of the most revered in the country — because of its level of academic excellence and history of alumni. We are one of the oldest high schools in the United States. So if we have such high status now — with cancerous, disruptive, and unruly students in our midst — what would we be if we could eliminate all our “rotten apples”? How high would our status rise if we could remove those who simply don’t care about what is being offered to them and bring in more people ecstatic for academic success? It would be like the Baltimore Orioles winning the World Series!

It may seem cruel to reassign all students with academic problems because, yes, some students struggle with certain subjects. Therefore, students with academic problems should be allowed to have a short period of time to improve themselves, but if that goal cannot be reached by the end of that period, then the proper action of reassignment should be taken. I spoke with my grandfather a while ago and he expressed his disgust of the new grading policies. He could not fathom the reasons why the standard of passing had been to a sixty — especially in schools such as City and Poly. He remembered the days when the “Castle on the Hill” seemed like a kite stuck within the grasp of a tree’s branches to him because his grades weren’t of the “City caliber”. He was angered that “nowadays, anyone can get in and stay in if he got the lowest grade possible.” I thought about what he said to me and I agreed. It is appalling that sixty has become the new standard for “average”. For City and all the high academic schools out there, that is unacceptable.

I propose that City raises its passing level so that those who can’t keep up with the scholastic vigor be reassigned and placed somewhere where they can.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:03 AM | | Comments (26)
Categories: Baltimore City

June 5, 2008

High expectations in Baltimore County

Shortly after this week's news that the Baltimore County school system has the fourth-highest graduation rate among the nation's 50 largest school districts, I caught up with county schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston at the Community College of Baltimore County in Essex. (See today's article.)

Hairston was there with a group of eighth-graders from Golden Ring Middle School, as part of a partnership between the school system and the community college to encourage the kids to start thinking about, and planning for, college.

While pleased with the county's graduation rate, he grew serious as he talked about the challenges that the school system faces to keep that high ranking. Not for the sake of rankings, but because of what those rankings represent, he said --- stability and effectiveness.

That means building strong programs at the elementary school level that will send students onto middle school ready for challenging courses that will prepare them for advance work in high school, he said. Middle school students have to come to the table with a solid foundation, ready to start thinking about their futures. He said he worries about the "bottle-neck" that is produced at the middle school level when too many students arrive behind grade level. But, he said, middle school is not the time to try to teach elementary-school concepts.

Hairston said he understands that some people may be worried about his plans to stop giving its middle schools federal Title I money that is aimed at schools with high concentrations of low-income students. (Click here for Wednesday's article on this news.) He said he understands that it sounds like he is taking away precious resources from the middle schools. But I think he summed it up best with these remarks:

"Spending (Title I) money for kids at the middle school level doesn't help if they are in eighth grade reading at the third-grade level. It makes more sense to invest that money in the elementary schools so those students don't get behind."

I've talked to some national education advocates, who seem to generally agree with Hairston's line of thinking. What are you thoughts?

Posted by Gina Davis at 8:03 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Around the Nation, Baltimore County, School Finance

For schools, it's cool to be green

Kudos to the students and staffs at several Baltimore County public and private schools --- Dundalk Elementary, Franklin Middle, Jacksonville Elementary, Norwood Elementary, Pot Spring Elementary, the Rosedale School, and the Odyssey School --- that are the most recent to join a growing list of "Green Schools" by learning and engaging in activities that help preserve the environment.

The county leads the state in the number of "Green Schools," with 42 of them, according to county, school and community leaders who gathered in the garden at the Old Courthouse in Towson. Also recognized were two "Green Centers" that were added to the list --- Marshy Point Nature Center and the Herring Run Watershed Association --- for their environmental education efforts.

"Baltimore County truly is a model for the rest of the state," said Carol Towle, who is the Green School coordinator for the Maryland Association for Environmental and Outdoor Education.

Since 1999, the nonprofit organization annually has recognized schools and centers for their efforts to teach children about the importance of protecting the environment. In that time, Baltimore County students have completed 650 projects, including tree plantings, recycling and pollution prevention.

Towle said the commitment of the county's schools demonstrates "the importance of having our young people accept the responsibility of preserving our planet."

MAEOE looks for examples of schools that tie the environmental lessons to the classroom --- such as incorporating math, English and reading skills into their projects.

For instance, at Pot Spring Elementary in Timonium (home to 580 children in pre-kindergarten through fifth-grade), students and staff built a 200-foot long lawn sculpture made of 500 recycled laundry detergent bottles as a show of how to "reuse" things. All of the school's children were involved --- including pre-kindergartners and kindergartners, who helped by sorting the bottles by color. Kids in other grades handled tasks such as cutting string to certain lengths.

"Every student tied a bottle to the sculpture," said Karen Harris, the school's principal.

Examples of projects from the other schools include:

* Students from the Rosedale School planted 600 trees at Fleming Park in Dundalk to help reduce erosion and improve water quality, and planted more than 200 trees to reforest areas near Peerce's Plantation. To reduce energy loss through "phantom," or hidden usage, the school installed power strips so computers could be turned off completely at the end of the day.

* At Franklin Middle, students collected and recycled more than 75 pounds of batteries. They took old furniture that was heading to the trash and refurbished it and sold it at an auction.

* Working to improve indoor air quality at Jacksonville Elementary, a team of "I Spy Inspectors" looked for blocked air vents, dirty filters and mold.

* Students at Norwood Elementary worked with an arborist to select trees to plant on one side of the building. The trees provide wildlife habitat and shade for classrooms.

* At Dundalk Elementary, fifth-graders wrote, illustrated and printed a book about the Chesapeake Bay that is used in the school's library as a reference text. They also worked with carpentry students from Sollers Point High School to build and install bluebird boxes.

* Students at the Odyssey School built, maintained and monitored a bluebird trail and bird feeding stations. They also designed, built and test solar cookers.

For a complete list of projects and previously named schools and centers, visit the Maryland Association for Environmental and Outdoor Education's Web site.

Posted by Gina Davis at 8:00 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Around the Region, Baltimore County, Trends

Thank goodness for Detroit (and Milwaukee)

Whether it's murder rates or graduation rates, Motor City always seems to be in an even sorrier state than Charm City.

So it is again with the release of Education Week's third annual rankings of the graduation rates in the nation's 50 largest school districts. Detroit, with a graduation rate of 37.5 percent, was at the bottom of the heap. This year, we can also thank Milwaukee for being worse than us; EdWeek calculated its graduation rate at 41 percent. Baltimore was third from last, with a graduation rate calculated at 41.5 percent.

Before getting too glum, it's important to keep in mind that the figures EdWeek is using come from 2005. In Baltimore, that's two CEOs ago. Dr. Alonso has said from the day he was hired last summer that he wants to be judged based on improvement in the graduation rate, and that he should be fired if it doesn't improve. He says it would be fair to evaluate him on the performance of the class of 2011, the students who were high school freshmen during his first year on the job.

If that's how long the system will take to show improvement, and if EdWeek continues to publish rankings with three-year-old data (understandably, the most recent available when you're studying the entire nation), we have six years to go before the survey will be less embarassing to Baltimore.

In the meantime, Maryland and many other states are moving toward giving students unique numerical identifications to more accurately track the graduation rate, which in Baltimore is likely understated by EdWeek but overstated in the official state calculation of 60 percent.

For Maryland overall, the picture doesn't look too bad in the EdWeek study. Of the state's five school systems large enough to be included in the ranking, three are in the top 10. Montgomery County is third from the top, Baltimore County is fourth (as Gina reports today) and Anne Arundel County is ninth. Prince George's County: 32nd of 50. Baltimore City: 48th.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:05 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Baltimore City

New city parent blog

One of the Baltimore parents who comments regularly on InsideEd (under the name "a parent") has started her own blog in response to some of our recent debates. It's called Surviving the System. Check it out here.
Posted by Sara Neufeld at 5:51 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Baltimore City

June 4, 2008

Hunger strike suspended

If you haven't heard by now, the 13 young people from Peer to Peer Enterprises who had been starving themselves since Friday finally suspended their hunger strike last night. The group, which is demanding $3 million from the city rainy day fund to support knowledge-based youth jobs, is meeting with Mayor Dixon today. At least as of a few days ago when my colleague asked the mayor, it didn't sound like she was planning to back down from her position that she's already funded many youth programs and was not going to pay for Peer to Peer. But the Peer to Peer youth have shown that they're not backing down, either, and it had gotten to the point where they were putting their lives on the line for their cause. Many were fearful for their safety, including an adult adviser who has encouraged the students' acts of civil disobedience.

The slogan of the Algebra Project, one of Peer to Peer's member organizations, is "No Education, No Life." And some of the young people involved are so passionate about their struggle that they feel it is worth giving their lives.

Thankfully, it didn't get to that point -- this time. But as I've said before, these kids are persistent.

For video from the hunger strike, see the "media" section of the Peer to Peer Web site.

UPDATE, 6/5: It sounds like Peer to Peer's funding demand is part of the reason the city budget is being held up. See today's story for more details.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 2:43 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Baltimore City

Patterson students get their scholarships

As I reported today, all's well that ends well for the four students at Patterson High who were promised scholarships by Castle Toyota/Scion. After the public's outpouring of support yesterday, the school raised enough money to give the four students two years of community college tuition, rather than the one year they were expecting, and got more to spare for scholarships for other students.

Among the people who contacted me saying they'd like to give money: the manager of Russel Toyota, one of Castle's competitors. Another Toyota manager wrote me this morning to dispute Marcia Castleman's quote in my story today saying that the auto maker requires its dealers to get publicity for their philanthropy. "Toyota has never required dealers to get publicity for charitable donations," he wrote. "Most dealers are charitable because it is the right thing to do and a way to return goodwill to our commuities." 

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 10:25 AM | | Comments (14)
Categories: Baltimore City

June 3, 2008

Carroll's Manchester Valley High School taking shape

Carroll's newest high school is on the road to being more than just the "northeast area high school."  The school's leadership team unveiled Manchester's logo yesterday, a very fierce-looking maverick, which is the school mascot.  Interestingly, said maverick belongs to New York's Mercy College, and was adopted after finalizing a licensing agreement, according to Manchester's future principal, Randy Clark.  Clark is currently principal at Francis Scott Key High School.

Clark said they felt Mercy's mav depicted "exactly what we were looking for as a logo for our school."  Some of the dozens of submissions from students and the community will also be used in an unofficial capacity, he said.

A few other tidbits:
* The school will take on the academy model that is already in place at Century (in South Carroll) and Winters Mill (in Westminster) high schools.
* Colors are navy and silver/gray
* Four possible school slogans, after narrowing down the selection:
  - Achieving Excellence Together
  - Integrity, Perseverance, Success
  - We Can, We Will
  - Motivation, Achievement, Vision, Service (MAVS)

Manchester Valley is set to open in the 2009-2010 school year.

Read this doc on Scribd: MVHS Maverick
Posted by Arin Gencer at 12:58 PM | | Comments (0)

Doing good for publicity

I must admit, I was somewhat baffled by the decision of Castle Toyota/Scion to reneg on four $2,100 scholarships to Patterson High School students because the principal decided not to let the media attend the awards ceremony.

Would the media have attended anyway? Before the event was closed to the press, I'd heard about the announcement of $8,400 in scholarships, and I wasn't planning to go. Around this time of the year, the inbox of every education reporter in the country is filled with press releases about scholarships and awards. Cover one, and we open the floodgates. My general rule of thumb is that a scholarship needs to be unusually large if I'm going to write about it.

In any case... my story today says out loud what I often wonder when I hear about various good deeds for city children. Are the benefactors acting out of the goodness of their hearts, or are they doing it for publicity? Often, I suspect the latter.

If the motivation is publicity, is there anything wrong with that? Should Patterson have done more to accommodate the dealership's requests?

And if people didn't get something out of doing good, how much less good would be done?

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:04 AM | | Comments (29)
Categories: Baltimore City

June 2, 2008

Lawsuit off to a slow start

What's happening with the lawsuit filed against the city school system by former Maritime Industries Academy Principal Marco Clark? I hadn't heard much about the suit since it was filed in March, so I decided to check on it. Turns out, there's a reason for the holdup: Clark's lawyer sued the wrong people. The court papers named the mayor, City Council and city solicitor, even though the school system hasn't been a city agency since 1997. Those parties had to be dismissed as defendants, and the body that has governed the system for the past 11 years -- the school board -- had to be added.

In addition, there are complications involving the defendants in the case being properly served. A representative for Clark's attorney went to North Avenue to serve the nine individual school system administrators named as defendants in the suit. Four of them, including Dr. Alonso, were served personally, but five were not in the office at the time and the papers were left with a secretary. There was much ado about whether it was kosher to serve the secretary rather than the defendants themselves; in asking for the suit to be dismissed, the school system argued it wasn't. At a hearing last week, it was determined that the five people must be re-served.

It's also up for debate whether the mother named in the suit, Tonja Evans, was ever served; she said recently she had not been served, though the process server for Clark's attorney said she was served in March.

A refersher on Clark's situation, see earlier coverage here.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 12:15 PM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Baltimore City
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