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September 30, 2008

Rethinking truancy

Over the summer, the city school system closed the Baltimore Truancy Assessment Center. Last week, it removed the director of its attendance and truancy office from her job. (She, along with the director of science and health and the director of safe and supportive schools, were demoted back to the classroom.)

So what is the system doing about truancy? I posed the question yesterday to Jonathan Brice, the executive director of student support. And his answer sounded a lot like the answer to what the system is doing about dropouts.

Brice doesn't like truancy centers such as BTAC (co-founded by the late Ken Harris) because it's left up to luck whether a kid happens to run into a police officer while wandering the street during a school day and gets picked up. "Making it to a truancy center is akin to winning the lottery or getting struck by lightning," he said.

Now, according to Brice, there are meetings every two weeks where administrators review attendance data. And the direction given to schools is to call, pay a home visit, intervene in any means necessary, when a child begins to miss school to figure out the source of the problem. Don't wait until the child is a chronic truant, defined as having 20 or more absences. More than 7,000 students met that criteria last school year. Brice doesn't like distinguishing between excused and unexcused absences, either. Even kids who are out of school for legitimate reasons are going to need extra help, he said. Now it's up to the schools to provide it.

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

September 29, 2008

Kids and central office administrators, together under one roof

Today marks the opening of Success Academy, an alternative school for city students on long-term suspension and expulsion. Its address: 200 E. North Ave.

Located on the ground floor of system headquarters, the school will serve 100 middle and high school students, but not all at once. After the students gather for breakfast together at 7:45 a.m., those in high school will board a bus to the Druid Hill YMCA, where -- according to a system press release -- they'll attend morning classes in leadership development, service learning, college and career preparation, and health and wellness. In the afternoon, the high school students will return to North Avenue, and the middle school students will head over to the Y. The school day concludes at 3 p.m., when the students will be bused "to major transportation hubs and job and service opportunities on the city’s east and west sides," the press release says.

In providing bus service for students after school, rather than simply letting them walk to an MTA stop as kids at most middle and high schools do, the system is clearly responding to concerns from neighbors who didn't want them potentially causing trouble. But the closest neighbors -- the administrators sharing the building -- wouldn't dare complain. The school is one symbol, and the ongoing attempt to get dropouts back is another, that the Alonso administration wants all students welcome everywhere, no matter how difficult they might be.

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

September 26, 2008

The dropouts keep coming back

The city school system reports that 130 dropouts attended the resource fair at Douglass High yesterday to get back on track toward earning a diploma. That's in addition to the 50 who went to the fair at Dunbar Middle on Wednesday. Prior to the fairs, 68 students had re-enrolled in school as a result of the effort that began last week to contact 925 youth who've dropped out since January.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 11:46 AM | | Comments (7)
Categories: Baltimore City

"Alive and Free" conference, coming to Baltimore

In a few weeks, the Street Soldiers violence prevention program will hold its international conference at Baltimore's Lake Clifton high school complex, with participants expected to come from as far away as South Africa.

I've written a few stories in the past couple of years about Street Soldiers as it's being implemented at the Lake Clifton schools: Doris M. Johnson and Heritage. The program was started by a San Francisco teacher and a counselor tired of seeing their middle school students end up behind bars or, worse, in caskets. It views violence as a disease that can be overcome by replacing "rules of the street" (example: thou shalt not snitch) with "rules of living." Its mission is to keep youth "alive and free" -- meaning unharmed by violence and not incarcerated. Those infected with the violence disease are viewed as having bodies filled with toxins they need to "throw up," or talk. Street Soldiers provides a safe environment for young people to do that.

At Lake Clifton, the program is run by a dynamic woman named Nzinga Oneferua-El, who over the years has lost both a fiance and a best friend to Baltimore's street violence. Through classes during the school day and an after-school program, she blends the Street Soldiers model with entrepreneurial job training to give students viable money-making skills as an alternative to the drug trade. It was a major coup for her to get the annual Street Soldiers conference held in Baltimore, and she and her students have been planning for months. They've secured speakers including the entertainer Sinbad and the actress Terri Vaughn, but I'll bet that the most powerful testimonials will come from the students themselves. Training will be offered in the roots of violence, risk factors for violent behavior, the rules of the street and the rules for living. 

Registration for the conference, to be held Friday, Oct. 17 and Saturday, Oct. 18, is open now. Students are admitted free, and city teachers are eligible for a discount on admission, which is $150 for both days (including breakfast and lunch). More information on the conference is available here. More information on Street Soldiers is here.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:01 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Baltimore City, School Safety (Or Lack Thereof)

September 25, 2008

Baltimore County teachers upset over latest no pay-raise vote

Members of the Baltimore County teachers union will be meeting tomorrow night to contemplate their response to a recent school board vote against a pay raise. Teachers are also planning to show up in full force at the next board meeting Oct. 7 to express their displeasure.

As I reported earlier this week, the board voted against accepting a mediation panel's recommendation to give teachers a 2 percent cost-of-living increase -- another step in an ongoing conflict that began with planning the budget for the current school year.

Cheryl Bost, the union president, said the group plans to discuss their possible responses tomorrow evening.  She said teachers do understand the dire financial situation the whole country is in, and that we are facing tough times all around.  But they also feel as though it's a question of budgeting priorities, she added.

Bost said she's gotten several e-mails from teachers saying they'll be leaving the county.  She herself has expressed concerns about remaining competitive so people want to stay -- or come -- to BCPS.

"The irritations are mounting," she said.

Posted by Arin Gencer at 6:59 PM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Baltimore County, Teaching

Two weeks, three principals

Thurgood Marshall High School has a new principal... again.

The Northeast Baltimore school started the year with an assistant principal temporarily filling the principal's seat. Then, at the Sept. 9 school board meeting, a new principal was appointed: Harold Belcher, who was the assistant chief administrative officer of D.C. Public Charter Schools. But Belcher never arrived and, this week, when the school board met again, his appointment was rescinded "at his request," according to the personnel agenda. James Dudley, a city schools administrator who was without an assignment, was named managing assistant principal (aka, acting principal) through Jan. 9.

Meanwhile, North Avenue evidently listened to repeated complaints from teachers that the assistant principal who's been in charge was not effective, as a new a.p. was appointed, too: Gregory Holmes from the system's career and technology office.

I've met a number of impressive teachers from Thurgood Marshall over the years, but the school -- scene of a horrible shooting in 2004 -- has always seemed to be lacking in leadership. Here's hoping the third time's a charm.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 1:53 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Baltimore City

First results of the statewide science tests

More than half of the state's fifth and eighth graders passed the first science test given to students last year, according to results released this week by state officials.

The tests haven't gotten much attention recently because of the bottom line: They don't really count. Unlike the annual reading and math scores, which count toward whether a school attains the adequate yearly progress required under No Child Left Behind, the science tests are given to inform the public about how well their school may be teaching science.

Across the state, 64 percent of fifth graders and 61 percent of eighth graders were able to pass the tests. Those numbers are on par with how students scored when they first took the math and reading tests in 2003.

There is likely to be a shift in how some fifth- and eighth-grade teachers teach math, however, as they keep their lessons geared toward covering the material in the state's curriclum.

The results from the science tests aren't yet availabe on the state's Web site.



Posted by Liz Bowie at 6:03 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Around the Region, NCLB, Testing

September 24, 2008

Two stories about vulnerable teens

Brittany Banks

I'm working on two stories today, both about some of the city's most vulnerable adolescents.

The first is a promising story, about the city school system's efforts to get dropouts back in school. As of last night, 68 of the 925 students who left city high schools this year had re-enrolled. Today, 50 more attended the first of two resource fairs to get back on track toward earning a diploma. And another 300 students -- not included in the 925 -- who were in transit between schools have been located and brought back to class. Despite the complaints we've heard over the past week about an unfunded mandate and adults being overworked, this initiative appears to be helping. I stopped by the resource fair this morning. As you'll read in my story in tomorrow's paper, I met a boy who made it to spring semester of senior year at City College, when he dropped out because he failed English 4 and world history. He was thrilled to get a call from his old guidance counselor telling him about the fair, where he enrolled in an alternative program to get his last two credits and arranged to enlist in the Marines early next year. I'm glad things are working out for him, but I have to wonder: If Dr. Alonso hadn't ordered schools to go after their dropouts, would he have just been allowed to languish, two credits short of a diploma from one of the city's top schools?

The second story is a potentially heartbreaking follow-up to one I wrote almost a year ago. The girl who was allegedly attacked and sexually assaulted by seven boys at Southeast Middle School in 2002, who -- along with her mother -- won a $100,000 judgment against the city school system last year, is missing. Brittany Banks, now 18 and pictured above, has suffered extensive and ongoing psychological damage since the attack. Two weeks ago, she walked out of a group home in Prince George's County where she was supposed to be under 24-hour supervision. Because she's technically an adult now, she's classified as a runaway, and official attempts to locate her are limited. Her mother, a single parent who has fought hard for her daughter, is fearful for her life. If anyone has information about Brittany's whereabouts, please call the Department of Social Services intake line, 410-361-2235.

UPDATE, 9/26: Brittany was found safe this morning.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 7:50 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Baltimore City

Pinwheels update

Here's that video I promised, from the Pinwheels for Peace ceremony at Woodmoor Elementary earlier this week...



Posted by Arin Gencer at 12:30 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Around the Region, Baltimore County

September 23, 2008

A sign of something missing


I meant to post this photo a few days ago, but better late than never... The sign above was in the parking lot at the old Southern building, now home to Digital Harbor and National Academy Foundation high schools. My colleague Liz Kay, who writes The Sun's Watchdog column, was alerted to the fact that certain letters had been missing and amusing passersby for two years. She snapped the photo above before contacting the school system about the sign last week. Needless to say, it was repaired immediately.

Check out Liz's Sunday column about the sign.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 4:14 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Baltimore City

Ken Harris and the Baltimore Truancy Assessment Center

I'd been meaning to give Ken Harris a call. The Baltimore Truancy Assessment Center, which he helped found in 2003 as a city councilman and tracked closely as chair of the council's education committee, closed down this summer. I figured he'd have something to say about that.

BTAC, as the center was called, was supposed to be a place where truant students and their families would get connected with whatever social services they needed. Kids picked up on the street during the school day would be transported to a building next to Dunbar High School in East Baltimore where a variety of service providers were on hand to meet with them and the adults coming to pick them up. But over time, the center began to run into a host of logistical problems: Police officers were dropping off more students than the center could handle. (While BTAC was only supposed to get truants -- those with 20 or more unexcused absences -- it was also getting run-of-the-mill class-cutters, and fights between rival gang members were breaking out.) "It was terrible," said Joe Sacco, BTAC's former executive director. "They started to bring kids, 150 a day from all over the city. I said, 'We can’t give them the kind of treatment that they need. We’re bringing them into an environment that’s gang-related.' All we were doing was warehousing them. Ken would keep on hollering and screaming at everybody, saying 'you can’t do this.'"

While Harris pushed in vain for a second center on the west side, BTAC changed its structure so that its staff made house-calls to the students with the worst truancy records -- much like Dr. Alonso ordered high schools to do for dropouts last week -- and invited families to come in for a service assessment. But when construction on Dunbar began last year, BTAC staff found themselves in an office without heat or running water. (They ran a garden hose in from outside.) It was no place to be serving the public. Eventually, this summer, BTAC shut down, and the money being used to run it went instead to help open the city's new alternative schools.

Sacco, who retired in disgust in March, suspects that many of the problems that BTAC encountered were political retaliation against Harris, who unsuccessfully challenged Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (and Michael Sarbanes) to the council presidency last year and was deeply involved in BTAC's daily operations. "Ken would want to know what was going on at least every other day, if not every day," Sacco said. "He was very active. This was his baby."

A former cop, Sacco knows a thing or two about politics: He served as William Donald Schaefer's bodyguard when Schaefer was governor. He said Martin O'Malley was a big supporter of BTAC when he was mayor (his wife, Katie, made truancy her pet issue when she became Maryland's first lady), but the center began encountering resistence as soon as the administration changed.

It's strange for Sacco now, in the wake of Harris's murder on Saturday, to watch the politicians he sparred with remembering him so fondly.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 2:24 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Baltimore City

Help for failing schools

The Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based non-profit that has closely monitored just how No Child Left Behind is working, says in a report released today that the federal and state governments aren't doing enough to help failing schools find solutions to improve.

The bottom line is there is no one solution that is working to fix broken schools in America. That doesn't mean nothing is working, but that you can't use the same game plan at one school in Maryland that you use in another in Georgia and expect the same result.

CEP calls for the feds to come up with other choices than the ones that currently exist for schools to use to improve achievement. They also caution that the fix most often used in Maryland -- getting rid of staff and the principal -- may not work very well if there isn't a lot of support for the new principal to hire new staff. CEP found some principals at these schools said they spent so much time hiring new teachers over the summer that they had little time for developing strategies to improve instruction. So CEP said the school district has to take on some of that responsibility for recruiting new teachers. In addition, there has to be a ready supply of highly qualified teachers in the area or all a school is doing is replacing existing staff with untrained newbies.

In addition, CEP says that there are still many schools that go through a process of restructuring that don't get any better. So there has to be a national focus on what to do -- besides punish -- schools that have been bad for five or eight or 10 years and aren't improving.

The CEP study is interesting because they have spent years studying five states in depth and one of them is Maryland. For those policy wonks and other educators who are intensely interested in the work of improving schools, here's the link.

Posted by Liz Bowie at 9:45 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: NCLB, Study, study!

The chef's bold vision for school nutrition

I get hungry just thinking of all the programs that the city's new food services director, Tony Geraci, has in store for Baltimore's students. Some of his ideas seem so commonsensical that it's a wonder the city schools haven't tried them before.

Kids coming to school on an empty stomach? Give them breakfasts in their classrooms. (OK, that one was tried at a few of Baltimore's schools in the 1990s, but the program didn't go anywhere amid concerns about cleanliness.) Kids don't like the school lunch? Let them design their own menus. Kids don't have enough viable post-high school career prospects? Build a huge centralized kitchen for school meals and start vocational education classes there. While you're at it, convert a 33-acre system property into a farm, and you have yourself a big outdoor classroom.

Healthy food too expensive to serve at school? Buy local, and you'll help the environment while saving money. A peach from Carroll County costs the system 8 cents; an imported canned peach in corn syrup costs 14. And not only will the new in-classroom breakfast program help ensure that hunger doesn't prevent kids from learning, the school system might actually make money off of it. If 40,000 kids (or half the system's enrollment) eat breakfast at school this year, and assuming most of those kids return their forms for federally subsidized school meals, the system would make $1.6 million. Some of the money made would come from switching from cardboard milk cartons to plastic milk jugs that can be recycled -- putting between 34 and 40 cents a pound back into the system's coffers.

Geraci, who was profiled last month in Gourmet magazine, says he's going to turn Baltimore's food service operation into a model for urban school systems around the nation. Here's hoping that what turns up on the plate is as mouth-watering as the description on the menu.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:05 AM | | Comments (10) | TrackBacks (1)
Categories: Baltimore City

September 22, 2008

Are students unprepared for algebra in eighth grade?

A national push to get more eighth-graders to take Algebra I may be hurting students who are now struggling to keep up in classes they are unprepared to take, according to a new report released today by the Brown Center on Education at the Brookings Institution.

While only gifted math students took Algebra I in eighth grade a generation ago, today 31 percent of the nation's eighth-graders are in an algebra course. The theory was that students could not compete in a global economy unless they were able to take advanced math classes in high school. Whether it is good to push higher math classes earlier has never been proven one way or the other.

Tom Loveless at the Brown Center looked at students who scored poorly on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the only long-standing national test, and found that many of them are sitting in advanced math classes.

Between 2000 and 2005, as the enrollment in Algebra I grew in eighth grade, there was a jump in the number of students in those classes that scored in the bottom 10th percentile on the NAEP.

In other words, there are roughly 120,000 eighth-graders with fourth-grade math skills sitting in those advanced eighth grade classes.

That isn't just bad for those students, Loveless argues, but also for the more advanced students who will be slowed down by students who are far behind.

"This is not a call to lower expectations for what students can learn," Loveless said in a statement. "Instead, we have to give more students the preparation they need to succeed in algebra."

Posted by Liz Bowie at 1:38 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Study, study!

Pinwheels for Peace

Earlier this morning, fifth-graders at Woodmoor Elementary in Baltimore County filed out of their school building to a hill where a large peace symbol was painted in orange on the dewy grass.

They carried multi-colored paper pinwheels with them, crafted and decorated over the course of two weeks as they discussed the meaning of peace as part of an art project. Their creations and a ceremony this morning served to commemorate the International Day of Peace, which was yesterday.

This year was a first for Woodmoor. Dozens of other schools in Baltimore County and beyond also participated in Pinwheels for Peace, an annual event that originated with two Florida art teachers in 2005. The art installation project allows students to "make a public visual statement about their feelings about war/ peace/ tolerance/ cooperation/ harmony/ unity and, in some way, maybe, awaken the public and let them know what the next generation is thinking," according to the Pinwheels Web site. "This is not political."

Woodmoor art teacher Beverly Humbert and school social worker Kristina Millian spearheaded the project, something that Principal Edith Howard said she was pleased to take on.  She addressed students before they stuck their pinwheels in the ground, along the outline of the peace symbol.

There’ll be some video from this morning here later today, so stay tuned…. Some of the kids shared their thoughts and had some interesting things to say.

Posted by Arin Gencer at 12:16 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Around the Region, Baltimore County

Baltimore's special ed case: Will it ever end?

It's been 24 years since Vaugn G. et al. vs. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore et al. was filed in federal district court. In my story today, Nancy Grasmick likened it to the Cold War. And some wonder whether the lawsuit -- charging the city school system and the state education department with failing to meet their legal responsibilities to special education students -- will ever end. Around the nation, a few school districts have gotten out from under suits of this kind, but in many places, they linger on indefinitely.

But Dr. Alonso wants this monkey off his back. The case takes up a huge amount of time and costs the school system a fortune. He's only been on the job a little over a year, but he says there have been measurable improvements and the system deserves to be rewarded as a result, particularly when it's doing better in several areas than some other Maryland school districts that aren't the subject of lawsuits. The court monitors seven aspects of special education in the system, which says it is now in full or partial compliance with three of them. If Alonso can get the court to drop a few of the measures it's monitoring, he'll be on his way to making the suit go away.

At the same time, Alonso recognizes the need to demonstrate the system can sustain improvement over time. He says he's committed to being in Baltimore for 10 years, but what if he were to leave? If he stays, how do we know his reforms are going to work? Even with significant progress, the system still has a long way to go, as made painfully evident by the improved graduation rate for special education students in Baltimore: 35.9 percent.

If the document the system filed in court last week is any indication, Alonso is extremely confident of the prospects of success. The system was required to submit a "compliance statement" to the court, evaluating where it stands in the seven measures monitored. The 38-page document it turned in went far beyond those areas, talking about everything from improved SAT scores to the central office reorganization to the increase in collaborative planning among teachers. Much of it is not directly related to special education, though it's widely agreed that general education has to be working well for special ed to function. You can read the court filing here.

On a side note, it's been interesting for me to track the politics surrounding this case in the three-plus years I've been covering it. When I first arrived on the city schools beat in the summer of 2005, the state and the city were sparring for control of the school system amid a gubernatorial election, with special ed as the punching bag. Services to children had broken down as a result of the budget crisis, and Grasmick was asking Judge Marvin Garbis to authorize a state takeover of the whole system. Instead, Garbis allowed Grasmick to send in a team of state managers to oversee special ed. At the time, we characterized it as a partial takeover of all the system departments that are special ed-related, from instruction to human resources. The team never really exercised that kind of authority, and today the four remaining full-time members work side by side with system administrators. Some of the team members have even gone to work for Alonso. But I wouldn't say the tension is gone completely. If you read my story closely, you'll notice that Alonso gives his administration's initiatives credit for the improvement in special ed. Grasmick -- who acknowledges improvement but not as much as the system does -- says the credit belongs largely to the team members.

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

September 19, 2008

Getting dropouts back in school

If you work in a Baltimore high school with a high dropout rate, you and your colleagues are in for a busy few weeks. Dr. Alonso has ordered high schools to individually go after the 925 students who have dropped out since January. Every one of those students is to receive a phone call by Tuesday (since Wednesday is the first of two resource fairs for older dropouts) and a home visit by the end of the month (when school funding will be calculated based on enrollment). And the push won't end there: Monthly, schools will be expected to identify and track down their dropouts.

In my story today, Nancy Grasmick expresses concern about the additional workload on school staff, particularly given that the schools with the highest dropout rates are probably also the schools where a lot of seniors still need to pass the HSAs or complete a project. While North Avenue says it will provide schools with support, I can't envision Alonso (who, btw, was just named "Best New Public Servant" by City Paper) having much patience for anyone who complains about the extra workload. If there are no throwaway kids, he says, schools should not be sitting idly by and allowing students to leave. He has said repeatedly that he wants to be evaluated based on the city's graduation rate and, if he can't get it to improve, he should be fired.

Few would argue against the merits of reducing the number of dropouts. But there are also basic steps that we haven't been willing to take to improve. When legislation has been proposed in the General Assembly to raise Maryland's minimum dropout age from 16 to 18, it's never gone anywhere -- largely because of fears that schools wouldn't have the resources to serve all the extra students. So city kids know they can leave at 16, and until now, they could leave without a fight.

For the full text of the letter Alonso sent to principals yesterday, keep reading.

September 18, 2008

Dear Colleagues,

Since January 2008, 925 Baltimore City Public Schools (City Schools) students have dropped out of high school.  We need to get them back — starting today.  City Schools must be a system that is focused solely on what is best for kids.  Responding to your call, we have almost doubled our alternative education slots.  We have six new transformation schools and nine new transformation schools on the way for the 2009-2010 school year.  We are working closely with community based groups to link our efforts so that disengaged young adults can obtain a high school diploma through different options such as GED programs. Every school — and especially high schools, which received over $11M more than the previous year — now benefits from greatly increased flexibility over more resources at the school level to respond to the needs of all of our kids.  Lack of motivation should never be a reason a kid drops out.  It is our job to make sure that the student finds a setting that motivates him or her. Dropping out of school should be the hardest choices students can make — not the easiest.  It is too important for their futures and ours.  

Our high school principals will find attached guidance regarding the processes and procedures for recapturing these students.  I am charging you to start implementing this guidance today and commit to reach 100 percent of students.  City Schools will host two resource fairs for students ages 19-21, where they can access various academic options for finishing their high school education, and supports and services that span employment assistance, counseling and substance abuse programs, Baltimore City Community College classes, childcare, transportation, immunization, etc. The fairs will be: Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2008 at Dunbar Middle School, 500 N. Caroline St., 10 am–8 pm, and Thursday, Sept. 25, 2008 at Frederick Douglass High School, 2301 Gwynns Falls Parkway, 10 am–8 pm.

There is no work more critical than reaching and supporting our kids. I know you will do everything you can to help bring these 925 kids back. Meantime, City Schools is working with other city and state agencies and appealing to other community groups and organizations, faith-based communities and all Baltimore citizens to also join the effort. 

Andrés A. Alonso, Ed.D.
CEO, Baltimore City Public Schools 

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:01 AM | | Comments (12)
Categories: Baltimore City

September 18, 2008

This year's National Merit Semifinalists

We don't have room to publish the names of all the National Merit Semifinalists in the newspaper, but we do have a chance on the Web. So here is this year's list. It was announced last week. About 1.5 million juniors took the PSAT in October 2007. The list was culled down to about 50,000 students who were notified they were candidates to become semifinalists or commended scholars.

Then 16,000 were chosen as semifinalists. The number of semifinalists in a state depends on the population. So a student living in Maryland, where there are a lot of smart kids taking the PSAT, might have to have a higher score to be a semifinalist than a student living in another state.

Congrats to all the semifinalists. Here is the list.

Posted by Liz Bowie at 6:00 AM | | Comments (1)

September 17, 2008

Can KIPP's success be replicated?

We've talked before on this blog about the reasons for the success of the 60-plus schools in the Knowledge is Power Program, or KIPP, which runs Baltimore's highest-performing middle school. Now, the research group SRI International is releasing a three-year study of KIPP schools in the San Francisco Bay Area, analyzing why their students outperform their peers in other public schools. The study, commissioned by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, cites four factors: 1) a culture of high expectations; 2) more time in school and more support for struggling students; 3) a focus on tracking student progress and careful instructional planning; 4) a philosophy of continuous improvement, where school leaders and teachers often revise their strategies.

We've seen all these things before at KIPP Ujima Village in Baltimore. To me, the more interesting question that the study poses is not what causes KIPP to be successful, but whether its success can be replicated on a large scale. And its answer to that is maybe not: It's a lot harder when the students and parents aren't choosing to be at the charter school, making a commitment to do the work. It's a lot harder when teachers aren't choosing to work many extra hours and be available for their students around the clock.

It's not that KIPP students are coming in more able, as is often alleged. In fact, the report found that the Bay Area KIPP schools tend to attract lower-performing students than the traditional public schools in their areas. Perhaps these students and their parents feel desperate that the traditional public schools aren't working for them. In any case, they're choosing to be at KIPP.

The report concludes that KIPP's experiences "don't directly map onto those of other schools and districts," but they demonstrate a lesson relevant to everyone: "High expectations and hard work pay off. There are no shortcuts."

The study's findings are similar to those of another report released in by Johns Hopkins researchers about KIPP Ujima Village last year. An article we wrote about the report at the time said KIPP was transforming the lives of its students, but "translating the methods and successes of KIPP to other middle schools in the city probably would be challenging and costly."

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:07 AM | | Comments (7)
Categories: Around the Nation, Baltimore City, Charter Schools, Study, study!

September 16, 2008

Snack 'n chat with the CEO

Dr. Alonso has a new strategy to engage principals and teachers in conversation and collect information about what's happening in schools. He'll first invite a group of principals out to dinner and then ask a few teachers from each of those schools to a "snack 'n chat" session, held within the same week. The gatherings are informal. Over soda and cookies, Alonso talks for a bit about his work and asks the teachers what his administration can do to make their jobs easier -- and make it easier for kids to learn. He wants to see if the issues that principals are bringing up are also on the minds of teachers and vice versa.

The plan is for Alonso to hear from all the schools in the city this academic year, hitting them up in the clusters that were created this summer to assign schools principal coaches. One issue that's being worked out is which teachers get to attend the snack 'n chats. Alonso doesn't want there to be a screening process, but for the first two sessions held so far, principals have picked the teachers to invite. In the future, the system plans to inform all teachers in a school about an upcoming session, but Alonso also wants to limit the number of participants to 30 so the discussion can be meaningful. To accommodate more teachers, he'll be hosting a series of Saturday breakfasts in the coming months as well.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 12:02 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Baltimore City

September 15, 2008

Victims of bureaucracy, stuck in the Philippines


Aileen Mercado, the Filipina teacher I profiled throughout the 2005-2006 academic year, completed her three-year commitment to the Baltimore schools in June. By that time, she was well-established here, not only as a special education teacher, but also as the elected leader of the organization representing all the city's Filipino teachers and as an elected member at large of the Baltimore Teachers Union. Her husband and three young children joined her here two years ago, and her children were thriving at their schools in Perry Hall.

As a result, Aileen was one of many Filipino teachers from the first batch Baltimore hired who decided they wanted to continue on. But now, she and at least four other teachers are caught in a bureaucratic entanglement that has left them unable to return to the United States and left their classes staffed with substitutes. (An earlier version of this entry erroneously reported that all five teachers were working in Baltimore; in fact, the other four work for schools in California.) In the Philippines waiting for word on the government's processing of her paperwork, Aileen is home-schooling her two daughters while her son is attending school with a cousin, even though schools there are on a different calendar.

The bureaucracy here is complicated. Aileen and the other four teachers came to the United States on international exchange visas that require them to return to their home country for two years afterwards — or to obtain a waiver of that requirement. Before they can obtain new work visas, the teachers must present proof of that waiver.

The Philippine government has already issued Aileen a statement that it does not object to her returning to the United States, which is necessary for her waiver to be processed. Other teachers were granted visas to return to Baltimore while their waivers were still pending because they had those non-objection statements.

But when Aileen and her four collegues were interviewed at the U.S. embassey, they were told they had to wait until the waiver process is complete, an undetermined number of weeks. The reasons: All five teach special education, and special education teachers are needed in the Philippines, too. The embassy representative told Aileen he was concerned that, if he let her go, she'd stay in the United States illegally in the event her waiver is not approved. That doesn't make sense, given that she already has the document she needs to get it; it's just a matter of waiting for the processing to be complete. E-mails from school system officials attesting to her honesty (which I can also vouch for) have been sent to no avail.

After working in two city middle schools that shut down, Highlandtown and Canton, Aileen is supposed to start teaching this year at the new Afya Public Charter School. I asked Will McKenna, Afya's principal, how her absence is impacting the school. "Not having Aileen is immensely disappointing to us," he replied in an e-mail. While he said the school has been lucky to pick up a good substitute to cover her assignment for the short term, "we’re trying to build a great program for the long term and Aileen is such an important part of that work," he wrote. "The other thing that’s hard is being in limbo. I’ve worked on this now for about a month, talking with Senator Mikulski’s office, working with Dr. Alonso, etc.; and there were times when I thought her return was imminent and times, like now, when I have no idea. That’s hard for sure — the waiting and not knowing." He said he and Aileen talk regularly, and she's done a great job sending back lesson plans. "I know this hurts her as much as it does us — more so, probably."

For the first story in the series I wrote about Aileen, published back in August 2005, keep reading. The picture above was shot by Sun photographer Chris Assaf at Highlandtown.

Filipino teachers learn life lessons in Baltimore
Recruited overseas, dozens of teachers will work in some of the city's toughest schools.

Date: Sunday, August 28, 2005
Edition: FINAL
Page: 1A
Series: SERIES -- First in a series of occasional articles
Byline: Sara Neufeld
Illustration: Photo(s)
Caption: 1. CITY OF OPPORTUNITY: Aileen Mercado, one of 58 Filipinos who have arrived to teach in city schools, chooses paper to decorate her Highlandtown Middle School classroom. The hardest part has been living without her husband and children.
2. HUGS AND LAUGHS: Aileen Mercado (front) and her fellow Filipino teachers gather each Friday evening at their apartment building to share prayers, food, challenges and celebrations. With school not yet in session, their conversations have focused on the logistics of life in Baltimore and coping with the separation from their families.
3. IN SEARCH OF A CHALLENGE: Aileen Mercado decorates her room at Highlandtown Middle School, one of six city schools deemed "persistently dangerous." Though she didn't know that when she took the position, she accepts it.
4. PRAGMATIC MOVE: In an apartment building where most of the Filipino teachers live, Aileen Mercado (right) reviews paperwork with school system administrator Cheryl Curtis. The teachers will earn about $45,000 a year, compared with less than $10,000 at home.
5. A LEADER: To distract her from homesickness, Mercado has become the Filipino teachers' representative.
   To get to Highlandtown Middle School, Aileen Mercado left her husband and three young children a half a world away.

    She left a good job and a comfortable home.All to teach in the United States.

    Tomorrow, as students around the Baltimore region return to school, the heart of her journey begins.

    The 34-year-old Filipina is headed to one of six city schools recently labeled "persistently dangerous."

    As the state assumes control over Baltimore's troubled special education program, Mercado will teach language arts and math to students with disabilities, in classes with their non-disabled peers.

    She and 57 other Filipino teachers who arrived in Baltimore this summer know they're in for a challenge. And though some are nervous, they can't wait.

    "Right now we're very idealistic," says Mercado, a petite and religious woman who loves malls and movies. "We're hoping we can make a difference in our own little way."

    Hiring foreign teachers is a phenomenon that has swept the United States as school systems struggle to meet the federal No Child Left Behind Act's requirement of "highly qualified" teachers in every classroom. Critics say schools should instead fix the classroom conditions that make it hard to attract and retain American teachers, but urban systems aren't having much success in meeting that goal.

    The Philippines, which has long supplied the United States with nurses, has emerged as a recruitment hub, because of its surplus of education majors and its English-speaking population.

    In addition to the 58 teachers already in Baltimore, 51 - held up because of visa problems - are expected to arrive this fall. Sixteen more will begin teaching tomorrow in Baltimore County.

    The Filipino teachers in Baltimore will fill openings in "critical shortage areas" such as math, science and special education. And they will take on assignments in some of the city's toughest schools.

    Some came for the money, others for the learning opportunities, and to experience America. Mercado came for all those reasons.

    She is one of many who left young children at home. A few even left infants.

    The teachers' international exchange visas will allow them to stay three years. Several, including Mercado, hope their spouses and children will be able to join them for years two and three.

    A birthday from afar

    Of all the cultural adjustments faced by Mercado, being away from her husband and kids is the hardest.

    On Aug. 7, they celebrated her daughter Adrienne's third birthday in Marikina City without her. At her apartment on Park Avenue, Mercado wept.

    She talked to the little girl on the phone, which was passed around to her husband, her parents, her siblings and her two older children, ages 4 and 10.

    The conversation wasn't as hard as earlier ones.

    "The hardest part was when I was very new here, and [Adrienne] said, `Mama, you come home,'" Mercado recalls. "She has no concept of time. She was asking me, `Are you going to stay there for two nights?' I said, `No, 200 nights.'"

    The daughter of a high school principal and an insurance agency manager, Mercado grew up in the Pampanga province of the Philippines, the eldest of four children. Her native language is Filipino, and she learned English in school.

    From an early age, she found herself drawn to children with disabilities, influenced by a mentally retarded uncle. At the University of the Philippines, she earned a bachelor's degree in special education in 1991.

    During her last year of college, she was assigned to work in a center for juvenile delinquents as part of her studies. There, she met another worker, Isagani Mercado. They married in 1993.

    Mercado spent 11 years at a private school for disabled children, most from well-to-do families. She was a teacher, a program coordinator and an administrator. During those years, she had three children: Andrei, Andrea and Adrienne.

    Drawn to the U.S.

    When her friends, one by one, began leaving to teach in California, Illinois, Texas, Kansas and Nevada, she never thought she'd be one of them.

    But in time, her curiosity grew.

    Naturally, the money would be nice. Public school teachers in the Philippines earn around $3,500 a year. Private school teachers earn a few thousand dollars more. As a private school administrator, Mercado earned around $10,000.

    To get to Baltimore and Baltimore County, the teachers paid a recruiter $5,000 each to cover their visas, plane ticket and an undisclosed fee. Now that they're here, the city teachers will earn around $45,000 a year.

    Money, though, wasn't the only reason for coming. Mercado was done having babies. She felt that she had reached a plateau in her career, and she longed for an experience to push her mentally. She read The Alchemist: A Fable About Following Your Dream.

    "I started wondering, what's in the U.S. that everybody wants to go there?" she says. By October, she'd decided, "I won't have peace until I find out."

    After that, she spoke with her husband. "My husband is so wonderful. He told me, `Whatever makes you happy, I will support you.'"

    Two Baltimore school recruiters traveled to Manila in November and again in January, when they interviewed Mercado. Each time, they met with 20 candidates a day for five days at the Manila Peninsula Hotel. All the applicants - prescreened by an outside agency - had substantial teaching experience and strong knowledge in the city's shortage areas. Most had master's degrees. The main criterion used to weed people out was English fluency.

    By the end of January, Mercado had a job offer.

    `Where will Mom go?'

    Then she had to tell her kids. It took almost a month for the message to sink in.

    Every day, she'd show them the United States on a map and ask, "Where will Mom go?"

    "U.S.A.," they would answer.

    "What will Mom do?" she would ask.

    "Get snow, buy chocolates, buy house" came the reply.

    As departure day, June 23, approached, Mercado and her husband made a pact: "If you want to cry, cry here in the [bed] room," away from the kids. They somehow managed to keep that pact when they said goodbye at the airport.

    Mercado's mother moved in to care for the children.

    Mercado, on the plane with other teachers, flew from Manila to San Francisco, San Francisco to Salt Lake City, and Salt Lake City to Baltimore.

    School system officials were at the airport to pick them up and bring them to their new home: the Symphony Center apartment and office complex near the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

    A new home

    Of the 58 Filipino teachers, 44 are living at Symphony Center in furnished, two-bedroom apartments, with four teachers to each. The complex, brick with emerald green awnings, is steps from the light rail, an important factor, given that none has a car.

    Mercado chose to share a bedroom with Penny Piñeda, headed to Chinquapin Middle, because they speak the same dialect of Kapampangan.

    In their apartment, one roommate is the "treasurer," in charge of keeping up with bills. Mercado does all the cooking, posting menus on the refrigerator listing a week's worth of such Filipino dishes as adobo and sinigang. The three others take turns dishwashing.

    On her first day, Mercado and other teachers went to Lexington Market. They saw abandoned buildings and a man they thought was high on drugs.

    "I was a bit scared," Mercado says. "We were in a foreign country. This was the first time we went out. People were shouting in the street."

    In the two months since, the teachers have taken public transportation to the malls - Owings Mills, Towson, the Gallery at Harborplace and Mondawmin - and Goodwill, in search of winter clothes and gifts for their families.

    School system officials took them by school bus to Han Ah Reum Asian Mart in Catonsville. Mercado was especially impressed by a day trip to Washington, where they saw the Senate in session.

    On Sundays, area Filipinos from the River of Life International Christian Fellowship church drive the teachers to and from services in a movie theater. On weekdays, the teachers have been busy training.

    The school system organized a "cultural transition week," during which the teachers learned about different family structures. Watching a video, they learned about families in which both parents are gay - a foreign concept in their Roman Catholic, conservative culture.

    They attended a summer institute open to all 700 new city teachers, and they assisted veteran teachers in summer programs. Mercado was assigned to a program for incoming sixth-graders at Pimlico Middle. She noticed that far more children were enrolled than were attending.

    Those who were there were well-behaved, she says. "That's why the teachers kept telling us, `This is not the real picture.'"

    When she asked the kids why they seemed so tired, they told her they stay out until midnight. She told them about her son, who is their age. They didn't believe her when she said he's in bed each night by 10.

    Finding a school

    In early July, the teachers attended a placement fair. Highlandtown Middle was not among Mercado's top five choices. But she was waiting for an interview near the Highlandtown table and learned that the Southeast Baltimore school - which, like most city middle schools, has among the state's lowest test scores - needed special education teachers.

    The principal, Veronica Dixon, and an assistant principal began interviewing her. Mercado thought Dixon seemed supportive. Dixon offered her a job, and, after about a half-hour of thought, Mercado accepted.

    Two weeks later, some Filipino teachers saw a television news segment about the schools being named persistently dangerous. They rushed to tell Mercado: Highlandtown was one of them.

    "I didn't know until I was signed up, but it's OK," she says.

    At orientation at Highlandtown last week, Mercado was struck by the size of the school, which has about 1,100 students. Her old school has 70.


    Soon after the teachers' arrival in Baltimore, they decided to elect a representative, someone to work with the school system administration whenever a problem arises.

    They chose Mercado, giving her a role that has distracted her from her homesickness.

    As the teachers' representative, Mercado has taken on planning a weekly meeting.

    Each Friday - supposedly at 8 p.m. but really closer to 9 - the teachers meet in one of the Symphony Center apartments. They begin with a prayer service, where they discuss their challenges. Then they eat and celebrate the past week's birthdays. Their self-imposed curfew is midnight.

    One teacher thanks everyone for praying for her 10-year-old daughter back in the Philippines. A suspected case of typhoid or malaria turned out to be nothing more than the flu.

    The sharing continues. One teacher who tried taking the light rail to the bank ended up at the airport. "I had a nice ride," she says.

    `Opportunity to grow'

    Another has overcome his initial fear of being at a school labeled persistently dangerous: "I have accepted as a challenge that it's one of the most dangerous schools in Baltimore City in the eyes of some. In our eyes, it's an opportunity to grow."

    The service concludes with "Lead Me Lord" on a karaoke machine. Then the music turns to Gloria Estefan and Ace of Base. Mercado, in black jeans and a University of the Philippines T-shirt, takes the microphone for ABBA's "Dancing Queen."

    Two nights ago, Mercado came to the prayer service with exciting news: An American teacher at Patterson High has agreed to drive her and two other Filipinas to and from school. Each will pay $40 a month, but it will save them 90 minutes a day on buses.

    Tired from training and classroom decorating, many teachers straggle into the service late. A whiz at text messaging, Mercado takes notes on her cell phone about what they're missing. Once the group swells from nine to 24, she asks for the teachers' attention.

    Monday, she tells them, will be "a very, very tough day." As they go forward into the school year, she urges them to keep something in mind.

    "We should always remember," she says, "we prayed for this, we asked for this. Now that we're here, we should be grateful. And we should deliver."

Keywords: SERIES

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

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:06 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Around the World, Baltimore City

September 12, 2008

CEOs split on paying for grades

In this article published yesterday, USA Today surveyed 74 business CEOs to ask whether they think it's a good idea to pay students for doing well in school. More than half said yes. Thirty-three of 66 said they pay or have paid their own kids for grades.

The article contrasted that survey's findings with a Union Pacific Foundation survey of 450 high school principals, only 15 percent of whom supported paying for grades. The 15 percent were typically "in poor communities where almost any experiment is worth a try," the article says.

Baltimore, of course, is one of the cities that's trying pay for performance among students -- those struggling to pass the High School Assessments. The article also mentions a project by the foundations of ExxonMobil, Bill Gates and Michael Dell to pay students at 67 high schools in seven states between $100 and $200 for high scores on A.P. exams.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 10:40 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Around the Nation, Baltimore City

Restructuring schools try staff replacement

As Liz reports today, a new study is out by the Center on Education Policy about the schools that have restructured under No Child Left Behind. Maryland, with its recent emphasis on replacing the staff at schools required by law to restructure, is now taking among the most aggressive steps in the nation. But it's too soon to know whether the strategy is working.

Until 2006, most Maryland schools that have failed to meet targets on standardized tests for several consecutive years chose the restructuring option of hiring a "turnaround specialist," usually to work with the principal. And usually, that move didn't do much good, so the option was discontinued.

The CEP report questions the logistical challenges associated with creating school restructuring plans as more schools need them. It says that Maryland's resources are being "stretched thinly." In districts such as Baltimore and Prince George's County with lots of schools in restructuring, there's concern that plans are not being individualized for each school and staff replacement is the automatic option. Other choices include reopening as a charter school and entering into a contract with a private school management company. But as the report points out, "becoming a charter school takes about 18 months, which does not fit with the required federal restructuring timetline."

In Baltimore, the school improvement teams at all the restructuring schools chose the option of staff replacement. (These teams typically include the principal.) The city school board then signed off on the teams' recommendations and forwarded the choices to the state. Mary Minter, the city's chief academic officer, is quoted in the report saying that principals often didn't realize selecting that option meant they could be replaced as well. She said that discussion "came later on... 'You mean I can be replaced, too?' It was after the fact. I think had they known, they would not have selected that option." Dr. Alonso is also quoted about principals being in the dark about their own fates: "I find it difficult to believe that in every single case, something which should be so basic to the conversation has escaped the debate until the very end."

Now that the cat's out of the bag, what option will schools select this year?

September 11, 2008

Board meeting musings, continued

In case my two entries yesterday about Tuesday night's city school board meeting weren't enough, here are a few interesting things that came up during public comment:

A second-grade teacher from Eutaw-Marshburn Elementary spoke about the windows in her classroom being bolted shut and indoor temperatures exceeding 90 degrees, triggering asthma attacks in some of the children. Dr. Alonso asked Keith Scroggins, the chief operating officer, to rectify the situation immediately, and Scroggins planned to do so. The troubling part is, Scroggins said he's already dropped in at Eutaw-Marshburn twice so far this school year, and no one mentioned the problem in this classroom to him. Until Tuesday night, he knew nothing about it. As it turns out, a complaint had been filed with the school's building supervisor. But with direct access twice to a top system official, why didn't the principal go over that supervisor's head to complain about a safety hazard? This seems like an example of the chain-of-command culture in BCPSS that's going to be hard to change. Scroggins and his deputies have proven they're able to get building problems fixed quickly -- but someone first has to tell them what the problems are.

City Councilman Bill Henry also spoke at Tuesday's meeting. If he were in better shape, he said, he'd get down on his knees and beg the board to reinstate after-school funding that the city cut to Chinquapin Middle School, located in his district. He said he was begging since the problem wasn't one the school system created, but Chinquapin has gotten a rough deal lately on many counts. First, the system placed its new alternative middle school for over-age students in extra space in the Chinquapin building without consulting the community. And now that the building is home to some of the city's most troubled students, it's lost both its after-school program and its status as a Title 1 (aka, high-poverty) school, a designation that brings with it extra federal money. 

Of six schools losing their after-school funding from the city, five are getting Title 1 money that could help make up the difference, Alonso said. Chinquapin is the exception.

The Title 1 issue for Chinquapin is the result of not enough students returning family income forms last year to apply for free and reduced-price lunch. Alonso stressed the importance of schools getting students to return these forms now. Those submitted this month will determine Title 1 status and funding for next year. For this year, nothing can be done, even though, as Alonso said, the Chinquapin neighborhood isn't exactly Beverly Hills. He told Henry he doesn't have to beg; the system will be stepping in to help the school.

Finally: a speaker complained that we wait too late to start teaching kids foreign languages. Alonso said he agreed and that will be changing in Baltimore. To be continued...

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:01 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Baltimore City

September 10, 2008

City, state PTA officials bicker over council's demise

While I was at the city school board meeting last night, my colleague (and former partner in crime on the schools beat) Brent Jones went to the "town hall meeting" at Morgan State about the downfall of the Baltimore City Council of PTAs. Many thanks to Brent for penning the following guest blog entry about the drama that ensued there:

Last night’s public meeting was called to brainstorm ideas on what to do now that the state has revoked the charter of the Baltimore City Council of PTAs. Instead, the majority of the more than two-hour session rehashed how the city PTA got into this predicament, with the bickering sides (city and state PTA leaders) at one point shouting their respective platforms at each other.

It made for good theater, but who knows what will come of it? Debbie Ritchie, the Maryland PTA president, made a surprise appearance at the meeting and defended the state's decision to strip the city PTA council of the authority to operate. She reiterated points she'd made before (including earlier in the evening at the city school board meeting). The PTA council failed to provide required documents such as budgets and meeting minutes, and it was operating without a secretary or a treasurer as required. A representative from the national PTA also spoke at the meeting and backed the state’s decision.

Eric White, the president of the city’s PTA council, and the first vice president, LaV’ernee Curley, were joined by Sen. Joan Carter Conway and Del. Cheryl D. Glenn in their crusade. All agreed the city’s PTA had made mistakes, but none of those miscues warranted such a harsh penalty. It wasn’t like they embezzled money, they said. At one point, those four also argued with Ritchie about documents that the state organization might or might not have sent informing the city PTA that it was in jeopardy.

The whole debate was probably a little bit too much inside baseball for the 40 or so people in the audience, but it was fascinating watching both sides speak so passionately.

As for what happens going forward, a couple of suggestions came out of the public comments following the debate. The local NAACP president, Marvin "Doc" Cheatham, said the national PTA should mediate a truce between the state and city branch. Another person rallied the city to take the state to court. Neither seems likely. And it may turn out that the city PTA has to go the same route as the Prince George’s County Council of PTAs, which also had its authority stripped by the state. A past president of that organization was there last night and admitted that, after fighting the suspension for months, eventually, he had to give up, and just focus on getting the group ready to come back after two years, when it is eligible to be re-instated.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 5:45 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Baltimore City

Obama on education: "The day of reckoning is here"

Here is a video of the speech on education that Barack Obama gave in Dayton, Ohio, yesterday.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 9:04 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Baltimore City

A familiar face in "an impossible job"

Kimberly Lewis, who has monitored special education in Baltimore for the Maryland State Department of Education, is now going to be in charge of it. Last night, she was named the city school system's executive director of special education, replacing the retiring Idalyn Hauss.

Following the board vote to hire Lewis, Dr. Alonso thanked her for accepting what he called "an impossible job" (and what he has said in the past is a more difficult job than his own). The head of special ed in the city has many masters. A federal court's special master oversees a decades-old lawsuit. Nancy Grasmick and her team, co-defendants in the suit, technically still have power from the court to run special ed in the city. They still have special ed managers working out of North Avenue. Lawyers representing the students who sued the system in 1984 are also watching. And of course, the person in the hot seat must report to Alonso, who, as a longtime special education teacher, has an idea or two himself about how to serve students with disabilities. "She knows it is an impossible job," Alonso said of Lewis, "but she thinks it is do-able."

In other personnel moves last night: Christopher Maher, who was running the advocacy group Supporting Public Schools of Choice, was named coordinator of secondary charter schools. The system has a new budget director: Whitney Tantleff, the outgoing finance director of ConAgra Foods. And Reginald Lewis High, the school that made national headlines last academic year for that infamous cell phone video, has a new principal: Sylvia Hall, its former academic dean. 

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 8:37 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Baltimore City, SpecialEd

Nine more "transformation schools" approved

Last year, Dr. Alonso announced that he wanted to create 24 combined middle/high schools -- dubbed "transformation schools" -- over four years. After school board action last night, it seems, 15 of the 24 schools will be up and running within two years of that announcement.

Six of the middle/high schools opened a few weeks ago. As I report today, the board approved the creation of nine more last night:

-- Two of the six college-prep schools will be run by the College Board, the organization behind the SAT and A.P. exams.
-- Two of the college-prep schools will be single-gender. The Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women will be modeled after schools run by the New York Foundation. Bluford Drew Jemison, which already runs a Baltimore charter middle school for boys, will open a second all-boys schools. Both the single-gender schools will focus on math, science and technology.
-- A second existing Baltimore charter school, Northwood Appold Community Academy, will operate a new middle/high school, with a curriculum focused on freedom and democracy.
-- One college-prep school will partner with both the New York-based Institute for Student Achievement (to work in the high school) and the Baltimore-based Success for All Foundation (to work in the middle school). ISA has partnerships with high schools around the nation, but this will be its first middle school, which is why it recruited Success for All to help.
-- Of three new alternative schools, two will be run by the Boston-based Diploma Plus program, which operates alternative schools nationwide.
-- One alternative school will be run by One Bright Ray, which operates four alternative schools in Philadelphia.

School board member Anirban Basu said he hopes one of the new schools will be named after Benjamin Franklin. He opposed the board's vote last night to change the name of Benjamin Franklin Middle School -- which is becoming a high school -- to Masonville Cove Community Academy. The school community requested the name change, but Basu said students should be learning about one of the great figures in American history, even if Franklin was a "playboy."

In addition to approving the applications for nine new schools, the board rejected proposals for 11 more, made by organizations including Baltimore City Community College and the Baltimore Urban League. Laura Weeldreyer, the system's executive director of new initiatives, said some of the proposals weren't fully developed, but they could be recommended for approval in the future.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 7:36 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Baltimore City

September 9, 2008

First glimpse of the SEED School

I got my first glimpse of the SEED School of Maryland today. The state's first public boarding school has just opened with a class of sixth graders who arrived on Aug. 24 to a partially completed campus on the site of the old Southwestern High School building in far southwest Baltimore. 

Nancy S. Grasmick, the state superintendent of schools, was there to see the school was up and running, as were several SEED School leaders. The preparatory school is intended for at-risk children from sixth through 12th grade, from around the state. 

The first sign that this isn't your ordinary school is a black metal fence at the front entrance. Safety is a priority on the sprawling, partially wooded campus, so you have to be let into the site. Inside there is an odd contrast between the hulking, old building that once housed a large comprehensive high school and the new, modern dorms that have just sprouted out of the grass behind the old building.

The old building, a huge, concrete block structure with a minimum of windows, housed a school that had been considered failing by the time it closed. The test scores were horrible by then. There are a dozen of these schools around the city, some of them symbolizing everything that went wrong with urban high schools in the past 20 years. Seeing the old building next to the new one with its brightly colored walls and small, intimate spaces seems such a reminder of the new direction of education.

Around the city, dozens of new small schools have being opened. It is too early to say which will succeed, but it is clear large high schools will be a thing of the past, at least in the city.

This coming summer, one part of the old building will be torn down, and the other section will receive a $30 million renovation. Within a year and a half, the old vision of what a high school should have been will disappear and the SEED School will offer a new, alternative for students.

Posted by Liz Bowie at 3:31 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Around the Region

More Baltimore ed blogs

I've added to the blogroll these new blogs: One Room to Teach Them All, by a first-year Baltimore teacher, and The Ingenuity Insider, by the Ingenuity Project, a program for city students advanced in math and science.
Posted by Sara Neufeld at 2:59 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Baltimore City

Blue Ribbon schools

The following schools were selected as National Blue Ribbon Schools today, according to the state department of education:

  • Cresaptown Elementary, Allegany County
  • Broadneck Elementary, Anne Arundel County
  • Cecil Elementary, Baltimore City
  • Piney Ridge Elementary, Carroll County
  • Hickory Elementary, Harford County
  • Hickory Elementary, Washington County

The six schools were the only nominees from Maryland, and are among 320 schools nationwide that were named winners.

Posted by Arin Gencer at 1:23 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Around the Region, Baltimore City

Would a violence hotline make schools safer?

Over the summer, I attended a meeting of the school system's steering committee on safety. Mayor Dixon and Council President Rawlings-Blake dropped in for part of the session, and while they were there, committee members questioned a boy representing the Associated Student Congress of Baltimore City about why students are reluctant to give information to school police. Not surprisingly, he said they're afraid of retaliation. Rawlings-Blake asked if it would be useful to have an anonymous hotline where students, teachers and parents could give the school police tips on gang and other violent activity. He said yes.

And so, as my colleague Annie Linskey reports today, the council president has introduced a resolution to create such a hotline. Any thoughts on whether people would use it?

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 11:52 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Baltimore City, School Safety (Or Lack Thereof)

Who says teachers don't want higher pay?

At different times, pundits have said teachers care more about the support they get from their principal and their working conditions than how much they are paid. Maybe.

There's an interesting trend going on out west in Montana and Wyoming. Wyoming, which is rich in a growing coal mining revenues, has been pumping money into its schools, and in particular into its teacher salaries, according to a story in the Great Falls Tribune.  Beginning teacher salaries have risen quickly. In a few years, teachers can earn about $50,000, far more than in neighboring Montana. Montana spends about $5,000 per student on schools while Wyoming now spends $14,000, according to the Tribune.

What that means is that teachers are leaving in droves for Wyoming. Really. Montana's school board estimates that 70 to 80 percent of its new teachers are leaving. "We realize money isn't everything, but it sure does help," one teacher interviewed said.

Locally, Baltimore County's teachers have been complaining about not getting a raise last year, even as pay for teachers increased in other school districts.

And there's an interesting experiment going on in Washington, D.C., where the teachers may be voting next month on whether to give up tenure protections for a major boost in pay. There teachers who perform well could earn up to $131,000 a year.

It will be interesting to see whether they vote for the money as teachers in Montana are doing with their feet.


Posted by Liz Bowie at 6:19 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Around the Nation

September 8, 2008

Radio series explores attendance, truancy in BCPSS

WEAA 88.9 FM is airing a 12-part series this fall called "Not Present or Accounted For: The Attendance Crisis in Baltimore Schools." The series was funded by a grant from the Open Society Institute-Baltimore and produced by former Sun reporter Melody Simmons.

The series is running through November and airing four times daily: Monday through Friday at 11:35 a.m., 2:35 p.m., 7:28 p.m. and 9:50 p.m., and at 8:35 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays. In addition to the radio reports, more interviews are scheduled to be available for download on the station's Web site, which organizers say will contain a weekly blog called Hall Pass to expand on the issues. 

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:07 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Baltimore City

September 5, 2008

Hettleman reflects on the year past, challenges ahead

If you haven't already, check out the op-ed in today's paper by outgoing city school board member Buzzy Hettleman about Dr. Alonso's first year and the challenges ahead. Whether you agree with Hettleman's analysis or not, he raises some key questions about the system's future.

Alonso's theory of reform hinges on having a great principal in every school. But is there an adequate supply of great principals to go around? Will the promise of autonomy and the freedom to be creative lure exceptional people who might not have gone into the profession otherwise? Or will the increased responsibilities overwhelm principals and drive them away? Hettleman says the system needs to provide more specific guidance to school leaders than it has done thus far.

The other question, according to Hettleman, is whether the state will provide enough money for Alonso's administration to be successful.

"No large urban school system in the country has scaled the heights of student proficiency," he writes. "I said a year ago when voting to hire Mr. Alonso that the obstacles may be too great for even him to overcome - but I was convinced that if anyone could do it, he could. Nothing about the first year has changed my mind."

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 1:45 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Baltimore City

New blog, racy name

I've been alerted to another new blog written by a BCPSS teacher. This one has the raciest name yet in our developing blogroll: Hot 4 Teaching. Many of the entries so far contain advice for new teachers.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 11:01 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Baltimore City

Not going out without a fight

The Maryland PTA revoked the charter of the Baltimore City Council of PTAs last month, meaning the organization is ineligible to operate for at least the next two years. But it's not going out without a fight.

On Tuesday, the defunct council will sponsor, along with Sen. Joan Carter Conway, Del. Jill Carter and Del. Cheryl D. Glenn, a "PTA town hall meeting" to talk about what happened. An e-mail promoting the event to local PTA chapters says the city's branch of the NAACP is also scheduled to participate, and the Baltimore City Council will be sending representatives.

The event will be held at Morgan State University's Murphy Fine Arts building from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. -- coincidentally (or not) right in the middle of a previously scheduled city school board meeting. I'm sorry I can't be in two places at once.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:03 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Baltimore City

September 4, 2008

NYC revisits mayoral control of schools

As Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon positions herself to lobby for control of the Baltimore school system, New York is revisiting its state law -- adopted in 2002 and due to expire in June -- giving the mayor of the Big Apple oversight of the nation's largest school system.

The New York Times reports today that a commission appointed by that city's public advocate is recommending the continuation of mayoral control of schools. However, the commission is also recommending that structures be put in place to serve as a check on the mayor's power. It would give an independent panel more say over budget and policy decisions.

When Dr. Alonso served as deputy chancellor in New York, he had tremendous authority as a result of the mayoral control structure. He needed only to report to the chancellor, who had the backing of the mayor. He accepted his job as CEO in Baltimore on the condition that the school board give him the authority he needs to run the system without political interference. Even as observers say the board has given him more power than any Baltimore superintendent has had in decades, he still has to jump through more hoops here than he did in New York.

Education observers agree that the success of mayoral control of schools depends on a mayor's willingness to risk political capital to support controversial decisions made by a superintendent. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has shown that's not a question in New York. The same is now true in Washington, where Mayor Adrian Fenty has thrown his weight behind Chancellor Michelle Rhee. But should there be a limit on the authority vested in these arrangements? Or does a limit defeat the purpose, which is to minimize the bureaucracy that inhibits progress?

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:14 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Around the Nation, Baltimore City

Schools that didn't spend their Title 1 money

The Baltimore Education Network has posted on its Web site a list of the Title 1 money that city schools received for the past two years and how much was spent. According to BEN, the system is at risk of having to send back $175,000 in unspent Title 1 money. Among the biggest non-spenders: Lombard Middle ($7,423), Arlington Elementary ($5,263) and Garrison Middle ($5,670).

Throughout my years covering education, it's always baffled me when schools that complain about how short-changed they are don't spend the money they do have. In this case, it seems the problem may have been that the schools didn't get the money until too late in the year to do anything about it. 

(Note to anyone experiencing technical difficulties: Oddly, when I click on the link to the list of schools on the BEN Web site, it opens a new window of the homepage. When I click the same link on the second homepage screen, the PDF file with the list opens.)

Unrelated topic: The third school board candidate vying to replace Buzzy Hettleman, in addition to David Stone and Arthur Hill, is Susan Takemoto, a member of PCAB.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:02 AM | | Comments (13)
Categories: Baltimore City

September 3, 2008

Predicting who will drop out

Traditional educational thinking says that if you belong to certain socioeconomic groups, you are more likely to drop out of school, but the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington-based education group, says that academic indicators are a better way of judging that.

In some ways the idea might seem a "duh," but a paper by senior policy associate Lyndsay Pinkus shows that earlier intervention can reduce the risks for students dropping out. Researchers around the nation have found, the report says, that a failing grade in math or English, poor attendance or being retained a grade are red signals that a student is at risk of dropping out.

The alliance's brief on the subject can be found here.

Posted by Liz Bowie at 1:51 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Around the Nation

Who wants to teach in Japan?

During my time off, I had the fascinating opportunity to tour a handful of elementary schools in rural Japan as teachers prepared for the students to return there. Some differences with American schools:

1) Afraid that teachers will get too comfortable in their jobs, the Japanese powers-that-be transfer them to different schools within the area every few years. And first-year teachers are always transferred somewhere else for their second year.

2) Students are off for just about six weeks in the summer, which falls in the middle of the school year, and teachers work year-round, planning lessons while the kids are on vacation.

3) So committed is the community I visited (a town called Yakage in the Okayama prefecture, roughly between Osaka and Hiroshima) to the concept of neighborhood schools that class sizes vary wildly so students can attend the school closest to their home. I saw one school that has 40 kids to a class and another a few miles away with an average class size of 10. I heard about a class with only one child.

4) While discipline isn't perfect, teachers are generally revered by their students and in society. (This is also true in the Philippines, which explains why many of the Filipino teachers here experience culture shock when they enter American classrooms.) The same Japanese word, "sensei," is used to refer to teachers, doctors and priests.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:04 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Around the World

September 2, 2008

Getting back in the swing

Happy new year, everyone. Sorry to have missed the first week of school, but I'm back from my travels overseas and ready to re-immerse myself in the world of BCPSS.

Sorting through the e-mails that piled up while I was away, I learned that Dr. Alonso visited the schools of the city school system's three most active education bloggers on the first day. They didn't think it was a coincidence, but I'd venture to say it just might have been. The CEO says he stopped by 60 schools in the week before the new year began and visited 12 in the first two days.

Mayor Dixon and Governor O'Malley, who were not available last Monday, made the rounds in Baltimore schools today. It was the launch of a new tour for our former rock-star governor, the "Steady Progress for Maryland's Schools Education Tour." If you're outside Baltimore, it's coming soon to a district near you.

Speaking of Dixon and O'Malley, I'm still waiting for word from those two on who will replace Buzzy Hettleman on the city school board. I reported earlier that former board member David Stone is one of the three candidates. I've learned that another is Arthur Hill, who -- like Stone -- works for Kennedy Krieger. 

I received a number of e-mails about a controversy brewing at Baltimore City College involving a decision by the principal not to rehire a popular college adviser. Students, parents, staff and community members are bombarding North Avenue with e-mails of protest. City students are chronicling the dispute on this blog.

What else did I miss? Drop me a line.

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