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October 31, 2008

Education reporting 2.0

Check out this newscast on Baltimore education issues made by students at Digital Harbor High School and aired on Education Channel 77. You all won't need me anymore if they keep it up.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:05 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Baltimore City

October 30, 2008

Spinning the facts

Maybe no one will find this surprising, but I was struck by the fact that the Maryland State Department of Education decided to put a spin on the High School Assessment data it released on Tuesday morning. 

If you read the stories on the High School Assessment, you may well have seen that 83 percent of students in the Class of 2009 have met the requirements of the High School Assessments. But that isn't the way MSDE chose to say it. 

In the presentation to the state school board, the number 83 percent was never mentioned. Instead, Leslie Wilson told the board that 90 percent of students who had taken all four tests had met the requirement. So that sounds pretty good right? Until you realize that 4,000 students haven't yet taken one or more of the tests. And then you add the 4,968 students who have taken the tests but haven't passed to the 4,091 and you realize that there are more than 9,000 students who still need to meet this graduation requirement by late May.

Moreover, if you are a member of the public, you might have missed the whole issue if you hadn't read deep into some of the handouts at the school board meeting.

Maybe the state is right and many of those 4,000 students will pass the tests this spring. But shouldn't the first thing presented to the public be 83 percent, not 90 percent? I have never represented myself as a math whiz, but I can add and do percentages.

Did they think no one would notice?

Posted by Liz Bowie at 6:53 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Around the Region

Charges dropped against Alice Pinderhughes's grandson

Baltimore County prosecutors yesterday said they're dropping murder charges against Nicholas Dudley Pinderhughes Weaver, a 23-year-old aspiring attorney. He is the grandson of the late Alice Pinderhughes, the city's first female superintendent, after whom the administration building on North Avenue is named. Read the story here.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 11:01 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Baltimore City

Blame it on the computer

Maryland high schools had a lot of new responsibilities this year involving the entry of student data into computer systems so that High School Assessment pass rates could be calculated.

Not surprisingly, there were mistakes.

At Baltimore School for the Arts, Principal Leslie Shepard was horrified to read in The Sun yesterday that only 67 percent of her seniors have met the HSA requirements. In fact, she says, only one of 80 students has yet to meet the minimum combined passing score. But it turns out that the school did not correctly enter computer codes to indicate that students who transferred from out of state and private schools were exempt from testing. In addition, the pass rate didn't reflect the fact that seniors who took Algebra 1 in middle school had already passed the algebra test before starting high school.

The chart that ran in The Sun did not include Thurgood Marshall High School, Maritime Industries Academy and the Central Career Center at Briscoe because the state had omitted them from its list of city schools showing their pass rates for seniors. It seems that school personnel did not enter computer codes last spring to indicate that their juniors had been promoted to senior year. Consequently, state records incorrectly showed that the schools did not have anyone in the senior classes. Oops.

A murkier issue is a 600-student discrepancy in Baltimore's senior class enrollment. The city's records show the system has 600 more students in the class of 2009 than the state's records do. Part of the problem, again, may be who gets counted as a senior. Officials from MSDE and BCPSS say they'll be comparing databases in the coming days.

When rates are recalculated, we'll report the correct ones.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:04 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Baltimore City

October 29, 2008

Poly boilers coming back on

I had calls from two girls at Poly today who were FREEZING. "I brought a blanket to school today," reported 17-year-old Patricia Vickers, who said she'd measured the temperature in several locations throughout the building. The library was 55.58 degrees Fahrenheit, she told me. The electric room was 46.58. Average temperature: 48.7 degrees. Students were allowed to wear their coats inside.

The school system's facilities department has been working the past few weeks on repairing the boilers at the Poly/Western complex. Officials did not expect the weather to turn so cold so soon. I've been assured that after mechanical failures, the boilers will be fired up by the time students arrive at school in the morning.

UPDATE, 10/30, 11 a.m.: Patricia just called again to report that the boilers still aren't blowing any heat, and the school is even colder than yesterday. But Poly's principal e-mailed the facilities department this morning to say there was a "vast improvement," according to the school system.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:36 PM | | Comments (6)
Categories: Baltimore City

At Walbrook, weapons drawn

Just a few days after Peter Hermann's column about the safety concerns of students at Homeland Security Academy, the other school that shares the old Walbrook building had a frightening incident. It happened Tuesday at the Institute of Business and Entrepreneurship.

System officials confirm that late yesterday morning, a boy became very agitated, and neither staff nor the school police officers assigned to the building could calm him down. In the hallway, he wielded a knife, and they did not know if he would use it to harm himself or others. After officers commanded him between seven and 10 times to drop his weapon and he did not, one of them drew a gun. The student put the knife down and was transported to DJS.

This, on the same day as a boy was stabbed in the chest at Heritage High. Not a great backdrop for celebrating the city's improved high school performance. 

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 5:44 PM | | Comments (14)
Categories: Baltimore City, School Safety (Or Lack Thereof)

A promotion at North Avenue

Laura Weeldreyer, a city schools administrator who has overseen charter schools and most recently served as executive director of new initiatives, was named Dr. Alonso's deputy chief of staff last night. The position has been empty since Patricia Abernethy left in July to become chief academic officer in Baltimore County. Alonso's chief of staff is still Gen. Bennie E. Williams.

Weeldreyer is one of the most responsive administrators I've met in my time covering the city schools. A father whose daughter dropped out of high school and is far behind on credits has copied me on e-mails with system officials in the past few weeks as he's tried to re-enroll her. He ran into several bureaucratic hurdles before connecting with Weeldreyer, who has been working hard to resolve a messy situation: providing the family with her cell phone number, offering to personally escort the girl to tour a new school, and making several calls on her behalf. In one of the e-mails, the father wrote to Weeldreyer: "While this has been a very frustrating experience, your concern and immediate reaction to this problem is greatly appreciated... I believe you care about these children based on our conversation."

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 11:56 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Baltimore City

Information overload

My head is swimming with numbers after two days of reporting on HSAs and other high school achievement matters. An assortment of things to note from the events of Monday and Tuesday:

The city school system took down from the school board Web site what I considered the most interesting slide in the presentation given last night, the one showing how many seniors still haven't passed any of the four HSAs, how many have passed one, two, etc. The reason: System officials discovered yesterday that their figures are slightly different than state figures. And the state figures make the system look better than its own. For the record, my story today uses state data; my story yesterday used city data.

At yesterday's state board meeting, I felt almost bad for state board member Rosa Garcia as she was commenting that, as a Latina, she didn't feel a sense of urgency from the superintendents who testified, particularly when it comes to getting English language learners to pass the HSAs. She singled out Dr. Alonso by name and inaccurately portrayed the situation in the city, where only a handful of English learners in the senior class are still trying to pass. I knew he would rip her apart in his response. He didn't disappoint.

I had trouble understanding the argument that Montgomery County Superintendent Jerry Weast was making at the meeting for delaying the HSA requirements. It's a moot point now, but on one hand, Montgomery has the state's largest population of English language learners, and many of them are having trouble passing the HSAs. On the other, Weast says the HSAs are too easy and set the standards too low. He recommends replacing them with a more difficult test like the ACT college admissions exam. Could it be that he just hates Nancy Grasmick?

In making the case to the state board that Maryland does hold its students to a higher standard than the HSAs (countering the argument by Weast), Grasmick noted the state's open access for students to take the SAT. Ben Feldman, the city's testing director, couldn't help himself from pointing out at last night's city board meeting that it's Baltimore that pays for all its students to take the SATs, and Grasmick has in the past blamed the state's stagnant SAT scores on the city encouraging unprepared students to be tested. Baltimore's SAT scores are up 9 points this year, with a 79 percent participation rate. The state, with a 69 percent partcipation rate, and the nation, with a participation rate of 45 percent, had flat SAT scores.

Now that the HSA requirement is going to stand, I wondered whether the 260 dropouts recruited to come back to city schools this fall will have to pass the exams. Yes, if they started high school as freshmen in 2005 or later. No, if they started high school before 2005. Grasmick said she is starting a pilot program with the city so that dropouts who re-enroll -- who previously had a negative effect on their class's dropout rate -- would count with their new class. I'm still trying to get my head around how this will work.

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

October 28, 2008

HSA requirement stands

The state school board voted down a motion, 7-4, to delay the requirement for seniors to earn a minimum score or complete projects. More to come...

UPDATE: Click here for HSA results by school district and for individual schools in the Baltimore metro area.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 2:06 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Around the Region

Which way to vote on slots?

The blogger now known as Teach Baltimore (formerly Epiphany in Baltimore) had a post yesterday about his indecision over how to vote on next week's slots referendum. I think a lot of folks in the education world are in the same boat.

Supposedly, slots would bring in more revenue for public education. When asked how bad the budget cuts for schools will be next year, the answer from the governor's office is that it depends whether or not the referendum passes. The Maryland State Teachers Association has endorsed the measure as an imperfect way of securing money for schools. So has the editorial board of my newspaper.

But Aaron Meisner of StopSlots Maryland responded to the teacher's blog entry saying that the language of the proposed law does not actually guarantee money for schools. The state would have the ability to take away as much money from its general fund as goes into the education "trust fund" from slots, meaning schools could lose as much as they gain. In addition, Meisner says, if casino operators go back to the General Assembly and make the case that they need a tax cut to build their facilities in light of the hard economic times, education could take another hit.

Maybe it's a scare tactic that if we don't vote for slots, education will suffer. But let's pretend for a moment that it's not. Slots fail, and school budgets are slashed. Slots pass, and poor people hoping for a turn of fortune throw away money they don't have. Homelessness and crime increase. Schools get funding, but they find their students' home lives becoming even more unstable than they already are.

Either way, it seems, the kids get a raw deal.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 10:35 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Around the Region, Baltimore City

A low pass rate on A.P. exams

Amid the onslaught of statistics in the high schools presentation scheduled for tonight's city school board meeting, one that stood out to me was the pass rate on Advanced Placement exams.

The number of city high schools offering A.P. classes has increased: from eight in 2005 to 15 in 2008. Enrollment in A.P. classes was 1,305 last school year. There were 1,183 A.P. tests administered. Only 288 of those exams -- less than a quarter -- came back with a passing score of 3 or higher, potentially earning the test-taker college credit.

The College Board, which administers the A.P. program, has worked hard to expand access to A.P. classes in urban environments. I understand the importance of exposing students to challenging material, even if it might be over their heads. You never know who will rise to the challenge. But I have a hard time understanding why the exam pass rate is so low. I'd think that a school like Poly alone could produce more than 288 passing A.P. scores. (City College, btw, offers many of its top-performing students International Baccalaureate exams instead of, or sometimes in addition to, A.P.)

Clearly, expanding access to A.P. courses isn't enough. Students need a lot more support once they get there to be successful.

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

October 27, 2008

HSA showdown

At long last, the Maryland State Department of Education is scheduled to release the 2008 High School Assessment scores tomorrow, just as the state school board votes on whether to keep the requirement that this year's seniors earn a minimum passing score on four tests or complete project equivalents to graduate.

A preview of Baltimore's scores is already available on the city school board Web site, under an information item for tomorrow night's meeting about the state of high schools. The presentation shows that high school enrollment is up, the graduation rate is up (to a projected 62.6 percent, from 60.1 in 2007) and far more students have passed the HSAs. The number of city high schools meeting AYP is up to 21, from 11 last year.

Still, for many city students, the news is far from positive. Of about 3,900 seniors, 678 have not yet passed any of the four graduation exams; another 403 have passed just one. While the pass rates among special education students have improved, they're still in the single digits on every test except government. There are 1,232 seniors working on 2,397 projects, an overwhelming prospect for some, as Liz explained in her story about students at Northwestern.

To celebrate the city's improvement, state schools chief Nancy Grasmick and Gov. Martin O'Malley are scheduled to attend a news conference this morning at the Digital Harbor/National Academy Foundation high school complex. Funny how they can appear together (and both take credit?) when the news is good. Remember the vicious insults that flew back and forth just a few years ago, when O'Malley was governor and Grasmick tried to take control of 11 city schools?

Behind the scenes, relations aren't so rosy. Liz reports that some of the O'Malley-appointed state school board members want to delay denying students diplomas based on their HSA results. Grasmick wants to keep the requirement this year (as does Dr. Alonso). One O'Malley appointee is upset that Grasmick cut off, days in advance, the sign-up for public comment that the state board will hear before voting on the HSA requirement tomorrow, suggesting that perhaps critics are being silenced.

UPDATE: I asked Dr. Grasmick about the public comment tomorrow. She said extra accommodations have already been made: Public comment will be heard at the beginning of the meeting rather than the end, and an additional half-hour was added to the time normally allotted. Still, the spots filled quickly, and not everyone who wants to speak will be able to do so.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 10:06 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Around the Region, Baltimore City

October 26, 2008

Dispatches from high school journalists

Sun crime reporter Peter Hermann had a fascinating visit last week to two journalism classes at Homeland Security Academy, one of the high schools in the Walbrook complex. Check out his column today describing his experience and his blog, Baltimore Crime Beat, where he posted some of the students' class projects. I'm scheduled to visit the same classes later this year. The teacher and I went to the same journalism school, at Northwestern University outside Chicago. 

Meanwhile, if you're stopping by Northwestern High School (in Baltimore, that is), check out the November edition of their student newspaper, The Compass, which will include an article on yours truly. I had fun visiting Wednesday night with more than half a dozen student journalists, most of them juniors, as they rushed to meet their monthly deadline. As I was getting ready to leave, one of the boys asked if I'd do him a big favor and pointed to his computer screen, where a page layout had a chunk of white space he needed to fill. And so I sat for an interview.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 8:02 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Baltimore City

October 24, 2008

'Tis the season... for boiler breakdowns

Teachers and students, congratulations. You've survived the warm weather of late summer and early fall that left you sweltering in un-air conditioned classrooms.

Now it's time to freeze.

The boiler breakdowns have already begun. At the Poly/Western complex, city school system officials confirm, two of the four boilers are completely shot. Facilities staff have been working this week to repair one of the other two, which wasn't working but is not beyond repair. Officials say the fourth is functioning, but it is not up to capacity. In other words, it emits heat, but it doesn't blast it.

I must say, I feel for the facilities staff, having to solve emergencies like this all the time. The state has lauded BCPSS for implementing a preventive maintenance program, but the city's school buildings are so old and were neglected for so long that it's hard to keep up.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:04 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Baltimore City

October 23, 2008

The next priorities: school buses and universal pre-k

I sat in yesterday on Dr. Alonso's talk to the Associated Student Congress of Baltimore City. He told the students about three priorities on his mind for the 2009-2010 school year. One we've already reported on: an expansion of vocational education to better prepare students for the workforce and meet the high demand for such programs.

No. 2 is universal pre-kindergarten. Alonso said there are still 2,000 4-year-olds in the city who aren't in school. The state's Thornton law requires school districts to offer pre-kindergarten to all low-income children. 

The third priority is transportation. Alonso said he thinks it's "crazy" that the system can't provide school buses for its students and requires them to take the MTA. Right now, the only school buses in the city are for special education students. Elementary students walk and secondary students take public buses. In talking about safety in and out of school, Alonso said, transportation is an important part of the equation. We often hear students say they feel unsafe traveling to and from school, and remember last year's incident involving students from Robert Poole attacking two bus passengers?

So how to fund these (or any) new initiatives in light of the current economic climate? In response to a student's question, Alonso said that more enrollment will mean more state dollars. The system is pushing hard to get more students to turn in their applications for free and reduced-price lunch, which also brings in more money if there's a higher return rate. And, you guessed it, more cuts to the central office are in store.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:13 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Baltimore City

October 22, 2008

Arson at Carver Vo-Tech

I know that arsons are all too common at city schools, but I was particularly saddened to hear about the one yesterday at Carver Vo-Tech.

Carver is in the midst of a $30 million renovation project. The city schools have a billion dollars' worth of renovation needs, only a tiny fraction of which are funded each year, so getting the money for a project like this is a huge deal and was years in the making.

Fortunately, the fire was not in the part of the building being renovated. It was set in a portable unit holding 10 classrooms and three offices until the renovation is complete. Still, officials now say it did a whopping $500,000 of damage (an earlier estimate was $60,000), destroying the portable and creating logistical challenges to house the portable's classes in the main building.

The school system isn't confirming, but well-placed sources tell me a Carver student was arrested today in connection with the incident.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 4:42 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Baltimore City

A name change for teachers

The Maryland State Teachers Association, which represents the majority of teachers in the state, voted last weekend to change its name. Sometime during the next school year, it will become the Maryland State Education Association (MSEA).

For those of you who are groaning out loud right now and asking why the name that has been used for 140 years isn't good enough, MSTA does have its reasons. It says in a press release  that its membership is now composed of paraprofessionals, administrators, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, guidance counselors and all the other staff that helps educate children every day. The name change was approved at an annual convention in Ocean City.

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

October 21, 2008

BEN scales back

The Baltimore Education Network, which has been a significant mobilizing force for city parents since 1997, announced yesterday that it can no longer afford its basic operating costs. It will be closing its office in Mount Vernon and sharing space with the Fund for Educational Excellence.

BEN was the recipient this year of school system grants up to $15,000 each to coordinate parental involvement at 10 schools, and it has hired two full-time staff members to fill that role. But it would have needed grants to serve at least twice as many schools to keep its own office and all its existing staff and programs, which have included trainings to teach parents how to navigate the school system bureaucracy. I'm told the executive director, Elijah Etheridge, has been laid off. 

An open letter from BEN board chair Kenneth Lawson says BEN will focus on its commitment to the 10 schools, but all other activities will be suspended except for the Presidents' Roundtable -- which provides the only opportunity in the city for PTA and other parent leaders to come together in light of the dysfunctional citywide PTA council. BEN's board of directors remains in tact. According to Lawson's letter, once the board addresses the "urgent short-term financial issues," it will engage the community to come up with a long-term plan for the organization. 

The full text of the letter is below.

October 16, 2008

Dear BEN Members and Supporters,

As you may know, the Baltimore Education Network (BEN) was recently selected to serve ten schools as part of the Baltimore City Schools' Community Support Initiative this school year.  This grant award reflects BEN's 10+ year history of modeling inclusive, collaborative community relationships and seeking to institute such processes at the system and school-community levels.  It also enables BEN to continue its mission to support families, youth, and community in creating the agenda for how their schools can improve and using their individual and collective power to move this agenda.

This grant enables BEN to hire two full-time organizers, coordinate its Volunteer Action Team and support the Presidents' Roundtable to further the mission of BEN.  Unfortunately, BEN can no longer adequately support its overall operating costs.  As a result, the BEN Board of Directors (Board) decided to suspend activities not related to the Community Support Initiative and the Presidents' Roundtable.  In the interim, the BEN office will be co-located with the Fund for Educational Excellence (Fund).  The Fund has dedicated office space and a phone line to BEN at:  800 N. Charles Street, Suite #400, 21201 and (410) 685-8300 x.12.  In addition, the Fund will donate staff time to support the Community Support Initiative. 

The Board is very proud of BEN's history, and of the many employees, volunteers and supporters who have contributed to the accomplishments of BEN, some of which follow.  Since 1997, BEN has:

Served the critical function of mobilizing and influencing how the school district partners with families by influencing new school system policies such as the Family and Community Engagement Policy.

Built community and family capacity to be involved in education reform work by giving parents the resources they need to enable them to expand their leadership role in the community.

Kept the public informed on the progress of school reform and on opportunities to influence that process through a variety of communications vehicles, most notably the BENews.

Once the Board addresses the urgent short-term financial issues, we will engage a wide range of stakeholders to determine the best long-term strategy for the organization.  It is important to note that the Board remains fully engaged and the organization remains independent and committed to its mission.  The BEN website will continue to be updated periodically at:

The Board appreciates your patience and support during this difficult time of transition.  We are eager to work together to find new and more viable ways to engage parents and other community members in our great City Schools.  Please do not hesitate to contact any of the Board Executive Committee members at any time. Our contact information is as follows:

Chair: Kenneth Lawson
Vice Chair: Lisa Wright 
Secretary: Sylvia McGill
Treasurer: Carlton Epps                        
Kenneth B. Lawson
Baltimore Education Network (BEN)

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 11:37 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Baltimore City

October 20, 2008

Parent involvement award

Sometimes a parent sees a need and decides to try to make a difference at a school.  Larry Walker tried to do that at Mt. Hebron High School in Howard County. You can read about it in a story I wrote that appeared yesterday.

Educators do a lot of talking about getting more parents involved in their childrens' schools, but rarely do they do much to improve improve participation. In some cases, schools aren't very welcoming. The Maryland State Department of Education and Comcast are trying to promote more involvement with an award given annually  to a parent who has had a real impact on students in a school. Larry Walker was the first winner. Beginning Nov. 19 they will be asking people to nominate a parent they believe has made a significant contribution to a public school.


Posted by Liz Bowie at 6:30 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Around the Region, Howard County

Preparing students for the "knowledge economy"

In their articles yesterday and today, my colleagues Jamie Smith Hopkins and Steve Kiehl explore Maryland's shift from a manufacturing economy to a "knowledge economy," where workers need technical skills to find decent employment. This doesn't necessarily mean college, but at a minimum it means trade school.

Today's story followed Dr. Alonso on a tour of a five-year apprenticeship program in West Baltimore. A high school diploma is needed for entry into the program, and graduates are placed in jobs earning $60,000. In the classroom they visited, none of the 10 students had graduated from a city high school. Most were from Baltimore County.

So in a city where historically nearly half of students haven't even graduated from high school, how can Baltimore prepare its future workforce for the knowledge economy?

Alonso wants to provide more specialized training in high school, but finding the money and people with expertise to do so is challenging. It costs much more to run a trade-themed high school than a traditional one. And there is far more demand for the city's admissions-based vocational high schools -- Carver, Mervo and Edmondson-Westside -- than there are seats for qualified students.

A third of the 24 middle/high schools that the Alonso administration plans to open in the coming years are supposed to have a vocational focus. Of the six that opened this year, the Reach! School is designed to prepare students for jobs in health and construction. The two Friendship schools are college-prep, with an emphasis on science and technology careers.

But of the nine additional middle/high schools approved by the school board to open in 2009, all are college-prep and alternative schools; none is vocational. System officials say it's hard to find quality operators for such schools, and they are spending this year studying how to do that.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 10:34 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Baltimore City

October 17, 2008

Freak dancing rules

In my story today about freak dancing, I explore the latest dancing guidelines established at Centennial High School, which were crafted in response to a back-to-school dance that got out of control.

My colleagues Nicole Fuller, Arin Gencer, David Kohn and Sara Neufeld were able to give me the policies that each of the school systems they cover follows:

In Baltimore City, school system spokeswoman Edie House wrote in an e-mail to us that since school dances are school-sponsored events, "student attendees are expected to act appropriately as outlined in the Baltimore City Public Schools 2008-09 Code of Conduct. Although there is no specific language pertaining to inappropriate dancing ('freak dancing') in our City Schools Code of Conduct, school administrators may utilize several consequences contained within the code for students who are conducting themselves inappropriately."

In Baltimore County, dancing is regulated by school administrators. “It’s a school by school decision,” said spokesman Charles Herdon. “We give discretion to administrators to determine what is appropriate.”

In Harford County, inappropriate dancing is considered disruptive behavior. "We do not have a specific policy that addresses dancing specifically,” said spokeswoman Teri D. Kranefeld. “However, if the dancing becomes disruptive, the administrator will approach the students and ask them to cease. Disruptive behavior, whether it be dancing or any other act, is addressed by the school-based administration. "

In Anne Arundel County, school officials have in recent years encountered instances of inappropriate dancing or "freak dancing" at high school dances, but they have not instituted any new policies or rules system-wide to deal with the issue, according to spokesman Bob Mosier, who said the problem is not widespread. He cited one instance at Severna Park High School in January, when a school dance was shut down early due to inappropriate behavior, as the worst of the problem. He said the student handbook makes clear such behavior would constitute "inappropriate bodily conduct," and said school administrators have dealt with the issue on a case-by-case basis and have, when deemed appropriate, taken disciplinary measures. "Any dance is a school sponsored activity, and as such, student behavior has to fall within the paraments of the code of student conduct, which spells out, what is permitted and what is not permitted," Mosier said. "Chaperones and staff members are at dances and certainly have authority to ask students to refrain from behaviors that don't fall within that code."

According to the Howard County policy for dancing, all students must: wear clothing that meets the county dress code; keep both feet on the floor at all times; maintain an upright, vertical position; and avoid any dancing that suggests a sexual act.

Have you attended a high school dance recently? I have. It's an eye-opening experience.

Posted by John-John Williams IV at 10:25 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Around the Region, Howard County, Trends

October 16, 2008

Kicking students out for good

Yesterday, Dr. Alonso sent a letter to the school system about Tuesday's explosions at Patterson High. In it, he wrote that he would recommend to the board of education, subject to due process, "the EXCLUSION of any student who is judged guilty of intentionally setting a fire or detonating an explosive....  That means that I will recommend that any student who engages in such criminal behavior will be permanently excluded from ALL of our schools."

This paragraph stopped me because, in my eight years covering education, I've always been familiar with the term expulsion, not exclusion. Expulsion means different things in different places, but in Baltimore, expelled students have the opportunity to attend an alternative school. Success Academy, the new school in North Avenue, is designed specifically for those on long-term suspension and expulsion. I hadn't realized that the system could kick a student out for good.

But evidently it can. Last academic year, 13 students -- all between the ages of 16 and 18 -- were expelled from city schools and not reinstated, according to system spokeswoman Edie House. To be eligible for exclusion, House said, a student must have endangered the safety of others and generally have a history of disciplinary problems. Those who are excluded are provided with information about GED and job training programs. And special education students are never excluded.

Many of you have probably seen Alonso's letter already, but I'm pasting it below for those who haven't.

October 15, 2008

Dear Colleagues, Families and Students,

Yesterday, school police and city police collaborated in arresting two students alleged to have set off explosives in one of our high schools.  Actions that put into danger the safety of students and staff have no place in our schools.

Please be advised that I will recommend to the board, subject to due process, the EXCLUSION of any student who is judged guilty of intentionally setting a fire or detonating an explosive from the Baltimore City Public Schools.  That means that I will recommend that any student who engages in such criminal behavior will be permanently excluded from ALL of our schools.

This is a painful decision, because there is nothing that I care about as much as having every single child in Baltimore City at home, learning in one of our schools.  But it’s a necessary decision given the potential harm to life of such irresponsible and criminal action.  Please communicate this to your communities, parents and peers.


Andres A. Alonso, Ed.D.
Chief Executive Officer

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 5:20 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Baltimore City, School Safety (Or Lack Thereof)

At last, education debated

I was just about ready to pass out in front of the television last night when the final question of the final presidential debate perked me up. At last, a question about education. It's been discouraging the last several months how little the topic -- which Sen. McCain last night called the civil rights issue of our time -- has played a part in the campaign.

I was baffled by McCain's response about No Child Left Behind, that the law needs more "transparency" and "accountability," but not necessarily more money thrown at it. This may be true of many things in government, and many things in education as well. But in the case of NCLB, aren't we already making everything transparent -- embarrassing low-performing schools by making their scores available for all to see? Don't we already have accountability -- holding schools to ever-higher standards and sanctioning those who don't meet state-established benchmarks for two years or more? Isn't a big part of the problem that the federal government has placed these increased demands on schools without providing the extra resources to meet them?

Sen. Obama compared NCLB with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, the 1975 federal law that requires schools to provide disabled students with a "free and appropriate public education" but has never been fully funded. But much of the back-and-forth centered around vouchers. (Does Michelle Rhee support them, or only charter schools? McCain said she does. Does not, replied Obama. Does, too, replied McCain. I'm sure the D.C. schools chancellor was thrilled to have her position debated on national television. The Washington Post and a Post blogger say today she supports both, vouchers and charters.)

Given the current economic climate, an infusion of cash for education seems unlikely regardless of who wins the White House. In Maryland and many other states, cuts are on the way. But let's be real about what the needs are.

UPDATE: The Web site Fast Company talked to Rhee today about what was said about her. She said she hasn't issued a formal position on vouchers, but her office issued a statement saying vouchers aren't the solution to fixing the D.C. school system.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 11:35 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Around the Nation, NCLB

October 15, 2008

Two takes on the Patterson evacuation

I received an e-mail today from a teacher at Patterson High School about the hectic evacuation of the school yesterday amid the explosions of two chemical-filled bottles. I'm posting it here, along with a reaction from the principal.

We were evacuated out of the building at 12:05. Not 11 as your article states. We sat outside for almost an hour and 45 minutes with no explanation or anything other than what we saw happening with all the police, fire trucks, helicopters, hazmat, etc. We were NEVER given any direction from a single administrator about what to do. Granted it was a confusing situation, but we had 1000+ students outside and teachers with no idea what was going on.

When the word finally came to send the students home, they were NOT initially let into the building at all. Students had bags, bus tickets, and other valuables simply left inside. There were some administrators saying we could go in to get kids stuff, others said no. Others said we could get the stuff for them.

It was never clear after most of the students had gotten onto various buses what the staff was supposed to do. We got absolutely no direction about what our role was.

AND MOST EGREGIOUS OF ALL was the response this morning. No faculty meeting to discuss the incident, no assurances that steps were being taken to ensure safety at all. All we got was a trite announcement that we were "back to business as usual" and a letter was going home to parents of students. What about us as staff? By not being given any information, we are totally in the dark about this all. Is this intentional or just another signal of the lack of interest in protecting staff? I want to be safe in my workplace, and if incidents happen that compromise this safety, I think assurances would be a GIVEN!!!! The climate of fear and lack of attention to staff/student safety is appalling.

I am holding out hope that during tomorrow's PD (professional development), things can be discussed further, but it seems as though it's just another little incident to be dealt with by saying "no big deal" and let's move on. But at the same time, this matter should have and was NOT dealt with immediately in terms of information flow and assurances to us-the people that keep this place going!!!

I asked the school system about the teacher's concerns. Here is an e-mailed response from Patterson Principal Laura D'Anna:

I had a message in the bulletin and sent a letter home to the students and community about it.  We could not compromise the investigation or the crime scene.  We followed directions from the Police and Fire Dept.  Students were escorted into areas that were not crime scenes.  Speculation would have caused panic.  This morning we had to administer the PSAT and had Senior inauguration.  Mr. (Roger) Shaw (the system's executive director of secondary schools) came to the building to talk to the administrators. We still do not have any solid information as to what was in the bottles. No teacher was held against their will.  They left with the students and therefore could not be told what happened.  Telling it on a parking lot was certainly not appropriate when we didn’t have concrete information.  Teachers do not arrive until 8:35 when the children arrive.  Therefore no time was available since students come in for homeroom.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 4:59 PM | | Comments (8)
Categories: Baltimore City, School Safety (Or Lack Thereof)

Lots to comment on

Last night's city school board meeting felt like one long session in public comment. There wasn't much on the agenda besides public comment, which turned out to be a very good thing given all the problems presented to the board and the attempts to solve them on the spot. 

The meeting started with a moving introduction by the new student board member (Renaissance Academy senior Mitchell S. Generette, who talked about his brother being shot in their backyard in describing his desire to make a difference for the city) and a nice presentation by Baltimore Freedom Academy students about their service learning internships (including one in Dr. Alonso's office). Then the complaints began. And the three-minute time limit for an individual comment was out the window.

Jimmy Gittings, president of PSASA, complained during his time at the microphone about low morale among administrators and charged that the system is violating administrators' contract in numerous areas. (He didn't specifiy what the violations are.) He announced that the union has found the money to keep him on as president, up until now an unpaid position, after his retirement from the school system in December.

During the general comment portion, a mother from Rosemont Elementary/Middle complained about the terrible ventilation in the building, which she said hasn't been upgraded since it was constructed in the 1970s. Students are roasting in the spring, summer and fall, and they freeze during the winter. Lucky coincidence, Alonso and board chair Brian Morris said, Rosemont is No. 1 on the system's priority list for state renovation money.

The PTA president at Northeast Middle detailed her five-year struggle to get a library for the school and her frustration over the school losing a grant for security cameras. She brought with her to the microphone the colorful parent activist James Williams, who she said was serving as her spiritual adviser. Williams, who has become known for his use of props during public comment, had signed up to speak about another matter. But after he and the Northeast mother had been at the microphone nearly a half hour, during which time Alonso pledged to get the school a library by fall 2009, Morris told Williams he'd need to make his other comments next time. This did not go over well. And we never found out what Williams was planning to do with the tennis racket case he was carrying with him.

Three speakers in a row were cut off by Morris as they tried to describe problems with the regulations requiring a certain percentage of subcontracted work to go to minority and female business owners. The third persisted in making the case that the prime contractors are sending work out of state that's supposed to be going to local minorities and women. She thanked the school system for keeping good meeting minutes, which she said are useful in documenting the fraud she alleges is occurring.

One mother came in frustration that the system is taking too long to find an appropriate placement for her son, who has been in limbo for the past two years after getting kicked out of a citywide high school and is on the verge of dropping out his senior year. Alonso seemed frustrated because he's only known about the boy's situation for the past two weeks, and he has members of his cabinet working on it. What more does the mother want?

Yet another mother said she's effectively being punished for sending her son to school academically prepared. Now in first grade, the boy is bored with all the remedial work his classmates need and has started developing behavior problems.

At the end of the meeting, Alonso provided an update on the effort to get dropouts back in school. He was standing in for Jonathan Brice, the administrator who was supposed to do the presentation but instead was out in the hall talking to the mother who said her son wants to leave school. The number of dropouts who have re-enrolled since the "Great Kids, Come Back" campaign began last month is up to 235.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 7:27 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Baltimore City

Lessons in academic self-reliance

Parents will have the opportunity Thursday to hear Brad Sachs, a Columbia-based psychologist, give a presentation about students learning to handle responsibility independently. The event, "Whose Homework is it Anyway? Promoting Academic Self-Reliance During the Teen Years," starts at 7 p.m. at Long Reach High School. Sachs' presentation will be followed by a question-and-answer period.

HC DrugFree, a nonprofit organization based in Howard County, is sponsoring the event, which is free and open to the public. "This workshop will help parents understand the hidden reasons why many teens struggle with homework and classwork," says Laura Smit, head of HC DrugFree.

Last year, bad weather thwarted the chance for parents to learn how to avoid overstepping boundaries, which can impede their child's academic self-reliance. Sachs says an increasing number of parents are hindering their children's academic growth when they attempt to "help" motivate them. This can manifest itself in the form of parents who place inordinate pressure on their children and parents who help complete their children's assignments.

If you're going, Long Reach is located at 6101 Old Dobbin Lane in Columbia.

Posted by John-John Williams IV at 6:05 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Howard County

October 14, 2008

Texas district wins Broad prize

The Brownsville Independent School District, located along the U.S. border with Mexico, is the winner of this year's Broad Prize in Urban Education. Selected from among the five finalists (including drama-ridden Miami), it will receive $1 million in scholarship money for its high school seniors. The four other districts will get $250,000 each.

The winner of the prize, the most prestigious in urban education, was chosen by a panel of 10 leaders in education, business and government, including two former U.S. education secretaries (Democrat Richard Riley and Republican Rod Paige) and former Harvard president Lawrence Summers.

According to the Broad Foundation, Brownsville is one of the nation's poorest school districts, with 94 percent of students qualifying for free and reduced-price lunch. Billionaire Eli Broad, founder of the foundation, said in a statement that it is "the best kept secret in America," outpacing other urban districts by focusing its resources on direct support to students and teachers.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 12:15 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Around the Nation

An old solution to an old problem

Lloyd McDonaldWhile working a routine weekend shift on Saturday, I had the opportunity to write an obituary (published today) for Lloyd McDonald, who worked as a teacher and administrator in the city schools for 30 years before his retirement in 1975.

In 1965, while head of the guidance department at Harlem Park Junior High School, Mr. McDonald founded a nationally recognized anti-poverty program called the Neighborhood School for Parents. The program held evening classes for parents so they could earn their high school diplomas. It also educated them in nutrition and provided balanced meals for the whole family. Daycare was offered for young children, and additional classes for older children while the parents were in school.

Learning about the program from Joel Carrington, a retired assistant superintendent in BCPSS who was friends with McDonald for 64 years, I was reminded of more recent initiatives. Over the past few weeks, I've written about an extensive effort in the city schools to get dropouts to earn their diplomas, helping them to arrange childcare or overcome any other barriers standing in the way of their getting an education. I've also written about the ambitious new food service director who's trying to get students eating healthier meals.

This may be an overly simplistic way of looking at things, but if the same challenges have been confronting Baltimore's schools for more than 40 years and if we once had an effective way of dealing with them, it seems a shame that we need to keep reinventing the wheel.

In any event, I enjoyed learning about Mr. McDonald from his old friend.

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

October 13, 2008

And the persistency award goes to...

Youth Dreamers

The Youth Dreamers, a group that started as a class at the Stadium School in 2001, has raised nearly $650,000 in the past seven years to further the dream of its members to have a safe, engaging place for youth to go after school. The original Youth Dreamers have grown up, with a new generation stepping in to continue the work. At last, the youth center is scheduled to open in the summer of 2009. The group got a step closer to that reality on Saturday, when 200 youth and volunteers from Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse got together to build a picket fence, landscape and make decorative stepping stones for the previously abandoned house being transformed in Waverly. Thanks to Kristina Berdan, the Youth Dreamers' dynamic adult adviser (currently an Open Society Institute fellow on leave from her teaching job at Stadium), for the photos she sent me.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 2:06 PM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Baltimore City

Dumbarton Middle School on NBC

Dumbarton Middle School, a high-performing, diverse middle school, is being featured tonight on the NBC Nightly News, according to the Baltimore County school system. The school is being featured in a segment on diversity in America. Among the school's population of about 900 are 120 students from 38 nations who speak 32 different languages.

In 1990, Baltimore County had 873 students who needed special services because they were learning English as their second language. Today, there are about 3,000.


Posted by Liz Bowie at 11:31 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Baltimore County

Student records and the city schools

In my story in today's paper, I write about an audit showing that the city schools have had some problems getting transcripts for graduates who are applying for a job, want to enlist in the military or may have another reason for needing to prove that they graduated from a city school and had decent grades. Over the years I covered the city schools, I ran across several people who told me they had been offered a job but needed to prove they had been a high school graduate before they could actually start working.

In one case, a graduate told me that he came out of drug rehabilitation and finally got a good job offer from a big company. He went to the school system and they couldn't find his transcript. He was a City College graduate. After months, he finally got what he needed, but he was unemployed while he waited. The problem, he said, was that the records from his year weren't in the place they were supposed to be and had to be hunted down. I never checked out his story, but it was consistent with others I heard.

So I wonder if there are other readers out there who have heard similar stories from friends, relatives or students or who have had some of the same experiences.

Or maybe you went to the school system and they came up with your file in 24 hours. Either way, here is a good place to tell your story.


Posted by Liz Bowie at 7:21 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Baltimore City

October 10, 2008

In Chicago, a high school for gay students?

The Chicago Tribune reports that the Windy City's superintendent is asking the board of education there to sign off on the creation of a high school for gay, lesbian and transgendered teens. The article says the Pride Campus "would incorporate lessons about sexual identity in literature and history classes and offer counseling."

The school proposal comes as a new study confirms the rampant harassment of gay students in the nation's middle and high schools. The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network says nearly nine in 10 of the 6,209 students it surveyed say they've been harassed in the past year. This leads to truancy, as gay students don't feel safe coming to school. And understandably, fears are heightened in the wake of the Larry King tragedy this year in California.

But is creating a separate school the answer? Or, as some gay-rights activists suggest in the article, should existing schools be working harder to foster acceptance? After all, children make fun of each other all the time for all kinds of reasons: because of the color of their skin or the religion they practice, because their families are poor, because they have a disability. 

The Pride school would not be allowed to ask prospective students their sexual orientation (presumably, they would self-select). But it's hard to imagine the creation of a school designed to prevent any other minority group from being teased.


Posted by Sara Neufeld at 3:02 PM | | Comments (10)
Categories: Around the Nation

Could district with ousted superintendent be the nation's best?

Tuesday is a day that administrators from around the nation have been waiting for: the announcement of this year's Broad Prize, urban education's version of the Oscars or the Pulitzers or even the Nobel. The prize goes to the urban district with the greatest growth and overall student achievement. The winner gets $1 million for college scholarships for its high school seniors; the four finalists each get $250,000. New York City won last year.

This year, the contest is particularly interesting because one of the contenders -- Miami-Dade County Public Schools -- just ousted its superintendent, former NYC Chancellor Rudy Crew. Crew had been named the 2008 superintendent of the year by the American Association of School Administrators. From what I've read, it sounds like he was a victim of school board politics. And the drama only begins there: The Miami board named as Crew's successor an assistant superintendent, Alberto Carvalho, who is alleged to have had an affair with the Miami Herald reporter who was covering the schools there last year. She had moved onto The Boston Globe when the allegations surfaced and resigned from her position last month.

The other finalists for the Broad Prize are the Aldine Independent School District in Texas, Broward County Public Schools in Florida, the Brownsville Independent School District in Texas and the Long Beach Unified School District in California.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 11:25 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Around the Nation

October 9, 2008

Lobbying for lunch forms

The city school system is making a huge push this fall to get families to return the applications qualifying students for free and reduced-price breakfast and lunch. (I know, the city is providing free breakfast for all, but it only gets the full federal reimbursement for kids who can document they qualify financially.) Community organizations with contracts to increase parental involvement at more than 60 schools are being evaluated in part based on how many families they can get to return their forms by the Oct. 31 deadline.

Typically, the return rate is about 80 percent among elementary school students and just over 50 percent for high school students. If the system can increase its participation rate -- its goal is 90 percent participation in elementary and middle schools and 85 percent in high schools -- the financial implications are staggering.

The system gets more federal reimbursement for breakfasts and lunches that it can use to improve school meals. More schools qualify for Title 1 federal funding. And the state's Thornton law provides nearly $5,000 extra for every student qualifying for free and reduced-price meals. The ACLU of Maryland, the source for all things Thornton, estimates that the city schools would qualify for another $40 million in state aid annually if more kids returned their lunch forms. Given that the system has to cut at least another $50 million from its budget this year, that's no small chunk of change.

But as community organizers push to get the applications collected, they're running into some challenges...

The forms are not at the most basic reading level. They ask for Social Security numbers and family income, and both parents and students are embarrassed to publicly reveal that information. It's no secret why the return rate is so much lower in high schools. The city's older students aren't richer than its younger ones. They're just old enough to be self-conscious. 

Unfortunately, system officials don't have much flexibility in what they ask on the form -- the information is mandated federally -- but an organizer I spoke with wondered why they don't provide an envelope in which to return it. Currently, the forms are out in the open when students hand them to their teachers.

Officials from the system's food and nutrition department say that envelopes are impractical because each school needs to have someone review the forms as they come in to make sure they're complete. If a box isn't checked or a line is left blank, the federal government won't accept the application. But Kevin Seawright, the deputy chief operating officer, said if the privacy issue is preventing a student from turning in the form, the family can use its own envelope, or turn in the application directly to North Avenue. "We'll take it any way we get it," he said.

You can see the packet sent home to families, including the lunch application, here.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:01 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Baltimore City

October 8, 2008

More on teacher pay...

In today's paper, I wrote about another chapter in the ongoing conflict of Baltimore County schools vs. teachers (and other system employees).  While the hundreds who protested at the Board of Education were pleased that members decided not to switch to a single provider for 403(b) plans, the call for a 2 percent pay raise (recommended by a mediation panel) is still at issue.

The pay raise issue here popped into my head this morning when I stumbled across this item about a very well-paying teaching job in New York City. Teachers, what do you think?  Would you be up for a gig that paid $125,000 a year?  This charter school may be for you.

Posted by Arin Gencer at 11:48 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Around the Nation, Baltimore County, Teaching

Interpreting the BCPSS code of conduct

The city schools have a new code of student conduct this year, designed to formalize the direction that the Alonso administration has been giving principals for months: Students who commit violent acts in school must be suspended under the law. Students whose offenses are not violent typically should not be suspended. If a situation warrants an exception, the principal just needs have a logical explanation why.

But even as Dr. Alonso repeated ad nauseum what seems to be a simple concept and said he doesn't care if a school is labeled "persistently dangerous" (a designation determined by suspensions for violent offenses), allegations abounded last school year that some principals were not suspending at all. If a few e-mails I've received from teachers lately are any indication, the confusion is continuing into this year, even with the code meant to spell out appropriate disciplinary actions for specific offenses.

I heard from a teacher at a city high school who said two students were not suspended after getting into a fight in a classroom this week. She said the principal's response was that "children can not be suspended unless the proper interventions took place." (If students have disabilities that impact their behavior, a host of legal requirements come into play, and interventions must be documented, but the teacher says these particular students are not in special ed.) 

"Teachers at my school are so confused about the interventions-if a child is fighting, how are we supposed to know in advance?" the teacher wrote to me. "When I asked my principal in our faculty meeting what interventions needed to be in place for the students to be suspended for fighting, he told me curtly 'read the code of conduct.'"

I reread the relevant parts of the code, and here's what I see:

1) There's a difference between fights that result in bodily injury and fights that don't. Fights that don't cause an injury can be a Level 2 offense, with such punishments as community conferencing or in-school suspension, or a Level 3, which triggers short-term suspension. In elementary schools, fights that do cause an injury can be Level 2, Level 3 or Level 4 (recommendation for long-term suspension or expulsion). In high schools, they're Level 3 or 4. That means the student ought to be suspended for a short time at least.

2) On page 11, the code lists "Prevention and Intervention Strategies," things like peer mediation, conflict-resolution and community service. It says these strategies "may be used (emphasis mine) prior, or in addition to, any disciplinary response to a student's behavior." This seems to be part of the ongoing effort to give principals discretion to use their common sense and make decisions based on the specifics of individual cases. It does not mean that interventions must be used before a student can be suspended for committing an act of violence. After all, as the teacher says, educators aren't mindreaders. You don't always know which kids are going to end up lashing out.

But sometimes you have a pretty good indication. If a kid is cutting class, coming in late or talking back, doesn't it make sense to intervene before the situation escalates?

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

October 7, 2008

Teachers protest planned this evening

The Baltimore County teachers union, along with the school system's four other bargaining groups, is planning a protest this evening before the board's regularly scheduled meeting.  This is a continuation of the ongoing dispute over pay raises for teachers, which I've mentioned here.

But the unions also say they're protesting the board's possible moving to a single 403(b) investment provider, instead of the current multiple vendors they have to choose from. 

This protest follows one TABCO held this spring at the county courthouse, when the union was pushing for at least a 3 percent pay raise for teachers.

Posted by Arin Gencer at 1:18 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Baltimore County

Budget adjustments coming

How accurately did your principal predict your school's enrollment for this year? If you work for, attend or send your child to a school in Baltimore, the answer to that question is about to become extremely important.

Under the "Fair Student Funding" budget model adopted in Baltimore this year, schools are funded based on the number of students they enroll. They get a set amount for each pupil, plus more for students with special needs. The money was distributed based on the enrollment that principals projected in the spring.

Now, the system is preparing to redistribute based on the number of students who actually showed up. Those who were overly optimistic about how many students they would attract will be losing money. Those who got more students than expected will gain. The adjustments -- likely to include some teacher transfers from under-enrolled schools to over-enrolled ones -- will happen at the end of the first marking period, at the beginning of November.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:03 AM | | Comments (12)
Categories: Baltimore City

October 6, 2008

Filipina teacher back in Baltimore

An update to an entry from a few weeks ago about Aileen Mercado, the Filipina teacher I'd profiled who was stuck in the Philippines because of a bureaucratic snafu renewing her visa. Her visa finally came through on Thursday, and she and her family caught a flight out on Friday. So at last, she's starting her new job as a special education teacher at Afya Public Charter School, which had to contract out for a substitute in her absence. And the Filipino teachers of Baltimore have their elected leader back.

My previous entry about this said there were four other Filipino teachers in the same situation. That's true, but I erroneously reported that they were all teachers in BCPSS. In fact, they work for a school district in California. (Leave it to Aileen to be organizing on behalf of teachers from all over the country, not just Baltimore.) They also got their visas at the end of last week and are en route back to their schools.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 10:49 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Baltimore City

October 4, 2008

Maryland says goodbye to John Deasy

John Deasy is denying there's any connection, but many people in the education community will continue to wonder whether the Prince George's County superintendent would be moving on if there hadn't been a dust-up in the past several weeks over how he got his doctoral degree.

Deasy, who is widely viewed by education leaders in the state as having started significant reforms in the county since he arrived, announced this week he will be leaving in February. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has been a growing presence in funding education reform in the country, has hired Deasy to be deputy director of its education division. 

Last month, the Courier-Journal in Louisville reported that Deasy had been awarded a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Lousville in 2004 although he had only completed nine credits, or about a semester, there.  He had completed more than 70 credits at other universities, according to published reports.

Typically, a doctoral candidate would have to be at Louisville for one year and complete twice as many credits while in residence there to get a degree.

Deasy's academic advisor at the university was the dean of education, Robert Felner, who is now under a federal investigation, the paper reported, for his possible misuse of federal funds.

After the information surfaced about Deasy, the university started an investigation into the awarding of the diploma. The Washington Post then picked up on the story reporting that Deasy said he hoped the university would rescind his degree if it was given improperly. The Post reported that in 2001, several years before he got his doctorate, Deasy, as superintendent of a California school system, recommended that a national education center Felner was running should get a $125,000 contract from the school system.

Felner's group received a total of $375,000, the Post reported. Deasy said there was no connection between the contract and the awarding of the degree.

Leaving the controversy aside, the departure of Deasy will once again leave Prince George's County looking for a new superintendent. After years of turmoil in the superintendent's office, it looked as though the school system might have gotten some calm with Deasy's arrival.

The Gates Foundation press release said Deasy has "earned a national reputation for his leadership in significantly narrowing the achievement gap between low income and minority students and their peers." He also shook things up a bit, most recently starting a pilot pay for performance program for teachers in the county.

Deasy, like his fellow superintendents in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., had become a superintendent to watch in the area. It seemed for awhile as though the different approaches taken by the three superintendents would provide an interesting experiment in which reforms work and which ones don't.

Posted by Liz Bowie at 6:35 AM | | Comments (7)
Categories: Around the Region

October 3, 2008

Weast and Grasmick spar over HSAs

Boy, have the words gotten angry between Jerry D. Weast, Montgomery County's school superintendent, and Nancy Grasmick, the state schools chief, over the High School Assessments.

Weast has objected before to aspects of the high-stakes tests that this year's seniors will have to pass before they can graduate in May, but this latest letter on Sept. 22 was written with unusually confrontational language. Weast wrote Grasmick saying that she ought to go easy on schools where a certain group of special education students hadn't been able to pass a new version of the High School Assessments.

The Mod-HSA, a new test started last year with the intention of simplifying the questions in the HSA without dumbing it down, was never field-tested. When it was given last spring, significant problems developed, Weast said. The failure rates were very high, a fact that MSDE has already acknowledged. He believes the department didn't give teachers enough time to prepare these special education students to take the new test. In addition, he said, they struggled because the test went on for too long. Given that, Weast argued that the state ought to make exceptions for schools that don't meet the standards for Adequate Yearly Progress this year because their special education students couldn't pass the Mod-HSAs. Weast said in his letter that there had been "significant flaws that unfairly punish our students and our schools."

I won't go into all the details outlined in the letter. Anyone with a lot of curiosity and a lot of arcane knowledge about No Child Left Behind can read the full letter here.

Grasmick's response was just as chilly. You can read the full version here. She defends her department for six pages and says: "Perhaps in the future, you will seek a more positive communication approach to resolving questions and answers."

But Grasmick has made some modifications that Weast was requesting. First, she asked for and got from the feds the ability to give schools a break for the next year if they don't meet AYP only because their special education students didn't pass the mod-HSA.

In addition, Grasmick is going to allow students who have only failed the HSA once to go ahead and start a project to try to complete the graduation requirement. The rule says you have to have failed the HSA twice to be eligible for the project, but the state says it will give some students a break because they didn't take the test until the end of their junior year. The students will still have to keep trying to pass the test. MSDE says that it would have made the changes despite complaints from Weast.

Interestingly, school board members from Montgomery County have been very skeptical of the HSAs as well. So far, the remaining superintendents in the state seem to be hanging tough and supporting going ahead with the HSA.

We wonder if the rebellion will spread elsewhere in the state.

Posted by Liz Bowie at 6:19 AM | | Comments (6)
Categories: Around the Region, NCLB, Testing

My child attends... the Buzzy Hettleman School?

Anirban Basu made a stink at a recent city school board meeting over the renaming of Benjamin Franklin Middle School to Masonville Cove Community Academy, saying he thought it was appropriate for city students to attend a school honoring one of the nation's founding fathers. In voting to rename the school as the community requested, other board members vowed to keep Ben Franklin under consideration in determining future school titles.

Now, Basu has a second dignitary on his list of people whose names belong on Baltimore school buildings: Buzzy Hettleman. As Basu and Bob Heck were reappointed to the school board yesterday and David Stone was named as Hettleman's replacement, Basu had high praise for his departing colleague. "I've never met an individual so dedicated to children as him, even perhaps the current superintendent," he said. (That is particularly high praise given that Basu calls Dr. Alonso the best superintendent in the country.) "One day I hope that someone will name a school after him."

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 5:45 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Baltimore City

October 2, 2008

David Stone appointed to Baltimore school board

The worst-kept secret in Baltimore education circles is officially out: David Stone, who served on the city school board and then as the system's director of charter schools before taking a job at Kennedy Krieger last year, is replacing Buzzy Hettleman on the board. Bob Heck and Anirban Basu were reappointed as expected.
Posted by Sara Neufeld at 2:25 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Baltimore City

Touring Success Academy

Mary Pat Clarke is right. I quoted the councilwoman in my story today saying all city schools should look as good as the new alternative school in North Avenue. Clearly, a whole lot of work went into transforming the east lobby into sparkling new classrooms -- a $1.2 million project done in seven weeks. Dr. Alonso says teachers have been marveling to him about how nice the place smells.

As I toured Success Academy yesterday as part of the horde of media and politicians there for the ribbon-cutting, I couldn't help but compare the transformation of the building (part of it, anyway) to the potential transformation of the kids inside. Granted, not all of the 58 students enrolled were there at the time I was, and I'm sure those who were had to promise to be on their best behavior. But the behavior I saw looked pretty good, given that these are supposed to be some of the "worst" kids in the system. I stood in on a session where a teacher and 13 students were talking about how to be a legal "hustler" -- mowing lawns, for instance, instead of selling drugs. Anytime students began to talk among themselves, which wasn't very much, the teacher would shout, "Respect!" The students would repeat back, "Respect!" And the discussion would go on.

I talked to two Success Academy teachers who are among the 36 the school system has hired from Jamaica. Unlike the teachers from the Philippines, who are used to students revering teachers in their country and often experience culture shock when they enter Baltimore's classrooms, these teachers said Jamaican kids can also be insubordinate. Still, they said the Success Academy students' behavior so far has been fine.

I'm sure the reality when visitors are not present isn't as rosy. But I think of the cynicism expressed a few weeks ago when the system announced it would try to get drop-outs to re-enroll, and the overwhelming response by kids who were all too happy to return to school simply because someone asked them to. Similarly, how many of these bad-behavior cases who have landed at Success Academy were just waiting for some positive attention? 

Whether the students admit it or not, it's got to feel good to see the leaders of the city making such a fuss over them.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:05 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Baltimore City

October 1, 2008

Maryland Teacher of the Year to be named Friday

The 2009 Maryland Teacher of the Year will be named Friday night during an awards gala at Martin's West in Baltimore. The celebration recognizes the teaching profession and the 24 local teachers of the year, according to the Maryland State Department of Education.

Finalists for this year's award are: John Billingslea, Franklin High School, Baltimore County; Mary Catherine Stephens, Mount Airy Elementary School, Carroll County; Sharon Thomas, Elkton High School, Cecil County; William Thomas, Dr. Henry A. Wise, Jr. High School, Prince George’s County; Sharon Richards, Marion Sarah Peyton School, Somerset County; Julie Harp, Easton Middle School, Talbot County; Debra Wilkins, North Salisbury Elementary School, Wicomico County; and Amy Gallagher, Stephen Decatur Middle School, Worcester County. The finalists were picked from the original group of 24 teachers representing each school system.

Guests at the banquet will include Lt. Governor Anthony Brown, State Superintendent Nancy Grasmick, Rep. John Sarbanes, and former U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes. The event runs from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. The Teacher of the Year will be named at approximately 9:15 p.m. The winner moves on to the National Teacher of the Year competition.

The state teacher of the year is chosen by an 11-member committee comprised of union leaders, administrators, retired teachers and past winners. Applicants go through a lengthy process that includes a written application and an oral interview. Teachers are evaluated on their passion for the profession, their accomplishments and their ability to discuss education-related issues.

UPDATE: Congratulations to the winner, William Thomas of Dr. Henry A. Wise, Jr. High School in Prince George’s County.

Posted by John-John Williams IV at 4:58 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Around the Region

From banking to Baltimore schools

Where would you rather work right now, Wall Street or North Avenue?

Angela Kirk seems to have had the right idea when she traded in her career in the financial world, working most recently in real estate management and previously for companies including T. Rowe Price and Wachovia. Kirk was one of 31 career-changers accepted this year into the Broad Residency, which places potential leaders in urban school systems and educational organizations across the nation. (Bennie Williams, the retired Army general who is Dr. Alonso's chief of staff, is a product of the Broad Superintendents Academy, run by the same organization. The residency is for "early career professionals," while the academy is for "seasoned executives," according to the Broad Web site.)

For the next two years, Kirk will work in BCPSS, where she's assigned to the human resources department. Broad will cover half her salary, and the school system will cover the other half. The Web site says residents are paid between $85,000 and $95,000 a year. Not bad money when you have the security of working for an organization that, despite its many faults, at least is not going out of business anytime soon.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:08 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Baltimore City
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