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November 28, 2008

Suspensions going down, down, down

With the holiday and the hectic beginning of the week, I haven't had a chance yet to note the citywide suspension figures reported in our story Tuesday.

Through the first week in November, Baltimore schools had 4,027 suspensions in 2006. That went down to 3,533 in 2007 and (no kidding) 2,008 in 2008.

So, are schools heeding the direction to suspend for violent offenses and find alternative punishments for non-violent ones? Or are they not suspending (or recording suspensions) at all?

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 8:09 AM | | Comments (20)
Categories: Baltimore City

November 27, 2008

Give thanks to a parent

The Maryland State Department of Education is calling for nominations for its second annual parent involvement awards with Comcast. There will be a semifinalist fom each of the state's 24 school districts, five finalists and one overall winner. The finalists get $250 each, and the statewide winner will be awarded $1,000.

In our discussion this week about the fatal stabbing outside Lemmel, many of you talked about the importance of parents being involved in their kids' lives to prevent violence. There's that, and then there are the super-parents, who work on behalf of all children. One is Susana Barrios, Baltimore's finalist in the contest last year. She used her prize money to buy her school, Patterson Park Public Charter, books and DVDs in English and Spanish to help parents learn how to teach their kids to read.

Is there a parent whose volunteer work makes your school a better place? The award nomination forms, available here, must be postmarked by Jan. 16. To qualify, a candidate must have legal responsibility for a child enrolled in a Maryland public school.

Happy Thanksgiving to all.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 8:31 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Around the Region

November 26, 2008

Thanksgiving can't come soon enough

Yesterday was another violent day in city schools. At Forest Park High, five students were arrested and charged with attacking two teachers. One of the teachers had reported to police that he was robbed  (unarmed) on Monday by two other students, who were subsequently arrested, and the attack was retaliation. Another teacher came to his colleague's aid during the attack, and he bore the brunt of the assault. The school was on lockdown for hours.

At Maritime Industries Academy, fivel girls were involved in a fight. And at Patterson High, everyone had to stand outside for more than an hour after someone set a fire in a bathroom that sent smoke through a wing of the building.

What's going on here?

Until last week, the city schools were experiencing a relatively uneventful year on the violence front (not to say there haven't been fights and trash can fires). That changed Friday with the fatal stabbing of Markel Williams outside Lemmel Middle School. I can't help but wonder if all the publcity the murder is receiving has prompted other kids to act out. On top of that, it seems pretty common for schools to go a little haywire before a vacation.

Speaking of which, I got the charging documents in the Matthew Henson teacher assault case from Friday. The mother, 29-year-old Lakia Farmer, allegedly went into a classroom and started attacking a teacher -- who had a conflict with her son -- in front of about 20 kids. The teacher reports that Farmer hit her above her left eye with an unknown object, possibly a cell phone. In addition to a bruised, swollen eye, she also got a busted lip and hurt her knee when she fell. The assistant principal and another teacher had to physically restrain Farmer, who had the victim on the floor by the hair. The report says the children "were distraught after seeing their teacher attacked." You think? Farmer was charged with second-degree assault and possession of a deadly weapon with intent to injure.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:02 AM | | Comments (16)
Categories: Baltimore City, School Safety (Or Lack Thereof)

November 25, 2008

Andre Hornsby is going to jail

Despite the pleas of the head of the Baltimore Teachers Union, a federal judge had little sympathy for the former Prince George's County schools CEO. The judge ordered Hornsby today to begin a six-year prison sentence Jan. 2. After that, he'll have three years of supervised release. He also has to pay a $20,000 fine and $70,000 in restitution to the P.G. schools. And he has to enroll in alcohol treatment and cooperate in an IRS audit of his taxes.

Marietta English, co-president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, spoke as a mitigating witness on Hornsby's behalf, urging the judge to have leniency. According to reporter Nick Madigan, English described Hornsby as "a visionary educator" and "a person of compassion."

"I do plead leniency for this wonderful educator who has a vision for our children," English said.

Crazy details of the case are in our story, but in short: Hornsby was convicted on corruption charges alleging that he received kickbacks on school contracts awarded to companies that employed his live-in girlfriend and his business partner. My former colleague Alec MacGillis, now a reporter for The Washington Post, broke the story of the contract scheme for The Sun in 2004.

Hornsby's lawyer asked that he serve his time in a federal prison called El Reno, west of Oklahoma City.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 7:15 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Around the Region

Report: Don't forget about magnet schools

The Civil Rights Project at UCLA released a study today recommending that, with all the buzz about charter schools, the nation's public school systems shouldn't forget about magnet schools, which tend to be more diverse than charters.

The country's 2,683 magnet schools have improved both the quality and the equity in public schools over the past 40 years, the report says, but they have been left out of the discussion on how to reform schools. Magnet schools enroll 2 million students, twice as many as charter schools.

Posted by Liz Bowie at 6:02 PM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Around the Nation, Charter Schools, Study, study!

What really happened between Markel and Timothy?

The more I learn about the story of Markel Williams and Timothy Oxendine, the more confused I am about what actually happened.

On one hand, we have the principal of Lemmel Middle School saying Markel and Timothy were friends, that she only recently learned of tension between them and tried unsuccessfully to get their parents to come to the table. On the other, we have Timothy's lawyer saying Markel made his client petrified to go to school and Timothy's mother was trying unsuccessfully to get help.

On one hand, we have the cops saying Markel was one of their best-known juvenile offenders. On the other, we have his criminal record, which consists of a theft and burglary charge in 2005 and a school disturbance charge in 2006, both dismissed. Of all the juvenile offenders in this city, how is that a big deal?

Was this a classic case of bullying, as police initially indicated? Or was the stabbing that led to Markel's death gang-related? There's a lot of conflicting information out there.

We do know that the staff at Lemmel was trying to reach out to both boys. There had been home visits in recent weeks to both: Markel because he was suspended for pulling the fire alarm and under consideration for transfer to an alternative school, Timothy because he wasn't showing up to class. We know that Lemmel, troubled as it has been, has an awful lot of programs in place to help struggling students right now. And we know it wasn't enough.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:05 AM | | Comments (27)
Categories: Baltimore City

November 24, 2008

Report questions principals' track record

The group Advocates for Children and Youth releases a report today on the credentials of 48 principals appointed to challenging Baltimore schools in the first year of the Alonso administration, from July 2007 to August 2008.

ACY looked at how many of those principals served previously as a principal for two years or more at the same school. Of the 48, guess how many had?


For those seven principals, ACY then looked at the academic records of their prior schools to see if test scores had improved by 5 percentage points or more than the state average. Three met the criteria there.

And so, the report concludes: "3 out of 48 newly appointed BCPSS principals had a track record of success in turning around a struggling school." (It doesn't say who the three are.)

The appointments come, of course, as Dr. Alonso is giving principals far more responsibility. ACY doesn't appear to be a fan of that strategy. The report says that "the best principals thrive when left alone, while other principals drown in a sea of too many choices and too many responsibilities for which they had inadequate training or support."

Is that true? We don't know yet. It's too soon to tell how the new principals are doing. Many of them do have experience as assistant principals and intern principals through the New Leaders for New Schools program.  

But if it's true that "proven principals" are better, how to attract more of them? The report suggests financial incentives. It mentions Gov. O'Malley's campaign promise to give $200,000 bonuses to excellent school leaders willing to take on the toughest assignments. What about that? I guess it went down the drain along with the economy. It's hard to imagine it getting off the ground anytime soon.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:06 AM | | Comments (14)
Categories: Baltimore City

November 23, 2008

Bad day gets worse

Friday was an even more violent day in the city schools than I'd realized. In addition to the fatal stabbing at Lemmel, a mother was arrested and charged with attacking a teacher at Matthew Henson Elementary. The Sun reports today on that incident, as well as the charges filed against 14-year-old Timothy Oxendine in the murder of Markel Williams, 15.

UPDATE: Thanks to Carey Hall for correcting us on the last time a student was killed on school grounds during the school day. There was a fatal shooting outside Lake Clifton in January 2001.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 12:40 PM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Baltimore City, School Safety (Or Lack Thereof)

November 22, 2008

Blood shed on school grounds

According to a search of our newspaper archives, the last time a student was killed on Baltimore school grounds during the school day was January 1986 2001, when a boy was shot in the hall at outside of Lake Clifton High. As a society, we are mortified when we hear a child was killed at school, which is what happened yesterday when a 15-year-old was fatally stabbed outside Lemmel Middle. In the media, we give the incident big play.

But look at the quote in our story today from Lauren Brunson, a 14-year-old eighth-grader at Lemmel. "I don't feel unsafe, because it happens all the time," she told my colleague Justin Fenton. "There's not much you can do except watch your back."

The boy killed outside Lemmel yesterday had a long juvenile record and was well-known to police. Had his murder occurred across the street, we would not give it nearly the same kind of attention as we are. Yet to Lauren and her classmates, there is no distinction between a murder at school and the murders that happen all the time in their neighborhoods. Just this week, another Baltimore school -- Masonville Cove Community Academy (formerly Ben Franklin) -- lost a 14-year-old student to violence, but he was killed in the streets.

So what is the difference? Why is a murder in the streets of a tough Baltimore neighborhood different than one in Howard County, or even Patterson Park? And why is a murder in the streets different than one outside (or inside) a school? 

On one hand, it makes me sad that we're so desensitized to certain killings. On the other, we make a big deal when killings happen in places that are supposed to be safe. And it's a good thing that schools, no matter where they're located, are still supposed to be safe places. City kids will tell you they're far more afraid going to and from school than they are when they're inside. Which makes yesterday's stabbing all the more upsetting. But when a troubled kid dashes outside and ends up losing his life, what's a school to do?

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:39 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Baltimore City, School Safety (Or Lack Thereof)

November 21, 2008

Winners in Harford, PG Counties

Harford County music teacher Christian Slattery has won the Milken Educator Award, a $25,000 award given to extraordinary teachers around the country. A Hall’s Cross Roads Elementary School teacher, Slattery was surprised with the award yesterday. This morning, a Prince George's County teacher, Shannon Landefeld, got a similar surprise. Here's more:

Slattery learned of his selection in front of his students, the faculty, state schools chief Nancy S. Grasmick and Jane Foley, senior vice president of the Milken Educator Awards, during a school assembly.

Slattery, a vocal music teacher, has been teaching for six years. He will receive the money, which he can spend in any way he wants, at the Milken National Education Conference in Los Angeles this spring. Grasmick said in a statement, "It is wonderful that an elementary vocal music teacher is one of only 80 teachers across the country to receive" the award. "I am impressed by Christian Slattery's amazing ability to integrate the music curriculum with other content areas."

Landefeld, a first-grade teacher at Tulip Grove Elementary School, had no idea that she was the guest of honor at her school's assembly, which was also attended by Foley and Grasmick. "I am truly impressed by Shannon Landefeld’s teaching style that incorporates technology, art, music, and writing to enhance her student’s strengths," said a statement by Grasmick. "She clearly understands the importance of individualizing instruction according to each student’s needs. Landefeld has been an educator for nine years.

State education officials noted that the Milken Educator Awards have no formal nomination or application process, and that exceptional teachers and principals are recommended without their knowledge. The Milken Foundation makes a final decision on winners of the awards, which were conceived by Lowell Milken, chairman and co-founder.
Posted by Liz Bowie at 3:34 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Around the Region

Lemmel student fatally stabbed

A 15-year-old student at Lemmel Middle School was fatally stabbed outside the building at about 12:30 p.m. today, the school system confirms. The article, which is being updated as we learn more, will stay at this link this afternoon.

More to come...

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 2:43 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Baltimore City

Checked out over check out?

I was intrigued by this blog item about city students' ability to check out books from their school libraries. Over the summer, the city school system changed the software that its libraries use, and the blogger says some schools still aren't up to speed -- meaning either that kids can't take books home, or it's hard to keep track of them.

I asked the school system about this allegation, and as it turns out, yes, there was an issue at the beginning of the year and schools had to keep track of books manually. But spokeswoman Edie House says the librarians have been able to check out books with the new software since early October. The system let its old software contract run out and is now using free, Web-based software that students and staff can access anywhere to see what's available in city school libraries. Officials say most books in schools' collections (all those purchased centrally at a discount price) have been entered into this new software.

Still not sure what prompted the delay...

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:05 AM | | Comments (19)
Categories: Baltimore City

November 20, 2008

Black, white and read: All over?

Our intrepid crime columnist/blogger Peter Hermann ventured into new territory yesterday: a Baltimore County elementary school's career day. Keep reading for his hilarious (and humbling) account of trying to interest kids in a newspaper.

I spent a wonderful afternoon at Battle Grove Elementary School in Dundalk for its career day. I forgot we're in the Internet age, and I brought with me something that I realized many kids have never seen before: a newspaper. Yep, a real live newspaper, one you can hold and unfold. Something you crumble into a ball and throw across the room when you're mad and something you can clip from and attach to your refrigerator when there's an article you like.
As soon as I walked in the gym, I realized my mistake. Cops had bullet-proof vests and hats and all sorts of fun gear. The Maryland Transportation Authority Police brought their K-9 and showed how he attacks. A vet also brought a dog, and had X-rays of animals projected onto a screen. Even the plumber standing next to me (he brought a Bob the Builder doll, complaining that Joe the Plumber made his profession look bad) had more fun toys than I did.
I had a pile of newspapers and business cards. Just what every 5-year-old is begging to see.
The children had to fill out some simple papers and had a sheet showing the different professions. The pediatrician had a picture of a doctor, etc... I think the picture of "journalist" -- a generic guy in a tie typing away on a laptop -- was better than the picture that goes with my column.
The first child who approached me simply said, "I don't like newspapers." Another took notes and had me feeling pretty good until he decided, "You're not interesting at all," erased what he had written and walked away. That said, two youngsters asked me for my autograph when they saw my picture with my column, and many had interesting and challenging questions. "What was the hardest interview you've ever done?" one asked.
I asked one cute child if she reads newspapers and she said, "No, my mother won't let us. She likes to keep them in order." I'm the same way with my newspaper. Maybe this girl will grow up to cherish the hand-held version over the Internet.
Not surprisingly, the city police officer next to me was surrounded by children. He told them his main job is to keep them safe and reminded them to wear helmets when they ride their bikes. All in all, it was a fun, but humbling, experience. The following story was relayed to me by the participant after the event was over and the adults were chatting:
A child asked an engineer if he had ever invented anything. The young man, smiling broadly, answered that in fact he had. How many? the child demanded. One, he answered. The child thought for a moment, and then said: "Are you new at this or are you just not very good?"
I love honesty.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:04 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Baltimore County

November 19, 2008

Obama's role in education

Kalman R. "Buzzy" Hettleman, a former Baltimore school board member, wrote an opinion column today suggesting what the Obama administration might tackle first in education reform.

Hettleman forecasts a reauthorization of No Child Left Behind and a bit more money over the next two years, with larger changes coming in the long haul. But he says there is little consensus on what the role of the federal government should be in education, as neither the president-elect nor Sen. John McCain was very specific during the campaign about how Congress should change NCLB.

Posted by Liz Bowie at 6:20 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Around the Nation

First tenure, now suspensions

Last week, I blogged about D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee's attempts to end tenure as we know it. Now, as The Washington Post reports today, Rhee has released a five-year plan that floats the possibility of ending out-of-school suspensions. In-school suspension programs would expand; there might even be a "suspension classroom" at each school. This goes further than the direction by Dr. Alonso for Baltimore schools, which is to reduce out-of-school suspensions for non-violent offenses but to keep suspending in instances of violence. But both superintendents recognize that sending misbehaving students home often makes matters worse.

Rhee's plan also includes the creation of more themed schools and a "parent academy" to teach parents how to be effectively involved in their children's education. And it suggests closing schools that can't improve within three years.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 2:09 PM | | Comments (11)
Categories: Around the Region, Baltimore City

Alonso buys a house; Dixon talks Homeland Security

Two items of note in Laura Vozzella's column today:

1) Dr. Alonso closed Monday on a house in Fells Point. He's rented in Otterbein since his arrival in Baltimore in 2007 and thought he wanted to buy in Charles Village. But the three-story rowhouse in Fells Point was a great deal. Sorry, Mary Pat Clarke. The city councilwoman, who represents Charles Village and chairs the council's education committee, wanted him in the neighborhood so badly that she made him a poster, which has been on display in his office. On a picture of the famed Painted Ladies, it says something along the lines of, "Charles Village wants an Alonso's," referring to the restaurant a few miles north. 

2) Mayor Dixon met at City Hall this week with students in the journalism class at Homeland Security Academy that Sun crime reporter Peter Hermann wrote and blogged on a couple of weeks ago. The students shared concerns about their school with the mayor, among them the fact that the nurse's office doesn't have enough staff to give them the physicals they need to participate in winter sports. They also complained about the disruptions that dropouts who have returned to school have caused.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:08 AM | | Comments (13)
Categories: Baltimore City

November 18, 2008

Baltimore County enrollment ebbs

For those interested in the ebb and flow of students in Baltimore County schools, check out this story about the latest report on enrollments and projections. 

Basically, the county has continued to see a slight drop in enrollment -- with pockets of growth and decline throughout the region.  

Some highlights: Enrollment as of Sept. 30 stands at 103,643.  Rodgers Forge Elementary is the county's most overcrowded school, nearly 80 percent over its capacity (709 students total there).  The central and northeast areas of the county are seeing the most growth, while the southeast and southwest are generally stable, if not declining. 

This report follows the city school system's announcement (and Sara's story) earlier this month about an expected increase in enrollment for the first time in decades. City schools had 81,274 students in 2007, and officials anticipate that number will rise to about 82,000.

For a look at the county's report, which will be presented to the school board tomorrow night, you can go here.

Posted by Arin Gencer at 6:20 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Baltimore County, Trends

A visible fight for education funding

The Maryland State Teachers Association held a press conference at North Avenue yesterday to lobby against any state funding cuts to education. It was an interesting choice of locations, since Baltimore has the only one of the state's 24 teachers unions that doesn't belong to MSTA, an affiliate of the National Education Association. The Baltimore Teachers Union is an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. While a BTU representative did speak at the event, neither of its two presidents -- Marietta English and Lorretta Johnson -- was there. Were they feeling slighted? In any case, MSTA spokesman Dan Kaufman told me the state group wanted to have the event in the state's most visible district, to recognize the recent improvements in city schools and to put Dr. Alonso's name behind its cause. What do you know? The Baltimore school district is becoming a hot commodity.

In her remarks, MSTA President Clara Floyd noted that the teachers union lobbied hard to get slots passed -- and it expects the promised funding for education in return.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:07 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Around the Region, Baltimore City

November 17, 2008

A significant change behind new AYP jargon

With the annual release of AYP results, one of the basic questions reporters ask is what will happen to the schools on the state watch list that didn't meet their targets. In particular, which schools will be required to undergo "restructuring," a process that could trigger anything from staff replacement to conversion to a charter school?

This year, the answer to that question is less clear cut than in years past, when MSDE provided a handy label for each of the schools on the watch list: Year 1, Year 2, CA (corrective action), RS Plan (planning for restructuring) or RS Implement (implement restructuring). Possible sanctions, such as giving students the option to transfer and providing them with extra tutoring, corresponded to a school's place in the hierarchy.

But this year, in a move that received little attention but actually seems to be quite significant, the state school board approved a new set of labels. The reason: Maryland is among the six states being permitted by the federal government to try a "differentiated accountability system." In other words, we can now acknowledge that not all failure is created equal. A school that fails to make AYP simply because, say, special education students fell short in math does not require the same kind of attention as a school that failed across the board. The sanctions will be more individualized as well, which is probably a good thing for schools but makes it trickier for us reporters trying to simplify things for the general public.

Here is a short guide to the new jargon:

"Comprehensive needs" means three or more subgroups failed.

"Focused needs" means one or two subgroups fell short.

"Developing needs" schools are schools that were previously labeled Year 1, Year 2 or corrective action -- in other words, the schools most recently added to the state watch list. Sanctions are less severe than for schools labeled:

"Priority needs," which is the new term for schools previously in restructuring planning or restructuring implementation. These are the schools that have been on the watch list for a long time and require more drastic intervention.

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

November 15, 2008

More on high schools and AYP

A few more things regarding AYP, which didn't make it into my story today:

The state doesn't know when it will have the results up on its Web site,  There was some talk of next week, but no promises.

I also had the chance to talk with Milford Mill Academy Principal Nathaniel Gibson, who explained the steps his school took to walk off the state's watch list this year.  Gibson, who is in his sixth year at the school. pointed to several factors: introducing small learning communities, or "schools within schools"; grant funding that allowed for additional professional development and summer and after-school programs for students needing extra help; and getting more highly qualified teachers at Milford. (Ronald Peiffer, the deputy state superintendent, also indicated the latter was an important factor in many school systems.)

Gibson also said the school has doubled its AP offerings and set up a partnership with Morgan State University that brings in student teachers.  His own teachers have also been attending for graduate-level credit.

Last week, the school celebrated its accomplishment during two assemblies, when students were thanked for their efforts - and encouraged to keep it up.

Besides Milford Mill, Carver Vo-Tech in Baltimore City and seven other schools hit the targets. 

Posted by Arin Gencer at 6:09 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Around the Region, Baltimore County

November 14, 2008

Results Are In! Howard County tallies final votes

More than a week after the general election, the Howard County Board of Elections has announced the top three vote-getters in the race for the Howard County school board. The winners are current members Janet Siddiqui and Ellen Flynn Giles and newcomer Allen Dyer.

Siddiqui, a pediatrician from Clarksville who was appointed to fill a vacancy on the board last year, led all candidates with 62,126 votes. Giles, the board’s current vice chairman, received 57,266 votes. Dyer, an attorney from Ellicott City who ran unsuccessfully for the board in 2006, received 54,148 votes.

Diane Butler, a community activist from Ellicott City who claimed that Dyer hurt her chances when he distributed campaign literature that was taken out of context and distributed without her permission, placed fourth with 53,459. Retiree Betsy Grater was in fifth place with 34,686 votes. University of Maryland student Di Zou finished sixth with 22,406 votes.

Posted by John-John Williams IV at 4:57 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Howard County

High schools meeting AYP

MSDE released its 2008 report today on high schools that have made adequate yearly progress under No Child Left Behind.

Two schools in the Baltimore region- one in the city and one in the county - have worked their way off the improvement list: Carver Vo-Tech and Milford Mill Academy.  They are among nine schools to have done so.

Three schools have been added to the list: one of them appears to be the city's charter high school, the Maryland Academy of Technology and Health Sciences.

As Sara has reported before, the city school system as a whole made AYP this year for high schools because of the large number that have improved. Twenty-one city high schools
made AYP this year, up from 11 last year.

Stay tuned for more...

Posted by Arin Gencer at 11:09 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Around the Region, Baltimore City, Baltimore County

West Baltimore Children's Zone?

A group from Baltimore is headed up to New York today to visit the much-acclaimed Harlem Children's Zone, which provides families with social services in every aspect of life from the time children are born. The goal is to stem the cycle of poverty in the 100 blocks served. During his campaign, President-elect Obama said he wanted to replicate HCZ in 20 cities across America.

The Baltimore group is going to research the prospects of putting a zone in the western part of the city. The school system is sending Dr. Alonso, Michael Sarbanes (director of community engagement) and Jonathan Brice (director of student support). There will also be representatives from the mayor's office, the University of Maryland School of Social Work and Enterprise Community Partners.

Paul Tough, the author of a new book about HCZ founder Geoffrey Canada called Whatever It Takes, recently spent a month as a guest blogger for Slate. Check out the archived coverage here for more on the work in Harlem.

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

November 13, 2008

Reply on 'Intelligent Design' figures in school board drama

Just in case you haven't been following the happenings in Howard County education, there is a pretty interesting school board race in which one candidate says dirty campaigning could cost her a seat.   

The winners will not be official until tomorrow, as election officials say they need to finish counting 4,500 absentee ballots. During the week-and-a-half wait for the outcome, Diane Butler spoke out.  

Butler, who finished fourth in the contest for three seats, said campaign literature distributed by third-place finisher Allen Dyer was distributed without her permission and had taken out of context her reply to a question on creationism. Butler was trailing Dyer by about 1,000 votes. Read more here. (Current board members Janet Siddiqui and Ellen Flynn Giles are comfortably in first and second places. The top three candidates will serve on the board.)

"I'm not a creationism-teaching, right-wing, voucher-slinging, home-schooling mom," said Butler. She objected to the way the literature portrayed her views:


The literature contained Butler's answer to a question about "Intelligent Design" that was included on a candidates' survey. Butler said she completed the questionnaire early in the year for the group Democracy for Howard County. The question from the group was: "Do you support or oppose the teaching of creationism or what is called 'Intelligent Design' as part of the curriculum in county schools?"

According to the group, Butler responded: "I believe 'Intelligent Design' should be taught as a different theory than 'Evolution.' In science we have many subjects that are taught theoretically, and I believe all sides should be offered to allow students to make up their own minds."

Butler said that at the time she sent in her reply, "I was very new at what I was doing." Butler said that she answered quickly and was not "savvy enough."

Posted by John-John Williams IV at 5:55 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Howard County

More on potential U.S. Secretary of Education

The New York Times has profiles of people who are rumored to be up for Obama administration posts  - and New York City schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein, whom Liz mentioned the other day, is among them.  Thought you might be interested in this short item on Dr. Alonso's old boss.
Posted by Arin Gencer at 12:27 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Around the Nation

Rhee tackles tenure

Interesting article in yesterday's New York Times about Chancellor Michelle Rhee's attempt to end tenure as we know it in the Washington public schools. Rhee wouldn't get rid of tenure entirely, but teachers could choose to get a huge salary increase in exchange for giving up their right to tenure. Even teachers who don't choose that option would lose seniority "bumping" rights under her plan. As the article points out, there could be implications for school districts nationally if she's successful. Rhee says the current structure makes it impossible to get rid of incompetent employees. On the flip slide, without tenure, unions fear employees could be fired arbitrarily.
Posted by Sara Neufeld at 11:33 AM | | Comments (10)
Categories: Around the Nation

A clean shave

Alonso and HeckMost of the 30 or so men participating in Mustaches for Kids in Baltimore will ask family and friends for donations. Dr. Alonso plans to send an e-mail today to the entire city school system. The freshly-shaved CEO and school board member Bob Heck were at Mother's Grille in Federal Hill last night for the kickoff of the mustaches fundraiser, which will run for a month.

About 20 of the mustache growers, Alonso, Heck and a group of teachers from Cherry Hill Elementary/Middle included, are raising money for city classroom projects requested on the Web site Another 10 or so are growing mustaches to help make a group home handicapped-accessible for a 13-year-old city boy who was paralyzed in a shooting.


Beardless AlonsoAll had to start out yesterday with clean faces.

Heck is participating over the objections of his 8-year-old son, who was distraught to learn that Dad will soon be sporting a 'stache. Alonso, who has had a mustache or beard since he was a teenager, says he was last clean-shaven on a trip to Europe in 1986, the summer before he became a teacher.

UPDATE, 11/14: Check out Laura Vozzella's column today about this (also note the quote from school board member Neil Duke in his day job as a lawyer), and another picture below of Alonso and Heck with the Cherry Hill teachers. All photos were taken by Sun photographer Kenneth Lam.

Alonso, Heck and teachers
Posted by Sara Neufeld at 10:56 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Baltimore City

Violence hotline to start Monday

The school safety hotline discussed over the summer will start on Monday. This will be an anonymous hotline meant for students to report tips to school officials without their identities being revealed. It will be staffed around the clock by employees from the system's command center, with some non-instructional aides being transferred to help take calls. The number will be 410-396-SAFE.
Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:05 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Baltimore City, School Safety (Or Lack Thereof)

November 12, 2008

Goodbye beard, hello mustache

Dr. Alonso and city school board member Bob Heck are among those who have signed up to participate in Mustaches for Kids, growing out a mustache for a month to raise money for classroom projects. The catch: All participants must start with a smooth face. So tonight, when the fundraiser begins, Alonso will be clean-shaven for the first time since he was a teenager. For Heck, star of Bob the Vid Tech on Maryland Public Television, the clean shave won't be a departure from his normal look, but the mustache will be. Check back tomorrow and throughout the month for pictures...

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 11:31 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Baltimore City

Charter applicants make their pitch

Three groups applying to start new charter schools in Baltimore and one applying to convert an existing school to a charter made presentations at last night's school board meeting. The board will vote on their applications Dec. 9. They are:

1) KIPP Baltimore. The Baltimore branch of the national organization that's had tremendous success with poor, minority students wants to open an elementary school to feed into its existing middle school, the high-performing KIPP Ujima Village Academy. The new KIPP Harmony Academy would start with a class of 125 kindergartners and eventually grow to serve 590 students in kindergarten through fourth grade. (Ujima starts in fifth.) Board members questioned the large number of kindergartners the school wants to serve. KIPP wants to divide them into five classes, with a teacher and an assistant in each.

2) City Neighbors. The operators of another successful charter school want to replicate the existing City Neighbors, with 200 students in kindergarten through eighth grade. They hope to use the building that will be vacated by closing Hamilton Middle. In 2010, they also want to start a high school for the students from both K-8s plus others, eventually serving 320. With its emphasis on project-based learning, arts integration and family involvement, the existing City Neighbors has an enormous wait list, which is what prompted the idea to replicate it. 

3) Foundations Charter School. This school would start with kindergarten through second grade, eventually expanding through eighth grade to 270 students. It would be located in a church in the Oliver community, with an emphasis on literacy and leadership, with 30 students to a grade and 15 to a class.

4) The Stadium School. This existing school has already operated like a charter since its opening in 1994, so its director said, it might as well become one. To show their support for the charter application, Stadium staff, parents and students packed the board meeting last night (and waited patiently through nearly two hours of public comment before the charter presentations began). But board member David Stone was concerned that Stadium hasn't made AYP for three of the past five years.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 9:13 AM | | Comments (7)
Categories: Baltimore City

November 11, 2008

Joining schools with artists

Our photographer Jed Kirschbaum is on a roll shooting schools-related videos. Here's one he shot yesterday at Mt. Royal Elementary/Middle announcing a new Web site by the non-profit Arts Every Day to link city teachers with local artists and cultural organizations. (Fans of The Wire: Be on the lookout for Baltimore actress Maria Broom, aka City Councilwoman Marla Daniels, who's involved in this project.)

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 11:29 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Baltimore City

City schools financial officer leaving

Speaking of the rumor mill, here's one that actually has some credibility: John Walker, the chief financial officer of the city school system, is resigning. Walker has been rumored to be leaving several times before, but this time he's announced his impending departure to his staff. It's not clear yet when he's going, but assuming it's sometime before the spring, this could leave the system in a tough spot in preparing the budget for next year. The school board tonight is scheduled to commit to an aggressive agenda to complete the budget process much earlier than in years past.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:09 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Baltimore City

November 10, 2008

The next U.S. secretary of education

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute is asking Washington insiders for their thoughts on who Barack Obama might pick for the next secretary of education, and guess who's on the list? Freeman Hrabowski, UMBC's president (not someone else in our area).

Fordham is keeping a new daily tracking poll of the rumors. Hrabowski appears way down, in seventh in the polls, but he might be an interesting choice, according to Fordham's Mike Petrilli, because he is the only one on the list from higher education.

Others mentioned include Arne Duncan, chief executive officer of the Chicago Public Schools; Joel Klein, the chancellor of New York City schools; Colin Powell, the former secetary of state; and Jim Hunt, the former governor of North Carolina.

I am not sure that anyone knows anything right now, but it is fun to pass on the speculation.

Posted by Liz Bowie at 5:20 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Around the Nation

He's here to stay

Dr. Alonso was amused by this rumor that he's a candidate to be Barack Obama's secretary of education. Not true.
Posted by Sara Neufeld at 7:28 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Baltimore City

Enrollment through the years

In preparing to announce the city schools' enrollment increase, the system's Division of Research, Evaluation, Assessment and Accountability dug up this fascinating document from the Enoch Pratt Free Library showing enrollment in each of Maryland's 24 school systems from 1959 to 1986. Back in 1959, Baltimore was by far the biggest district in the state, and many of the suburban districts were tiny in comparison to their size today. Check it out to see how the roles reversed. (Sorry, but you'll either have to make a printout or look at your monitor sideways.)

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:03 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Baltimore City

November 9, 2008

A swanky Saturday morning

Though some city school employees (and a certain reporter who worked the late police shift Friday night) grumbled about getting up early on a Saturday to attend the 10 a.m. party announcing the system's enrollment increase, it was a high-class affair over at M&T Bank Stadium. The Ravens allowed the system to use one of the club lounges, where purple flourescent lights hung over the bar, the Dunbar band played, and a brunch of eggs, meats, pastries and fruit was served. (No, I didn't have any myself, but it looked good.) When the big announcement was made, there was a toast with sparkling apple juice, followed by a vanilla sheetcake.

The fashion accessory of the morning was the system's new "Great Kids, Great Schools" pin, donned by several administrators and community activists. The system recently had 2,000 of the pins made for $1 apiece. It's selling them for $3 each. The $2 markup will fund a college scholarship for a senior.

But the day's ultimate fashion statement was made by (who else?) school board chairman Brian Morris. Over jeans and a light orange T-shirt, he wore his 1986 City College football championship jacket, which by now is more than a little too small. His school spirit didn't help his alma mater in the annual City-Poly game that followed the party. Poly won 16-13.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:59 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Baltimore City

November 7, 2008

Grow facial hair, support city schools

Doing a walk-a-thon for charity? Running a marathon? The organization Mustaches for Kids raises money by asking men (or ladies willing to forego an upper lip wax?) to grow out their facial hair. Now it's set up shop in Baltimore and is looking for "growers" and sponsors for those who grow mustaches from Nov. 12 to Dec. 13. No trimming allowed! (But you do have to shave the rest of your face.) Growers must check in weekly to have their facial hair examined and at the end appear before a panel of judges. Participants solicit donations from friends, family and co-workers.

Money raised will go to, the Web site that funds the classroom wish-lists of Baltimore teachers. Last year, DonorsChoose says, it sent more than $200,000 to city classrooms for 558 teacher requests ranging from pencils and paper to butterfly habitats and ant farms.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 7:02 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Baltimore City

November 6, 2008

Shameless self-promotion

Please excuse the interruption, but we have a favor to ask of you.
It's been great the past several months building an ongoing conversation with all of you, and we'd like to get even more folks in on it. To do that, we need your help! Check out the downloadable fliers in our sidebar (and here and here), designed by our friend David Hobby, a former Sun photographer who runs the Strobist blog.
Help us spread the word by passing out the fliers to your friends and colleagues or by hanging one on a bulletin board at your school. Or just send our link around, the new-fashioned way!

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 8:03 AM | | Comments (1)

Details of the midyear budget transfers

The city school system has posted on its Web site the details of the midyear budget transfers. A refresher: Principals last spring were permitted to project their enrollment for this academic year, and schools were funded based on projected enrollment. Now, the system is readjusting budgets -- adding to some schools and taking away from others -- based on how many kids actually showed up. The idea is that the money follows the child.

On the system's Web site, you can see the difference between projected and actual enrollment and how much money was gained or lost at each school. Though the Alonso administration was clear that these would be the rules of the new world order, I'm surprised there haven't been more public compaints about these midyear transfers, given the enormous impact at some schools. Teachers and other staff will be transferring in and out as a result.

For example, Booker T. Washington Middle School had 158 fewer students than projected and lost $1 million from its budget this year. Patterson High got 189 more students than expected and gained nearly $1.2 million.

The gains and losses in most places aren't that large, but they're in the six-figure range for at least a few dozen schools. And some of the schools where enrollment was less than projected include high-performers such as Roland Park and Leith Walk.

After the adjustments, most schools still ended up with more money than they had last year. But of course, their responsibilities are now much greater as a result of the central office decentralization.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:04 AM | | Comments (13)
Categories: Baltimore City

November 5, 2008

What Obama's election means to students

If ever there were a day to scrap the curriculum in favor of a lesson in living history, I would think today would be it.

Barack Obama hadn't even finished his victory speech last night before I had e-mails from both of the nation's two biggest teachers unions talking about the good his election will bring to public education. But beyond the changes to No Child Left Behind, or the emphasis on early child education, or any of the other reforms that will come in the next four years, today is a significant day for all the minority children who got to wake up and see a president-elect who looks like them.

I'd be interested to hear how teachers are handling this historic moment in their classes today. In the meantime, here's a video shot Monday by Sun photographer Jed Kirschbaum at Baltimore's Wolfe Street Academy, where children talk about what the election means to them.


Posted by Sara Neufeld at 10:55 AM | | Comments (7)
Categories: Baltimore City

To pass the test, you have to take it

In voting last week to uphold the High School Assessments, the state school board left open the possibility that certain seniors may be able to get waivers from the requirement. State Superintendent Nancy Grasmick said she would only recommend waivers in a very limited number of cases, where students have not had ample opportunity to take the tests.

The HSAs are offered at the end of courses in Algebra 1, sophomore English, American government and biology, and they're administered five times a year. So the only seniors who wouldn't have had multiple opportunities to take the tests are those who have not yet taken the courses. Presumably, most of the students in that category would be those with disabilities and those learning English as a second language.

But at one Baltimore high school, it's the whole senior class.

According to data released by the Maryland State Department of Education, only one of the Baltimore Freedom Academy's 41 seniors -- or 2.4 percent -- had met the requirements for graduation. That figure was surprising to me because the school, a charter that this year began expanding to include middle school, generally has an excellent reputation.

As it turns out, BFA did not offer biology to the class of 2009 until this year, the result of staffing issues as the school expanded.  It's being taught now in a longer period until the end of the first semester, giving seniors two chances to take and pass the biology HSA before graduation. If they don't pass, they can graduate by earning a minimum score on the four tests combined. And if they fail the first time, they'll also have the chance to do a project. (Grasmick recently eased the requirement that a student had to fail the test twice for the project option to kick in.) School officials say they still expect to have a 100-percent graduation rate, but clearly, they're cutting it close. According to Liz's story today, biology and English have lower pass rates statewide than algebra and government.

Until this year, biology was a junior-level course at most city high schools. It's now offered to freshmen and sophomores to give students more opportunities to pass the biology HSA. Baltimore Freedom Academy is giving biology to freshmen this year, and administrators there say they're considering making that and Algebra 1 eighth-grade courses in the future to give students access to more rigorous courses in high school.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:06 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Around the Region, Baltimore City

November 4, 2008

Tonight, live education results

For those who want one viewpoint on how election results will affect the education landscape around the nation, go to the Web site for the Center for Education Reform, an advocate for charter schools. There will be some new commentary posted soon. Beginning at 7 p.m when the races begin to be called, CER will post commentary on each state. The site will evolve during the evening.

Posted by Liz Bowie at 6:01 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Around the Nation

Election results are in

Mock election results, that is. Classrooms around the country held election days of their own in recent weeks to engage students in the civic process.

Nearly a million children ages 6 to 12 participated in the "Every Kid Votes" election sponsored by Studies Weekly and Woogi World. Barack Obama won with 473,919 votes, compared with 333,092 for John McCain. The contest said it had children from all 50 states participating. Wonder how their votes would break down in an electoral college....

Here in Baltimore, Hampstead Hill Academy, a charter school that enrolls about 500 pre-K through eighth graders, reports that Obama won its mock election. He got 75 percent of the vote, while 25 percent voted for McCain.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 1:09 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Around the Nation, Baltimore City

More teachers for Maryland classrooms

If there is one safe job to have during a recession, it is being a teacher. They always manage to escape layoffs. That's good for them, but is also likely to be good for schools and kids. It means that those old pros who might have chosen to retire this year or next may stay a few more years. And maybe the teacher who last year might have been tempted to try another profession will stay because the job market is so tight.

Even before the economy slipped, however, school systems weren't reporting as many teacher shortages as they had been the year before, according to a report released last week by the state. In my story today, I quote state educators saying they believe some of the more intensive classroom training that teachers are getting has led to an increase in retention. Enrollments aren't rising, and the teaching force isn't leaving.

I would be interested to know if some teachers are feeling stuck in their jobs because of the economy or whether they are happy to have safe jobs?


Posted by Liz Bowie at 6:14 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Around the Region

November 3, 2008

Enrollment up; time to party

The city school system is planning a public party at M&T Bank Stadium Saturday morning before the City-Poly game to celebrate its first enrollment increase in, well, a very long time. Until now, enrollment in Baltimore schools had been declining for at least three decades.

Why the turning of the tide? It's clear that fewer freshmen dropped out of high school last year, and more city parents are choosing to send their children to public schools. Some schools reached out to recruit families this year, since funding is based on enrollment. 

We reported last week that enrollment in the high schools is up 5 percent this year. No word yet on the overall system figure, which I'm told is still being calculated based on attendance through the end of October, but administrators are obviously optimistic.

The party is scheduled for 10 a.m.; kickoff is at noon.

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

November 2, 2008

High School Assessments: Are they finally for real?

In the ongoing saga that is the High School Assessments, my story in today's paper takes a look at how Baltimore County is tackling the 1,000+ students in the Class of 2009 who have yet to meet the test requirements for graduation.

An interesting theme developed as I spoke with principals about the work their schools have been doing with these students.  Several mentioned that one of the obstacles in this process has involved simply getting students to buy into the fact that these tests really do matter - and could keep them from graduating.

Sometimes, Parkville High Principal Stephen Edgar told me, "it's not about ability or their lack of ability.  It's about whether they take the test seriously or not."

Barbara Cheswick, the principal at New Town High, said she was "thrilled" to hear the state board had voted down a proposal to delay the HSA graduation requirement - in part because, since the tests' introduction, students haven't always bought into the fact that they were "the real thing."

Getting parents involved and aware of these requirements - and where their kids stand - has been one way schools have tried to bring home the reality of the situation, Edgar said.  When parents are also working on HSA exercises with their children, he said, it sends a message about their importance, reinforcing what students have been hearing in school.

I'm curious what educators and parents in other school systems have encountered...and what role they think student buy-in has played with the HSAs up until now.  Do you think the state's vote to maintain the graduation requirement will nix student doubts and get them to take these exams seriously?
Posted by Arin Gencer at 10:14 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Around the Region, Baltimore County, NCLB, Testing
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