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December 31, 2008

Harford superintendent dies

Harford County Superintendent Jacqueline Haas, who has held the position since 1998, died of a severe asthma attack yesterday at age 59. She was Maryland's superintendent of the year for 2007-2008. The Sun's article is here. Her biography is on the bottom of this page on the school district's Web site.

I just talked to Nancy Grasmick, who is in shock over Haas's death. She and Talbot County Superintendent Karen Salmon have spent the morning calling all the superintendents in the state to deliver the news. She said Haas -- who took over in Harford during a turbulent time -- "provided huge credibility and stability to the system." (Haas was first named interim superintendent following the ouster of Jeff Grotsky, later chief of staff to Bonnie Copeland in the city.) Grasmick credited Haas with starting the state's first STEM school at Aberdeen High and building partnerships with several businesses and the military base there.

Grasmick said Haas is the first sitting superintendent in Maryland to die in at least two decades.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 10:49 AM | | Comments (2)

The year in Baltimore schools

As 2008 draws to a close, think of all we've learned this year. A year ago, the terms "Fair Student Funding" and "transformation school" meant nothing to us. "Believe" was still the slogan of the city; it had not yet been eclipsed by "Great Kids, Great Schools" and its variations, most notably "Great Kids, Come Back."

On the other hand, some education jargon we now have permission to erase from our memories. Take the name of the Baltimore school system, for instance. "BCPSS" has been outlawed from all official documents, replaced with the simpler "City Schools." (Generally a good move, I think, though as the official name of the entity, "City Schools" now takes a singular verb, which I find a little annoying.) The BCCPTAs (Baltimore City Council of PTAs) is no more. We have bid farewell to the AAOs and said hello to some new executive directors. From the state, we got the Bridge Plan, and no, it has nothing to do with roads or bridges. As we head into 2009, SITs (School Improvement Teams) are set to be replaced with SFCs (School Family Councils).

A year ago, there were more adults in North Avenue but not yet any students. Enrollment in the city schools was still going down. We'd not yet debated the merits of paying students for improving their preparation for the HSAs. We'd never heard of Jolita Berry, but then, we'd not yet seen an onslaught of community volunteers in schools, either.

I started the year writing about the murder of Baltimore Algebra Project member Zachariah Hallback, 18, who was killed not far from Baltimore City College, as the Algebra Project protested for more education funding. I ended the year writing about the murder of 15-year-old Markel Williams, who was allegedly stabbed by a classmate outside their school, William H. Lemmel Middle, as BUILD protests for more education funding.

A lot has changed, but a lot remains the same. Here's to more progress and less violence in 2009...

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 7:26 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Baltimore City

December 30, 2008

On math test, redemption for Borat's Kazakhstan

With little happening in education locally during the break, we turn our attention to global matters... I didn't have a chance earlier this month to write about the release of the TIMSS math and science test administered in 2007 to fourth- and eighth-graders in dozens of countries worldwide. (Yes, it took a year to release the results.)

If you don't know already, the United States at least performed above average. Fourth-grade math scores, for example, were better than 23 other countries, worse than eight and not measurably different than four. Our math scores were better than the last time the test was administered, in 1995; our science performance was about the same.

But perhaps the most interesting bit of news came from Kazakhstan, the country humiliated by the Borat movie. Contrary to its cinematic depiction, Kazakhstan had the fifth-best fourth-grade math scores in the world, ranking behind only Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and Japan. Though statistically similar to No. 9 Netherlands and No. 10 Lithuania, the United States officially ranked 11th.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 3:16 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Around the World

December 29, 2008

What's the point of a two-day week?

Most school districts in the region made the same decision last week, to hold classes Monday and Tuesday and start the winter break on Wednesday, Dec. 24. The two-day week was not popular with teachers, many of whom were eager to get out of town. But more significantly, in Baltimore at least, it led to some schools with very low attendance.

Both the More Humbly Did I Teach and Smallest Twine teacher blogs address the issue and raise a legitimate question: What's the point of being in school if the kids don't come?


Posted by Sara Neufeld at 3:03 PM | | Comments (6)
Categories: Around the Region, Baltimore City

300 Md. teachers earn National Board Certification

The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards announced this month that 9,600 teachers nationwide -- including 300 in Maryland -- earned the prestigious National Board Certification in 2008. This advanced certification is voluntary for teachers, who undergo months of extra work preparing a portfolio, often in exchange for increased pay from school districts.

Maryland ranks ninth nationwide in the growth it saw this year and 15th for its total number of teachers with National Board Certification (1,364). Montgomery County had 101 new National Board Certified teachers this year, ranking 10th among school districts nationwide. Prince George's County had 56, ranking 20th. According to the organization's online directory, only two of the newly certified teachers are in Baltimore, bringing the city's total number of teachers with the certification to 34.

The largest numbers of National Board Certified teachers in Maryland are located in Montgomery County (478), Anne Arundel County (159), Prince George's County (133), Baltimore County (80) and Carroll County (80).

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 1:04 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Around the Region

December 23, 2008

Inappropriate relationships in Howard schools

Over in Howard County, a 61-year-old high school band director was arrested today and charged with sexually abusing a 17-year-old girl over two years. For all the problems in city schools, these teacher/student relationship scandals seem to surface far more often in the suburbs. Three teachers in Howard were arrested in the 2006-2007 school year for inappropriate relationships with students. I don't remember the last time a case like that was brought to light in Baltimore. I'm not saying there haven't been any, but if there have in recent years, they've been kept quiet.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 3:49 PM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Howard County, School Safety (Or Lack Thereof)

Timothy Oxendine pleads not guilty

The 14-year-old former Lemmel student pleaded not guilty today in the fatal stabbing of classmate Markel Williams, 15.

Timothy's lawyer does not appear to be claiming that his client did not commit the crime. Instead, he's making the case that there were extenuating circumstances and Timothy was afraid of Markel and afraid to come to school. He said he's trying to get the case moved to juvenile court, where the punishment would likely be much less severe.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 3:28 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Baltimore City, School Safety (Or Lack Thereof)

Happy (school) holidays from InsideEd

We'll be slowing down a bit for the next week and a half while you're off on winter break. I'll (mostly) be around but will need ideas for entries once the news has stopped. If you have any, drop me a line. Thanks to all of you for reading and keeping up a great conversation on education topics throughout the year.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 10:59 AM | | Comments (0)

December 22, 2008

Multiple schools, same roof

Good article in The New York Times yesterday about a topic familiar to many in Baltimore: the challenges associated with locating multiple small schools in the same building. While the suburbs by and large aren't experiencing this trend, it's becoming more and more common in urban districts around the nation. According to the article, 42 percent of New York City schools now cohabit with at least one other school, with as many as five to a building. In Baltimore, I know of as many as four under one roof (the old Roland Patterson now houses KIPP, MATHS, Civitas and the high school portion of ConneXions).

These configurations make sense for the many small schools opening without the funds for their own buildings, and they are an efficient use of resources. They also pose a variety of logistical problems, from who gets to have lunch at what time (the article mentions one where lunch periods start at 9:42 a.m.) to disagreements over when to have a fire drill and whether to form a sports team. In New York, there have been territorial spats among principals over such petty things as who controls keys to the building's closets. While the article says some of the thorniest issues involve placing multiple age groups under the same roof, I'd venture to say that in Baltimore at least, the toughest scenarios are those where one school in a building has a positive culture and another does not.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 10:41 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Around the Nation, Baltimore City

December 21, 2008

Priming city kids for selective colleges

Today's story by higher ed reporter Steve Kiehl looks at the work being done to recruit Baltimore students to Hopkins and University of Maryland and the challenges presented. Despite Hopkins' offer of free tuition to any city student who can gain admission, just 13 freshmen from Baltimore enrolled this year. Finances prevent many city kids from striving to get into such pricey schools as Hopkins, but when money is no longer the object, what's the problem?

As the story explains, preparation is one issue. Familiarity is another. Why apply to a school that no one you know has attended? Hakeem Godwin, a senior at Forest Park, told Steve that many of his classmates are "afraid" to apply to Maryland.

From expanding A.P. classes to paying for all kids to take the PSATs and SATs to having university reps on hand at the annual high school fair, city schools are doing a lot to set students' sights on college. Yet clearly, much more needs to be done to change the stigma that they don't belong at the state's selective institutions.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 7:04 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Baltimore City

December 20, 2008

Thornton threatened

As my colleagues report today, there's a proposal floating in Annapolis that would cut midyear the "GCEI" (geographic cost of education index) component of Thornton, which provides more money to districts where the cost of education is higher. This would save the state and cost the schools $38 million, including $6.5 million in Baltimore.

I think this is just the beginning of the political hardball over school funding that will unfold in the next few months.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 7:34 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Around the Region

December 19, 2008

HSA project onslaught, and a waiver option

For 125 city teachers, there will be no holiday shopping this weekend. Instead, they'll be grading the 880 projects submitted this week by students who have not yet passed all four HSAs or met the combined score to earn a high school diploma. 

As Liz reports, the state school board yesterday approved a waiver process for students who haven't met the HSA requirements. The waivers will be granted at the discretion of local superintendents and can be appealed to the state. I've heard concerns from some people tracking the state action that, while the waivers are only supposed to be granted under extenuating circumstances, there's a lot of room for discretion. But it seems most superintendents (except maybe Jerry Weast in Montgomery County) want to keep the number of waivers granted to a minimum. The push is clearly still on in Baltimore for all students to either pass the tests or the project equivalents.

As of October, the city had 1,232 students in the class of 2009 working on 2,397 projects. There are still several more opportunities to submit projects before diplomas will be awarded or denied.

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

December 18, 2008

Western named a Blue Ribbon School

For all the recent fuss over Western High School, it was named one of six Maryland Blue Ribbon Schools this morning.

The other five schools are: Southern High in Anne Arundel County, Seventh District Elementary in Baltimore County, Hammond Middle in Howard County, Highland Elementary in Montgomery County and Stephen Decatur Middle in Worcester County.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 12:21 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Around the Region, Baltimore City

A push for universal pre-k

As I mentioned yesterday and in earlier posts, Dr. Alonso is making the expansion of pre-kindergarten a funding priority for next school year and the years to come, until the system can offer pre-k to all 4-year-olds in the city. This would enable low-income children to come to school better prepared, and it would give middle class families the opportunity to try out the public schools at the time they're most willing to take a chance.

The state's Thornton law now requires school districts to offer half-day pre-k to all low-income children whose parents want it. Baltimore has long gone beyond the requirements in that, in response to parent demand, it offers full-day programs that the state doesn't fund. But it fails to meet the requirements in that 300 children who meet the income criteria are on a wait list. About 4,100 are currently served and the city's total population of 4-year-olds is about 6,500. It's unclear how many would take advantage of pre-k if it were offered to all. What is clear is that the city has never met the public demand for pre-k.

While the holdup, of course, is money, the school system is in luck that pre-kindergarten is a priority for President-elect Obama as well. Obama has pledged another $10 billion for early childhood education nationwide. Baltimore would need to be the beneficiary of only a tiny percentage of that money to turn Alonso's plan into reality. But it's not clear how much would go to public schools and how much would go to pre-k, as opposed to other (worthy) programs for young children and their parents. Obama has said he'd like to see funding for poor children be a priority. It's possible we'll see the money go to other states that aren't as far along as Maryland in providing pre-k.

Given the state budget situation, it might be hard to get very far on this or any other new initiative next year without new federal dollars.

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

December 17, 2008

Cooling Baltimore County schools

I’ve had a couple stories in the paper this week about air conditioning in Baltimore County schools -- an ongoing hot (no pun intended) topic. A new staff report on facilities had brought the issue to the fore again, and last night’s work session provided some additional info I wasn’t able to get into today’s article.

Some folks had expressed disappointment in the report’s lack of detail, but the facilities staff showed up in full force at last night’s work session -- about 10 staff members were there -- and provided information and answers that fleshed things out more.

Besides receiving an estimate of seven to 10 years to install air conditioning systems (if funding stays the same) in the 88 schools that currently don’t have them, board members were also told that shifting priorities to focus on A.C. would shave only a little time off that estimate. Michael Sines, executive director of physical facilities, also indicated that such a shift would take away from any other building improvements or educational enhancements.

He expressed his reluctance to throw out "magic numbers" with regard to the cost of these various A.C. projects, saying they wouldn’t mean anything at this time.

Superintendent Joe Hairston weighed in, pointing out that all of the work that’s been done on facilities over nearly a decade makes a legitimate conversation on air conditioning possible.

Board member Meg O’Hare -- who emphasized that A.C. is "still a 20th century amenity" -- suggested that if the money were there, the process would go more swiftly. But Sines said it wasn’t practical to make that kind of promise, even with the money, particularly as his staff members already have myriad projects that they are juggling simultaneously. "I don’t see a way out of the time vacuum," he said.

A couple other interesting details:

  • the current capital improvement plan for calls for about a dozen schools to get air conditioning, and for another school’s malfunctioning system to be fixed
  • retrofitting buildings just for air could "easily" exceed $450 million
Posted by Arin Gencer at 7:45 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Baltimore County

Morgan State, Hopkins to conduct school research

The city school system announced a partnership yesterday with researchers from Johns Hopkins and Morgan State universities. Under the Baltimore Education Research Consortium, the system will provide the researchers with data about the city schools, and the researchers will study issues relevant to the system. To start, they'll be looking at what happens to students who start out on track academically but falter as they get older, and they'll be looking at dropouts. The plan is for eight research projects in the next three years.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 12:20 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Baltimore City

Duncan appointment praised in Baltimore

People in the Baltimore school system seem to be excited about Arne Duncan's appointment as education secretary for the new Obama administration. As superintendent in Chicago, Duncan understands the challenges that urban districts like Baltimore face. "He knows the work," Dr. Alonso said at last night's budget work session, when school board member Bob Heck asked what he thought of the appointment. And what's more, Alonso said, "We can call him up." He and Duncan were together twice two weeks ago, for conferences of the National Governors Association in Chicago and the Aspen Institute in Charlotte. Alonso and Duncan both belong to Aspen's Urban Superintendents Network, which brings a group of big city superintendents together a few times a year.

While many of the national pundits have called Duncan a middle-of-the-road choice for Obama, he has, like Alonso, taken tough stances on school accountability. In Chicago, he's closed dozens of failing schools. And he's embraced the idea of giving schools autonomy in exchange for results, though not to the same extent as Batlimore's CEO. From what I've read, Duncan's school autonomy model in Chicago seems similar to John Deasy's in Prince George's County, where schools have to earn their freedom from the bureaucratic red tape. It's not an automatic, as in Baltimore and New York.

Obama announced Duncan's appointment this week at a Chicago school turned around by a New Leaders for New Schools principal, which seems to indicate an endorsement of the non-traditional school leadership model that's also been embraced in Baltimore.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 11:15 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Around the Nation, Baltimore City

Changes proposed to Fair Student Funding

City principals would get more control over special education dollars and financial rewards for improving students' academic performance under proposed changes outlined last night at a budget work session.

The meeting was called for the school board but attended by only four adult members, plus the student member, just about everyone in the CEO's cabinet, a few community activists and a few reporters. Dr. Alonso outlined some things we already know -- under current funding projections, the system faces a $55 million budget shortfall, and as many cuts as possible will come from North Avenue. -- and some things some of us didn't know. 

The system has had committees of principals and others studying the first year of "Fair Student Funding," or decentralized school budgeting. The committee members were concerned that, with schools getting extra money for kids performing poorly, there was no incentive to move students to proficiency. The revised model, to be officially proposed to the school board Jan. 13 and up for a vote two weeks later, would redistribute the money schools get on top of a base allocation for each student. Schools would be rewarded for moving a student from the "basic" (or failing) category on the MSA to proficient, and from proficient to advanced, and for keeping students in the advanced category on tests. High schools would also see extra cash for increasing the number of students passing the HSAs. Schools would only be credited for overall improvement: In other words, if 30 students progressed and 10 slipped back from proficient to basic, it would get credit for 20.

As for special ed, the recommendation is to give schools flexibility over the money they get: 1) to run the IEP process (the legal process for determining and documenting a student's special needs and services), 2) to incorporate students with disabilities into classes with their non-disabled peers, 3) to provide special ed services during the summer, and 4) to support students and teachers beyond what's mandated in IEPs.

If there's money -- and that's a big if -- Alonso wants to continue expanding pre-kindergarten by moving toward offering it to all 4-year-olds in the city as well as workforce preparation programs. He's also interested in having the system provide its own transportation to middle school students, since there have been so many incidents on MTA buses.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:11 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Baltimore City

December 16, 2008

Obama's choice for U.S. Secretary of Education

Even before President-elect Barack Obama introduced Arne Duncan, 44, as his selection for Secretary of Education this morning at a press conference in a revamped Chicago public school, education policy advocates on all sides had begun to express delight at the choice. He appeals to the current education secretary, Margaret Spellings, who said in a statement that he was a "visionary leader and fellow reformer who cares deeply about children." She notes that he has promoted policies to keep schools accountable. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington think tank, agreed. "He's a proven and committed and inventive education reformer, not tethered to the public school establishment and its infinite interest groups, nor bedazzled by blandishments and commands from Washington,"  said Chester E. Finn, Fordham's outspoken president, in a press release.

On the other hand, the National School Boards Assocation also was supportive of the choice. As was the president of the American Federation of Teachers, one of the two big teachers unions in the country. "As Chicago schools’ chief executive officer, Duncan has shown a genuine commitment to what we see as the essential priorities for an incoming education secretary," said Randi Weingarten, AFT president, in a statement.

It appears that Obama has chosen a middle-of-the-road nominee who can appeal to both the reform-minded education advocates who value standardized testing and those who think more attention needs to be paid to programs outside of school that support students, particularly those from poor backgrounds.

Duncan is currently the chief executive of the Chicago school system and has been there for seven years, an extremely long tenure for any urban superintendent. In introducing him, Obama said Duncan is "not beholden to any ideology."

It will be interesting to see if Duncan is able to span the philosophical divides and get some much needed consensus on education issues.

Posted by Liz Bowie at 5:11 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Around the Nation

To teach the kids, first control the parents

We've talked about this issue before, but whenever a parent instigates violence at a school, it seems worth a mention. In the latest incident, yesterday at Maritime Industries Academy, I'm told that a school police officer tried to search a boy for weapons. He and his mother then attacked the officer, and a second boy walking by got involved.

A few weeks ago, we had a mother walk into a classroom at Matthew Henson Elementary and attack a teacher. What I suggest in the headline, that schools need to control parents, is impossible, of course. But the parents do need to exercise self-control. I guess these incidents are just further proof that if schools are to get better, the whole community needs to be involved.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 10:43 AM | | Comments (8)
Categories: Baltimore City, School Safety (Or Lack Thereof)

December 15, 2008

Chicago schools chief to become education secretary

The Chicago Tribune and other media outlets are reporting tonight that President-elect Obama has tapped Arne Duncan for U.S. secretary of education.
Posted by Sara Neufeld at 8:45 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Around the Nation

Waiting for a likely HSA tweak

Principals, teachers and high school seniors will no doubt be watching what the Maryland State Board of Education does this week to help special education students and those learning English as their second language who haven't yet passed all four High School Assessments. Passing the four end-of-year-tests is now required for those students in this year's senior class to get a diploma. Because only 83 percent of students in the grade have passed the tests or have met the requirement through a minimum score, state officials are now considering a mechanism that would allow students who are only taking the tests for the first time this year to graduate.

We will get the details at the board meeting Wednesday afternoon.

Posted by Liz Bowie at 5:06 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Around the Region

Alonso tops mustache earnings

Mustaches for KidsThe Mustaches for Kids fundraiser ended Saturday, netting more than $20,000 for Baltimore classroom projects. Dr. Alonso raised $5,109, making him not only the city's top earner, but the top individual fundraiser in the country -- surpassing hundreds of competitors in 25 cities.

Nearly 80 people donated toward the projects Alonso selected on The fundraiser's organizer, Pranav Saha, came in second among Baltimore mustache growers with $2,415. The teachers in Cherry Hill who sought to beat Alonso ranked third, raising $2,203. School board member Bob Heck raised $1,163. Alonso and Heck are pictured here with one of the Charm City Roller Girls (dressed for the event as "She Guevara"), who judged a mustache competition Saturday night at Taps bar in Federal Hill. Neither of them won the prize for the "sweetest 'stache."

At the fundraiser's concluding event, DonorsChoose announced that the Abell Foundation has donated another $3,000 to projects selected by various mustache growers, including $1,000 for Alonso's. 

Of the 25 cities that participated in the competition, Baltimore mustache growers placed fifth. New York City was first with $73,020 raised. Alonso had wanted Baltimore to beat Chicago, which came in fourth with $25,505. But Baltimore did far better than Los Angeles, which was sixth with $6,656.

Alonso says his beard is on the way back.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:05 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Baltimore City

December 12, 2008

Blum mentoring is back

Lois Blum Feinblatt, who gave money to start a mentoring program for new city teachers a decade ago as a way of honoring her late husband, presented the system with a check for $73,575 at Tuesday night's school board meeting. (Yes, I know I've been talking about this meeting for three days now, but what can I say? It was long and a lot happened.) The money will fund a mentoring coordinator position at the central office for the second half of this school year and the first half of next year. The system has committed to fund the position for the second half of next year regardless of its budget constraints.

The Blum mentoring program has had great success in keeping new teachers in the system and, as evidenced by an earlier discussion on this blog, it is beloved by its participants. It ended this year as money was shifted from the central office into schools. Those schools with a lot of new teachers are still required to have some sort of mentoring in place, but participants bemoaned the fact that mentors would have to report to principals rather than a central coordinator, a structure that helps protect the confidentiality of teacher concerns.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:09 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Baltimore City

December 11, 2008

City schools chief of staff resigns

Gen. Bennie Williams, who has been chief of staff to Dr. Alonso since the summer of 2007, has resigned. There have been rumors for months that he was job-hunting for a superintendency of his own, though I'm not sure yet what he's going to do and a press release from the school system says only that he's leaving "to pursue personal interests." A graduate of Frederick Douglass High School, Williams spent 35 years in the Army before attending the Broad Superintendents Academy, which trains former business and military officials to lead public schools.
Posted by Sara Neufeld at 1:52 PM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Baltimore City

BUILD builds parent support

Any school that can't get parents to turn out for events might want to get some organizing tips from Baltimoreans United In Leadership Development, or BUILD. The advocacy group got nearly 1,000 people to come out last night for a rally demanding that programs for schools and children be the priority for state and city leaders in these tough economic times. The attendees were mobilized mostly through schools (BUILD's ChildFirst program works in several in the city) and churches.

Both at last night's rally and another that ChildFirst held recently at Bernard Harris Elementary, organizers held a roll call. The result was that each school and, last night, each church had to report how many people it had committed to bring, how many were there and how many it would commit to bring for the next events. (Demonstrations are planned Dec. 17 at City Hall and Jan. 15 in Annapolis.) It's a way of holding parents accountable for their involvement. And it's working. With numbers like these and passion as strong as that exhibited last night, BUILD will make it harder for politicians to propose balancing their budgets on the backs of Baltimore's children.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 11:14 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Baltimore City

For Baltimore Freedom Academy, an honor especially sweet

The Baltimore school board Tuesday night honored the five city high schools that made the U.S. News & World Report rankings of the nation's best. Everyone is excited that Baltimore has more schools on the list than any other jurisdiction in Maryland.

But one of the schools is more excited than the others.

The principals of Poly and City attended the board meeting to accept recognition on behalf of their schools. No one was there from the newly improved (and state football champ) Dunbar, so an alum in the audience stood up to represent his alma mater. Western, where alumnae are protesting the prospect of a girls middle school temporarily residing in its extra space, sent a handful of ladies to stand alongside their principal.

And then there was Baltimore Freedom Academy.

BFA, which is both a charter and a transformation school, is only six years old. It doesn't have admissions requirements, as the other four schools honored do. It doesn't yet offer any Advanced Placement courses, one of the factors considered by U.S. News. Its state test scores don't look as good as they actually are, since seniors have yet to take the biology exam required for graduation. But in another area measured, performance of disadvantaged students, BFA does very well.

"I'm honestly not sure what statistics they used for the list," Principal Dana Hunter wrote in an e-mail to me, "but we have a graduation rate that has been over 90% every year (and the rest graduate within 6 months) and every single scholar (regardless of when they graduate) is accepted to at least one college or university, most of whom attend.  We don't have honors clases because we believe that every child is an honors student, and we create rigor in every class to differentiate for the needs of every child."

With a minority population of 98 percent and 60 percent of students qualifying for free and reduced-price lunch, the school has made AYP every year. It has a social justice theme, urging students to figure out solutions to social inequalities and building their literacy skills by having them interview community members.

By my count, BFA sent about 50 students, staff and parents to Tuesday's board meeting, many of them wearing "I (Heart) BFA" T-shirts. Hunter said everyone knew about the ranking -- released last weekend -- by the time school was back in session Monday morning. Over the weekend, she had kids calling her on her cell phone.

"It was just sort of a sigh of relief, what we’re doing is the right thing," she told me in an interview. "It was a huge boost in the pride in the community." In the hallways this week, whenever anyone misbehaves, she said, "we’re like, 'We don't do that. This is a good school. Didn’t you hear?'"

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

December 10, 2008

Pitroff named interim CFO for city schools

The school board last night named Michael Pitroff interim chief financial officer, through the end of the academic year, while it searches for a permanent replacement for John Walker. Pitroff was only recently named the system's chief technology officer, and the plan is to return him to that position as soon as possible.
Posted by Sara Neufeld at 11:59 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Baltimore City

As kids die, board ponders more power for parents

Last night's city school board meeting was the longest in ages, and that's even after Dr. Alonso spared us a 54-page PowerPoint presentation about Fair Student Funding (tabled til next time). There was plenty of drama to go around, perhaps most notably the outburst by the activist known as Grandma Edna, who said she was there representing a 10-year-old girl afraid to go to school because her teacher punched a classmate. Angry that she hasn't gotten a response about a character education program she wants city schools to adopt, Grandma Edna essentially accused the system of being complicit in the murders of the 25 city youth who have been killed this year -- nine of them since the start of the academic year and four in the past month, including one on school grounds. Board chair Brian Morris led a moment of silence for the slain children at the beginning of the meeting, and Grandma Edna was one of many to refer to them in the four hours that followed.

So what did the board actually do in that time? It voted to close schools on Inauguration Day, urging parents to make the day a family learning opportunity. It approved the creation of three new charter schools (one KIPP and two City Neighbors), expanding parents' options. (Five charter applications were on the table, but the board rejected The Stadium School's application to convert into a charter, and a motion to create the Foundations Charter School died for lack of a second.) 

The board also reviewed proposed changes to the parent and community engagement policy, to be voted on Jan. 13. The proposal requires each school to have a School Family Council (replacing the school improvement team) with two parents and two community representatives who give the CEO feedback on the budget process and principal selection.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 7:34 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Baltimore City

Settling the halls of Garrison Middle School

In today's paper, my colleague Julie Bykowicz features a new program at Garrison Middle School that's hired four men to serve as hall monitors, mentors and father figures to a vulnerable student population. The program, run by the non-profit advocacy group BUILD, was tested last spring at Garrison and -- ironically -- Lemmel, but only Garrison's principal chose to budget the money to keep it going.

As I read Julie's story, I couldn't help but think about the fatal stabbing of Markel Williams. Had Lemmel decided to keep the program, would someone have been in the hall to stop Markel as he made the deadly decision to run outside during the school day? We'll never know the answer. But we do know that at Garrison, it seems to be helping to have men whose backgrounds are similar to the students' available to set a positive example.

BUILD will hold a rally tonight at St. Matthew's Catholic Church to protest any upcoming funding cuts to education and youth programs.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:03 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Baltimore City, School Safety (Or Lack Thereof)

December 9, 2008

Baltimore schools to close Inauguration Day

The city school board voted tonight to close the system on Jan. 20. Still to be determined how the day will be made up.

UPDATE: The last day of school will now be June 10, instead of June 9, unless a snow day pushes it back further.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 10:54 PM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Baltimore City

Don't worry, Western

The alumnae of Western High School are at it again.  A few years ago, graduates of the nation's oldest public girls school mobilized en masse amid rumors that their alma mater might be closed or merged with neighboring Poly. This time, the outcry is over plans -- still subject to school board approval -- to locate the sixth-grade of the a new all-girls middle/high school in its hallowed halls.

Dr. Alonso says with its current enrollment, Western is below 60 percent of its state-rated capacity. That means the use of space is so inefficient that the school is ineligible for state construction and renovation money -- desperately needed to fix its boilers. At the same time, the new Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women is looking for space to get started. The school will begin next year with classes of about 80 sixth-graders and 80 ninth-graders, expanding eventually to serve all grades from six to 12.

Western's alumnae fear the standards of a magnet school with admissions requirements will suffer if it's located alongside a non-selective school. Alonso says he wouldn't locate the high school portion of the new school next to Western, but what better place for middle school girls to set some high aspirations? The Baltimore Leadership School would need about four classrooms next year and eight the year after, when it adds a seventh grade. After that, Alonso says, the school will need to find a permanent location where it can house all grades under the same roof. Meanwhile, Western might be able to get some of the repairs it needs. "All I want to do is support Western," Alonso said at a news conference yesterday where he praised the school and the four others in the city that made the U.S. News & World Report list of the nation's best.

Some people aren't buying it. An excerpt from an e-mail being circulated among Western alums: "If we (Western) are forced to share our building with a new school, it is my/ our position that it will be to the detriment of our school/program that has a proven track record of excellence for nearly 165 years. No one would dare try to put a new school in the engineering wing of Poly or the ground floor of City claiming that they 'need the space'.  Why, because their alumni would not stand for it."

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:09 AM | | Comments (18)
Categories: Baltimore City

December 8, 2008

U.S. News and World Report high school rankings

Can't get enough of rankings? The latest high school ones are out from U.S. News and World Report. You might remember the Newsweek rankings that came out some months back that identified many schools throughout the region. Well, U.S. News has found another way to analyze numbers coming from high schools that appears to give greater weight to whether the school's disadvantaged population has done better on state tests than average.

Only three Baltimore County schools and two Howard County schools made the list while four city high schools were honored. For instance, Dulaney High School in Baltimore County was left off, but the Baltimore Freedom Academy was a bronze winner. 

Here's how U.S. News describes the process that was used to pick schools:

"We analyzed 21,069 public high schools in 48 states using data from the 2006-2007 school year. This is the total number of public high schools in each state that had grade-12 enrollment and sufficient data to analyze primarily for the 2006-2007 school year. A three-step process determined the best high schools. The first two steps ensured that the schools serve all their students well, using state proficiency standards as the measuring benchmarks. For those schools that made it past the first two steps, a third step assessed the degree to which schools prepare students for college-level work."

For many more details, the U.S. News Web site can fill you in, but it is clear that some schools that don't offer Advanced Placement classes were on the list, which seemed hard to understand because one of the criteria used to rank the schools was the number of A.P. classes students took.

Here's the list of 24 Maryland high schools that were mentioned in the rankings in either the gold, silver or bronze category.

Gold (all from Montgomery County)
Walt Whitman, Thomas S. Wootton, Winston Churchill

Baltimore City College, Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, Centennial, Eastern Technical in Baltimore County, North Hagerstown, River Hill, Smithsburg Senior, Snow Hill

Baltimore Freedom Academy, Cambridge South Dorchester, Crisfield, Hancock Middle Senior High, North Dorchester, Northern Garrett, Southern Garrett, Paul Laurence Dunbar in Baltimore City, South Hagerstown, Washington High, Western High in Baltimore City, Western School of Technology and Environmental Science in Baltimore County

Posted by Liz Bowie at 8:09 AM | | Comments (7)
Categories: Around the Region

Should schools close on inauguration day?

Yes, argues Baltimore high school teacher Kathleen Lucot in a letter to the editor that The Sun published Saturday. "No event in the memory of any of my colleagues has ever sparked such enthusiasm from our students," wrote Lucot, who teaches U.S. history at Doris M. Johnson High. "Naturally, we wanted to make the presidential inauguration an event to remember."

But not only is the cost of a field trip to Washington on Jan. 20 prohibitive, Lucot said, midterm exams are slated to begin that day. Talk about a wasted learning opportunity. She says students should at least be allowed the opportunity to stay home and celebrate with their families as President-elect Barack Obama is sworn in, or travel on their own to D.C.

She might find a sympathetic ear in North Avenue. I'm told the Alonso administration is looking into the issue and will make a recommendation to the school board in the coming days. Several of the districts surrounding Washington have already decided to close.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:04 AM | | Comments (12)
Categories: Around the Region, Baltimore City

December 5, 2008

Cherry Hill teachers take on the CEO

All in good fun and for a good cause... If you didn't see the comment on my post yesterday, the male teachers at Cherry Hill Elementary/Middle are making a push to beat Dr. Alonso in the final week of the Mustaches for Kids fundraiser. "We have called in all of the big guns i.e. family members and wealthy friends to push us ahead of him," one of the teachers, Jace Goodier, wrote in an e-mail to me.

They're going to have to push hard: The latest figures on the Web site show the CEO has widened his first-place lead, with $3,238 raised for city classroom projects. The Cherry Hill teachers -- a young group that includes participants in Teach for America and Baltimore City Teaching Residency -- are in second with $1,788.

I'm not sure if Alonso's total includes money collected on his behalf last night when he spoke at Bolton Street Synagogue. The congregation donated $250 to the class projects he picked out to thank him for being a part of its speakers series, and someone made a makeshift collection box to take individual contributions (not that temples have real collection boxes).

Alonso said he'd be happy for the Cherry Hill teachers to win. During his talk at Bolton Street last night, he mentioned another competition where he's going to fight much harder: He joked that he'd like to put all the private schools in the city out of business. If the news in Liz's story today about the enrollment decline and economic plight of the area's Catholic schools is any indication, he might be starting to get an edge there, too.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 2:02 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Baltimore City

Montgomery County teachers give up raise

The Washington Post reported yesterday that Montgomery County teachers and other school employees have agreed to forgo a 5 percent pay raise next year, saving that school system $89 million and closing a budget gap. Superintendent Jerry Weast also plans to cut about 280 central office jobs.

In Baltimore, the school system faces a $46 million budget shortfall for next fiscal year, but that's before any increased labor costs that it commits to in upcoming union negotiations. It's also before any new needs are factored in, and as I've reported here before, Dr. Alonso wants to offer universal pre-kindergarten. As we've been hearing for months, expect North Avenue to take another big hit.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 11:27 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Around the Region

December 4, 2008

For boys at city school, a lack of male role models

I'm embarrassed to say, when I was out of town last week for Thanksgiving (yes, I scheduled blog posts in advance of my trip), I missed the powerful op-ed we ran from a teacher at Maryland Academy of Technology and Health Sciences, a charter high school in the city. It's a week old at this point, but I think it's still worth coming back to for discussion.

The teacher, David Donaldson, asked six boys in his advisory class to make a list of five male role models. Is it surprising that this was hard for them? Or that none of them had a father to select? One boy chose his grandfather, since of all the males in their family, the two of them are the only ones who haven't been to prison. Another picked his mom, since he buys her presents for Father's Day as well as Mother's Day. The saddest response of all came from a boy Donaldson described as the usual class clown. His male role model is his dog, who is "always there and very loyal."

These responses won't surprise many of you who work in city schools. But they goes a long way in explaining to the rest of the world why your job is so hard.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 4:45 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Baltimore City

More on Baltimore County enrollment

My story today on balancing enrollment between two elementary schools in southeast Baltimore County takes a closer look at how being over or under capacity plays out on the ground, within the school buildings themselves. 

What I found particularly interesting was how reality flouted assumptions that some people make about schools that aren't overcrowded.  Having fewer students does not necessarily translate into smaller classes -- a fact that I think is forgotten in the more common (and absolutely necessary) discussions about alleviating overcrowded facilities, such as Rodgers Forge, the county's most overcapacity school.

But redistricting won't solve enrollment problems in every area, as some folks have pointed out to me: In the county's central area, for example, redrawing boundary lines so that every seat in every Towson-area school is filled would still leave the school system about 400 seats short. But of course, some relief, in the form of the so-called Towson West Elementary, is on the way.  (Thanks to Cathi Forbes for this observation today.)

Posted by Arin Gencer at 4:03 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Baltimore County

Mustache update

Alonso with mustacheWith only a little more than a week to go in this year's Mustaches for Kids fundraiser, Dr. Alonso has raised the most money for city classroom projects among Baltimore's mustache growers: $2,202. The male teachers at Cherry Hill Elementary/Middle are in second place with $1,695. School board member Bob Heck is in fourth with $1,078. The money raised -- more than $12,000 in all -- supports, which allows teachers to submit classroom wish lists and then finds people to fund the projects. A breakdown of how much all the mustache growers have raised and who's donated to them is on the DonorsChoose Web site.

Meanwhile, DonorsChoose has been selected as the beneficiary of an annual philanthropy campaign by the financial news and advice company Motley Fool. The name of this fundraiser: Foolanthropy.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:07 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Baltimore City

December 3, 2008

Grasmick gets national PTA award

Maryland State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick was given the National PTA Life Achievement Award, the highest recognition by the PTA.

Grasmick received the award at a Maryland PTA conference recently.  Debbie Ritchie, president of the Maryland PTA said in a press release issued today by the state department that it was given to Grasmick "in recognition of her hard work and commitment to the children of Maryland." Ritchie said Grasmick has helped increase parent involvement in schools.

Posted by Liz Bowie at 6:33 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Around the Region

The new Carver Center

The new building planned for the magnet Carver Center for Arts and Technology is moving forward, with plans to start the construction process come spring.  In my story today, I share some of the details from the presentation by the architect (DC-area Grimm + Parker) last night. 

For the curious, the entire presentation, including some drawings depicting layout, is here.

The school board approved the building for LEED certification, so a number of green-building options are being explored.  Among them is the use of natural daylight, which, interestingly enough, fosters better learning (and student performance) -- if done right, the architect said.

Posted by Arin Gencer at 10:18 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Baltimore County

Creating jobs by building schools

President-elect Obama says he has a plan to save or create 2.5 million jobs by 2011. Workers can pave roads, build bridges and -- and -- modernize schools.

On the Open Society Institute's Audacious Ideas blog this week, Bebe Verdery of the ACLU of Maryland proposes that Obama create jobs by rebuilding schools in Baltimore. Better yet, she says, make the new buildings green.

Verdery, a longtime advocate for city school funding, notes that Baltimore's school buildings "need $2.7 billion in renovation/construction to meet industry standards." With state money for school construction a tiny fraction of what the city needs, it has long seemed a far-fetched notion that the children of Baltimore would all go to school in modern, well-lit buildings. And in these economic times, we know, the belt is only getting tighter.

But if the nation is going to spend the money to create new jobs anyway, why not put people to work rebuilding the city's schools?

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:08 AM | | Comments (7)
Categories: Around the Nation, Baltimore City

December 2, 2008

Business aims for more rigorous path in high school

The Maryland Business Roundtable for Education has just announced a plan to double the number of students who graduate from high schools in Maryland having taken a course of study that prepares them for college and jobs. 

Today only one third of graduates are Maryland scholars. These students have taken Algebra II, two years of a foreign language, chemistry and physics on top of all the other state course requirements for graduation. MBRT would like to see two thirds of graduates reach that standard by 2011.

To assist school systems, the organization is trying to get the word out about the need to push students toward a more challenging course of study during high school. Already the organization has a track record:

When the MBRT helped local school systems in Harford and Frederick counties, the numbers of Maryland scholars rose significantly. In Harford County, the number of scholars rose from 36 percent to 54 percent overall. Among low-income children, the numbers nearly tripled.

Only about one in five students who enter college graduate, a number the MBRT would like to see increase. "A highly skilled workforce can raise economic growth by about two-thirds of a percentage point each year," the MBRT plan released yesterday says. June Streckfus, executive director of the organization, said it will be increasing the number of volunteers for its speakers bureau. Currently about 3,000 members of the community speak at schools every year. The organization, which represents more than a 100 local businesses that have made a commitment to support education reform in Maryland, also has a Web site to teach students about careers and how to prepare for them. Parents can also find information at the roundtable's Web site.

Posted by Liz Bowie at 3:10 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Around the Region

In NYC, questions about school climate surveys

In Baltimore this academic year, the annual school climate surveys completed by parents, teachers and students will be administered under much tighter regulations. The results will be used in evaluating principals.

In New York City, such surveys are already used as a factor in giving schools A through F letter grades. If low enough for long enough, those grades can cost principals their jobs and prompt school closings. 

The New York Post reported yesterday that more than 60 principals there were urged to keep the surveys away from "toxic" students who might bring their rankings down. In a document posted online last year by a school system official, the article says, "Principals were also advised to have school staffers help parents not only with translating a survey, but with 'filling it out,' and to urge students and teachers to complete the surveys following 'fun' events." The article quotes parents who say their principals told them falsely that low marks on the surveys would cost their schools funding.

The Post reports that the document in question has been taken down from the New York education department's Web site, but the department defended the integrity of the surveys.

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

December 1, 2008

Welcome back to the grindstone

I heard last week from a city high school teacher who's feeling overwhelmed by all the paperwork she has to do. Much of this involves the students who have not yet passed their HSAs.

For every student doing projects through the Bridge Plan and/or getting extra help preparing for the tests, the school system is requiring teachers to document what assignments they do and what times the teacher works with the student. In addition, teachers have to keep track of all calls and correspondence with these students and their families, especially the seniors. That way, if a student doesn't graduate, the school can document its efforts to help.

I can understand why this is necessary, but I can also understand why it's frustrating for teachers, particularly those at schools where huge numbers of kids have yet to pass the tests.

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