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February 27, 2009

Video of Woodlawn robot as team looks back, ahead

Robotics season is upon us. Today, robots that high school students and advisers have been frantically assembling for the past few weeks have started to roll into action, at a tournament at the D.C. convention center.  My editor, Patricia Fanning, shares images from last season and  details on the season ahead:

This weekend's regional competition, sponsored by FIRST and supported by NASA, features 65 listed teams, including at least nine from high schools in the Baltimore area. One is Team 768, known as the TechnoWarriors, based at Woodlawn High School. Mentors Fred and Robyn Needel were at the center yesterday for tune-ups and practice and say this event would be perfect for newcomers to check out, given that FIRST’s founder, as well as Obama Administration figures, are likely to go. Last year, a photographer and reporter from The Sun tagged along as the team of Woodlawn students and home schoolers built and then went to battle with its robot, The Claw. The season started in the school basement and ended at the Georgia Dome, as shown in this video. 

Here’s how former Sun reporter Chris Emery describes the action at the championships: 

Teams compete in an alliance of three robots facing an alliance of three others. The six robots careened around a field scoring points for each completed lap and even more points for launching balls over a metal hurdle. The Claw worked well, but the competition was fierce. In their last match, the TechnoWarriors were pitted against some of the best teams in their division. One team on the opposing alliance, The Robotnauts hailed from Houston, Texas, and were sponsored by NASA’s Johnson Space Center. They were mentored by the engineer who led the development of the Mars rovers. But the TechnoWarriors kept their heads and played a defense strategy, blocking that robot while one in their own alliance scored points. The TechnoWarriors’ strategy worked. Although Team 768 didn’t progress to the finals, it won its last match against a tough opposing alliance. All that was left was to celebrate.

Chris says the highlight came at the Annapolis competition when Woodlawn won the chairman’s award, given to the team that shows the most grace and commitment in getting other students interested in science and engineering.

The Needels say this season’s game, called Lunacy, is very different. It requires a robot with low-friction wheels to haul a small trailer behind it. The object is to get lightweight balls into your opponents’ trailers while keeping those opponents from getting the balls into your trailer.  If you want to attend one of the events to see it for yourself, keep in mind that FIRST's founder, inventor Dean Kamen, is on hand in D.C. Robyn points out the Chesapeake Regional will be March 19-21 at the Naval Academy, which provides continuous shuttle service from its stadium. Either way, she invites everyone "to come and visit our team in the pit area - it's easy to find us by our number 768 and by our camouflage T-shirts with TechnoWarriors. Also the competition is streamed online or on cable. She says "anyone who gets NASA Select TV (we get it via Comcast Channel 25 in the county) can watch competitions from around the country...from the end of February through March, and then the Championships in Atlanta the weekend of April 16-18." One group even posts others' records to help everyone keep track.

Robot fans, here's a little bit of fun for you over on our Caption Call blog.

Posted by Arin Gencer at 11:41 AM | | Comments (6)
Categories: Baltimore County

AP scores vary from county to county

If you're a parent or a teacher, you might have some interest in looking at the school-by-school breakdown of just what percentage of the Class of 2008 had passed one or more Advanced Placement exam during their high school career. We spent the last three weeks getting school systems to cough up the data. Some school systems were happy to help; others took much longer.

What the story in today's paper shows is that there is a tremendous amount of inequity and not just between the city schools and the suburban schools but also between schools within counties.

It is clear that some counties have been pushing their students to try AP tests. It used to be that only the "smart" high performing kids were steered into AP. Now it is open to anyone who wants to work hard.

Why do we care anyway? We care because studies have shown that even taking one AP course in high school appears to make a difference in whether students will graduate. Apparently, it doesn't matter whether the student even does well in the course. The point is getting used to a level of work and rigor that helps prepare for college.

Posted by Liz Bowie at 6:20 AM | | Comments (11)
Categories: Around the Region

February 26, 2009

Maryland approves bullying policy

The Maryland State Board of Education formally adopted a bullying policy this week that is aimed at making sure that school districts, which have varying bullying policies, have a uniform guide they can use to define bullying and harrassment.

The new policy, which was written at the behest of the legislature, also requires school systems to send a report to the state board in July of every year. And, by the way, yes, the policy does cover the use of cell phones in bullying.

Posted by Liz Bowie at 5:23 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Around the Region

Brown Center report gives Baltimore schools poor marks

The Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution issued a major new report on education yesterday. It examines the performance of 37 big city school districts in the 2006-07 year and compares their test scores against the averages in their respective states on whatever standardized tests the states were using for NCLB. Generally, the results are positive, indicating a narrowing of the achievement gap between urban districts and their suburban counterparts. But Baltimore is one of eight districts where the report concludes that's not the case. In five districts -- Baltimore, Milwaukee, Detroit, Indianapolis and Philadelphia -- scores were more than two statistical standard deviations below the state average. Keep in mind that Baltimore's test scores improved more than the state average last year.

The report also compares the 06-07 results with data from 2000-01, which, in Maryland at least, seems problematic since the state switched the test it was using during that time period.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:08 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Around the Nation, Baltimore City, Study, study!

February 25, 2009

Obama on education

Naming education one of his top domestic priorities last night in his address to Congress, the president said his administration has already made a historic investment through the stimulus. He specifically cited the money for early childhood education. But, he suggested, there need to be policy changes along with the infusion of cash. He'll be supporting policies that reward educators for good performance and that are beneficial to charter schools. He was also strong about parental and personal responsibility, calling on all Americans to commit to at least a year of higher education or career training.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 11:26 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Around the Nation

Transcendental meditation and student behavior

We've talked a lot on this blog about student disciplinary problems, but not as much about how to prevent them... Last weekend in Timonium, the results of a national study were released suggesting that transcendental meditation can reduce the behavioral outbursts associated with ADHD. Researchers followed a group of middle school students with ADHD who were meditating twice a day in school. After three months, they found more than a 50-percent reduction in stress and anxiety and improvements in ADHD symptoms. The lead researcher, a cognitive learning specialist from George Washington University, said the effect was "much greater than we expected."

The study is published this month in the journal Current Issues in Education. And here's a video of kids talking about their experience meditating.

February 24, 2009

Losing the label of persistently dangerous

It appears that state education officials are backing away from making a big deal out of labeling schools persistently dangerous, an exercise they have engaged in every July since the No Child Left Behind regulations took effect.

For years, Maryland has been one of the few states that took the labeling seriously. So it ended up at one point having the majority of schools in the nation with a label that was both onerous and embarrasing for schools. After getting a lot of criticism, the state board decided to revisit the policy. But state school superintendent Nancy Grasmick doesn't think there is much point spending a lot of time rewriting a policy when it looks as though the feds are going to axe it anyway during the NCLB reauthorization (whenever it finally happens).

The board had a few minutes of discussion about it today and then moved on to other subjects. So the question still remains, will Grasmick decide to not put out a list this year?

"We think it would be a relief if it didn't have to be such a public event," Grasmick said.

Posted by Liz Bowie at 7:42 PM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Around the Region

The governor's strategic plan for education

Take a look at Liz's story on Governor O'Malley's ambitious plans for education, which he outlined at the state board meeting this morning. As Andy Green notes in the Maryland Politics blog, the governor's move is "pretty unusual," observing that "governors have rarely gotten involved much in educational policy in Maryland, generally leaving the matter up to long-time schools chief Nancy Grasmick. 
Posted by Sara Neufeld at 1:45 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Around the Region

How often are Baltimore school buildings closed?

In response to the questions last week about how often city schools have to close because of malfunctioning boilers and other building problems: From last summer through Friday, the system reports, 34 schools -- about 17 percent of those in the city -- had to be shut down at least once. The closings occurred on 23 days -- in other words, some days saw multiple school closures. That averages out to around once a week that a building has to close. But the closings tend to happen in spurts, either because of ongoing problems at a building (a la Poly/Western) or because multiple problems occur during a week with extreme temperatures.

Since this is a topic that so many of you in the schools feel so passionately about, I thought I'd also offer a little perspective on what the system's facilities department is up against in trying to keep the heat running across the city.

For decades until a few years ago, the school district did little preventative maintenance on its buildings. Those years of neglect are showing now in the form of all the boiler failures, inoperative windows, etc.

The school system must rely on the state for most of its capital dollars. The state never has nearly enough money to go around, but what money it has must be spread among Maryland's 24 school districts, even though Baltimore has the oldest buildings that require the most repairs. (We learned Friday of the federal stimulus money that will go to the school system's operating budget, but I haven't heard yet whether any of the governor's discretionary funds will go to school renovations.)

The state requires that a school be more than 60 percent utilized -- currently and projected for seven years into the future -- to be eligible for capital funds. This is a big problem particularly for the city's high schools, where enrollment was declining for a long time until this year.

In response to the comments left here last week alleging that citywide schools get preferential treatment, officials in the facilities department insist that is not true. There simply is not enough money to meet all the needs, and in the case of the under-enrolled schools, to a large extent their hands are tied. And when a building has temperature problems, they anger people no matter what they do: If they close, it's lost learning time; stay open, it's inappropriate learning conditions.

I don't envy their job.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:02 AM | | Comments (10)
Categories: Baltimore City

February 23, 2009

In Baltimore schools, an influx of Bridge projects

It's doubtless been a busy weekend for the city teachers involved in scoring the record number of Bridge projects submitted last week by Baltimore seniors still scrambling to meet the state's HSA requirements. There were 1,335 projects in all: 309 in English, 343 in biology, 399 in algebra and 284 in government.

I'll give an update with the pass rates when I get them.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:28 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Baltimore City, Testing

You'll barely notice I'm gone

I'm off this week, hanging out with my grandma in Connecticut while my mom is away. But, really, you won't miss me. I've pre-written a number of posts to go up while I'm gone, and I'll check in periodically from up north.

I'll break my perfect attendance streak at school board meetings tomorrow night, but Liz will be filling in for me. Tomorrow she'll also cover the state release of this year's list of "persistently dangerous" schools.

Use the comments here or drop me an e-mail to let me know if I miss anything interesting.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:09 AM | | Comments (1)

February 20, 2009

A victory for Baltimore, P.G. County schools in Annapolis

Gov. O'Malley announced this afternoon that he is withdrawing the changes in education funding formulas that would have hurt Baltimore and Prince George's County so badly. In 2012, they'll need to fight again over the distribution of payment for non-public placement for special education students. (The governor's proposal to shift the burden to the locals is deferred until then.) But otherwise -- and I'm still waiting for comment from Dr. Alonso -- it looks like the city schools are getting almost everything they asked for. With the influx of stimulus money, Baltimore will get $84 million more in FY10 than previously projected. Prince George's County will get $72 million more.

UPDATE: Here's our story with more specifics. And see below for the statement put out by the city school system tonight.

Good News for City Schools:
Governor Taps Stimulus to Fuel Education Progress

(Baltimore, MD) —Gov. Martin O’Malley announced today that he will tap Maryland’s federal stimulus package to build on the state’s commitment to excellence in education in fiscal year 2010. The decision is critical to the continued progress of City Schools, where enrollment is up for the first time in four decades and students are making historic academic gains. 

“I had great confidence that the governor would continue his strong support of the progress in City Schools and I am very appreciative of the Baltimore City delegation for making this their top priority this year,” said Brian D. Morris, chair of the Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners. “This allows us to continue to place the focus of the school system entirely on the needs of our students.”

Gov. O’Malley’s announcement underscores his commitment, and that of Maryland’s and Baltimore’s legislative leadership, to safeguarding the progress now underway in City Schools and other school systems across the state. The state will maintain existing education funding formulas, including the Thornton Law, which provides the state’s poorest jurisdictions with additional resources so that all of Maryland public school students have equal access to a good education. City Schools students have benefited significantly from this commitment to equitable education funding, and led the state in progress on the Maryland State Assessment test last year.

“I applaud the governor and our legislative leaders for making decisions so quickly, and in such tough times, that safeguard the future of our children,” added City Schools CEO Andrés A. Alonso. “I thank our community for advocating so strongly for our kids. Now we need to deliver that future as a community.”

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 3:58 PM | | Comments (12)
Categories: Around the Region, Baltimore City, School Finance

Update on new Towson elementary school

Towson Families United, Baltimore County's grassroots group formed to find a solution to the overcrowding problem in Towson-area schools, has spotted some "unofficial" signs of construction life at the site for the new elementary school.  The sight of construction equipment out by Ridge Ruxton School, where the new school is to be built, might help alleviate the concerns of parents who have questioned whether the school could possibly be built on schedule.

The blog has also spotted the school board's upcoming agenda item on the naming of the new facility.  School officials are proposing the school be named West Towson Elementary, citing the area from which it will draw students as the reason.  That wouldn't be a dramatic departure from what the school has already been called in previous conversations and school board meetings: Towson West Elementary.

Posted by Arin Gencer at 1:26 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Baltimore County

The Poly/Western boiler saga continues

I just talked to a tired Keith Scroggins, the school system's COO, who's been up most of the night dealing with various building problems. At 5 a.m., engineers discovered that the replacement part for the main Poly/Western boiler that was just installed -- enabling the complex to open yesterday after two days shut down -- is not working. And so, without much heat in the building, Scroggins had to close again today. A second vendor is evaluating the part to see if it's faulty; the assumption right now is that it is. Scroggins says he'll do everything he can to have the part in place for the schools to reopen Monday. "We can't afford to continue with this," he said.

Even though the state money to replace the boilers ($2 million) has not yet been secured, Scroggins said the system has to start planning for the project now. Unfortunately, though, it can't happen before the summer because there won't be any heat (or air conditioning) while the replacement is underway.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 10:19 AM | | Comments (10)
Categories: Baltimore City

Delegate: "Restore Respect at School"

Del. Gerron S. Levi, a Prince George's County Democrat, has introduced four bills that collectively she calls "The Campaign to Restore Respect at School." Under HB 630, parents and guardians whose children have been repeatedly suspended or chronically absent would lose access to some state tax benefits if they do not attend teacher conferences and make use of community services. HB 631 would mandate jail time for assaulting a teacher, principal, school bus driver or other school personnel. HB 632 would require that all teachers receive some classroom management training before teaching in a Maryland classroom, whether they're educated in the state or not. And HB 633 would require Maryland employers to provide four hours per year of leave -- paid or unpaid -- for parents and guardians to attend discipline-related teacher conferences.

Levi is a longtime proponent of parents and students taking responsibility for their actions. She says this legislation is in response to data showing that discipline issues are driving teachers and principals from the state's most challenging schools. A survey of departing Prince George's teachers found student discipline the No. 1 reason for leaving.

Guess who Levi wants to testify at a hearing for her legislation? Jolita Berry.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:07 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Around the Region

February 19, 2009

Blogroll update

I've added the blog of Towson Families United, which addresses the school overcrowding issues in the county that Arin has been covering. And I've added the national blog Detention Slip, which many of you probably read already anyway but if you don't: It's a place to go whenever you need a reminder that students -- and educators -- somewhere are behaving worse than those in your school. It doesn't exactly meet The Sun's sanitation standards, but it did make Time magazine's top 25 blogs of 2009. It's sad, but awfully funny.
Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:29 PM | | Comments (0)

More re-enrollment fairs for Baltimore school dropouts

The city school system is hosting another round of "Great Kids, Come Back" re-enrollment fairs for dropouts, starting today at Edmondson-Westside. There will be five fairs between now and Feb. 28 at locations around the city. Get the details here.
Posted by Sara Neufeld at 3:15 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Baltimore City

Introducing the Baltimore Education Coalition

It might already be familiar to many of you reading, but... it's a pretty big deal that more than 20 advocacy groups are joining forces on behalf of Baltimore schools. I don't know that the city has ever had this kind of organization before.

The first fight for the Baltimore Education Coalition is, of course, school funding. As you'll see in my story today, the stimulus will put a lot of money into city schools. But for now at least, Gov. O'Malley isn't backing down from his proposed changes to education funding formulas that would disproportionately hurt Baltimore and Prince George's County. Coalition members have vowed to bring out up to 3,000 people for a rally in Annapolis March 3.

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

February 18, 2009

Partial bus pass victory for Baltimore Algebra Project

MTA administrator Paul Wiedefeld has agreed to try extending student bus passes from 6:30 until 8 p.m. (without a stamped exemption) to allow for greater participation in extracurricular activities. The decision comes after intense lobbying by the Baltimore Algebra Project, whose members held a protest a few weeks ago. The Algebra Project wants students to get an all-day pass for unlimited bus trips at any time of day. But this is a start. The trial period will begin sometime in April or May (negotiations over a date are ongoing) and go until the end of the school year, at which point there will be an evaluation. The school district had requested the extension until 8 p.m.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 3:54 PM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Baltimore City

Boiler troubles, and potential relief, at Poly/Western

The Poly/Western complex is closed for the second consecutive day today for lack of heat. Two of the four boilers in the building are dead (and have been for some time). Of the two remaining, the smaller one is working but on its own doesn't provide much heat. Keith Scroggins, the school system's chief operating officer, explains that the larger boiler had "a failure of the air compressor that supplies and moves oil." A new part was needed to complete the repair. The good news is, the part is en route and once received, heat should be restored within a few hours. The schools should be fine to open tomorrow. 

The system has applied to the state for $2 million to replace all four boilers and, because it has made the request a top priority, it will likely be granted. But this is the reason that officials needed the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women to open in Western, so its enrollment numbers will be high enough to qualify for the state money. The state's funding decisions will come down in April.

On a related note: Everyone in the education world is scrambling this week to understand what the federal stimulus will mean for schools in practical terms. While there had been talk about how the stimulus did not include direct money for school construction and repairs, I learned yesterday that it does contain more than $20 billion in zero-interest school construction bonds. So Baltimore should benefit, but it's too soon to say how much.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 12:10 PM | | Comments (30)
Categories: Baltimore City

Dixon in the dark at Augusta Fells Savage

I'm not sure what prompted Mayor Dixon to want to do a public event on school safety at a school that had a stabbing last week. But her appearance at Augusta Fells Savage Institute of Visual Arts yesterday did not go particularly well. The lights in the auditorium weren't working, so she was speaking in the dark. And the students -- maybe defensive that they were being singled out for what happened after a week where violence hit multiple city schools? -- were not on their best behavior. Still, it sounds like there was some meaningful dialogue. Peter Hermann was there. See his column and his blog today.
Posted by Sara Neufeld at 7:08 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Baltimore City

February 17, 2009

Love your job? Hate it? TELL Gov. O'Malley

The governor today announced the creation of the TELL Maryland survey (that's short for Teaching, Empowering, Leading and Learning). Between now and mid-March, all teachers, principals and other certified personnel in the state's public schools will get a login and password for a Web-based survey. The point is to gather information about school conditions, teacher satisfaction and areas for improvement. Surveys will be confidential and take about 30 minutes to complete. (Yes, I know, teachers in the city already have to do another school climate survey.) The TELL project is costing the state about $100,000.

O'Malley made the survey announcement at Germantown Elementary in Annapolis, where kids holding giant "Maryland Public Schools #1" foam gloves patiently waited for him for more than an hour on the gymnasium floor. It was kind of funny listening to the governor and other distinguished guests (Nancy Grasmick, Clara Floyd of MSTA, Anne Arundel Superintendent Kevin Maxwell) addressing the students in teacher-like voices while trying to weave in facts about the survey for the media there.

"Can you learn if you don't listen to your teachers?" O'Malley asked.

"NO!" the kids yelled.

"We can't learn if we don't listen to your teachers," the governor replied.

I lost count of how many times Maryland's No. 1 ranking by Education Week was mentioned during the event. Suffice it to say, it was a lot.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 7:10 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Around the Region

Specifics on the MATHS suspensions

The city school system has provided me with more detailed information on the suspension rate at Maryland Academy of Technology and Health Sciences (MATHS), the charter high school whose contract is up for renewal. Its 83 percent suspension rate last year prompted the school board to table its vote on the contract renewal last week.

In 2006-07, the school's first year of existence, its enrollment was 108. It suspended 12 students 24 times.

In 2007-08, the school enrolled 208 students. Eighty-two of them were suspended 173 times. Of the 173 suspensions, one was short-term, 164 were long-term and eight led to expulsions. Ninety-eight suspensions were for "disrespect/insubordination" and three were for attendance problems -- in other words, the nonviolent offenses for which Dr. Alonso has urged schools to find alternative, in-school punishments since his arrival a year and a half ago.

This school year, MATHS' enrollment is up to 352. So far, 62 students have been suspended 99 times. The suspension rate is lower because the enrollment is higher, but the number of incidents is on pace to meet or exceed last year. Again, the vast majority of suspensions are long-term. The number of suspensions for nonviolent offenses is down significantly, but the number of violent incidents is up. The school reports 42 suspensions for attacks, threats or fights so far this year, compared with 45 for all of last year. And it's reported five sex offenses so far this year, compared with two last year.

See below for a breakdown of suspensions by type of offense for last year and the current year so far.

Arson/fire/explosives: none last year, two this year
Weapons: two last year, one this year
Dangerous substances: one last year, one this year
Attack/threats/fighting: 45 last year, 42 this year
Disrespect/insubordination: 98 last year, 28 this year
Attendance: 3 last year, none this year
Sex offenses: two last year, five this year
Other: 22 last year, 20 this year
Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:05 AM | | Comments (10)
Categories: Baltimore City, School Safety (Or Lack Thereof)

February 16, 2009


If you have some extra time on your day off to check out a few other sites... Three Baltimore teacher bloggers have written entries in the past few days about the indifference of parents and kids in the education process, and their unwillingness to accept any personal responsibility. One of the teachers on The Challenge to Care in Charm City writes about a mother who says she's "done with her son—that he can do whatever he wants and she washes her hands of it. She told me it was on me to figure out if he could be saved." The entry ties the experience to the third part of my Alonso series, where I said the CEO's greatest challenge is overcoming the community's acceptance that things will never change.

Hot 4 Teaching writes about a father who didn't think his daughter should be suspended for getting into a fight and blamed the school for her acting out. And The Smallest Twine talks about the lunch and after-school sessions she's offered to help her struggling geometry students, only for no one to show up.

While I'm linking to city educators' blogs, this one is unrelated, but I've been meaning to mention the entry that Baltimore Diary did a couple of weeks back about schools' preparation for a special education audit.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 1:04 PM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Baltimore City

February 13, 2009

Baltimore City College rival: It's Mervo, not Poly

Sorry I'm late on this one... Both City and Mervo stepped up security this week after the arrests of nine students -- four from City, five from Mervo -- in connection with a number of recent fights. Last week, on Feb. 5, City students attacked a boy from Mervo at a bus stop. There was another bus stop fight the next day. On Monday, several Mervo students went to City to try to retaliate, but ended up getting arrested instead.

I haven't figured out yet what's causing this rivalry between kids from the two schools. You all might know better than I do.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 5:43 PM | | Comments (16)
Categories: Baltimore City

National reading expert comes to Baltimore County

A group of Baltimore County educators spent today in reading presentations by literacy expert Dr. Richard Allington, whom I spoke with for a recent story about independent reading programs.

Superintendent Joe A. Hairston introduced Allington, a professor of literacy studies at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, as "the Bill Gates of reading."

He added that Allington is one of the few individuals in the country who truly understands the significance of that skill and has mastered the teaching of it -- "and is willing to share it with those of us who are in the trenches."

Allington does not mince words when it comes to his belief in the importance of properly teaching children how to read: allowing them to read what interests them, and giving them access to such material at their reading levels.

His morning session to BCPS administrators and principals did not spare anyone, as he condemned widely used, "one size fits all" reading programs that, he said, essentially do nothing for children. I thought I’d share some of his noteworthy observations here, as well as some references and links to material he cited during his presentation.

*"There is no such thing as a learning disability or dyslexia," Allington told the group, citing research and his own 45-year experience of never finding anyone he couldn’t teach to read.

"If your teachers don’t have Warhammer in your fourth-grade classroom, and you’ve got boys that you think are dyslexic, [they] just haven’t found anything socially inappropriate enough to read," he said.

*On high school textbooks: Many teachers think their job is not to teach children, but "to ram kids through a packaged program that’s too hard for most of the kids," he said.  Teachers choose books written at a level often incomprehensible to students. But no program is truly proven or up to the federal "gold" standard (see also the government's What Works Clearinghouse.)

*Science texts should be 2.5 years below grade reading level, not above, as the chosen ones tend to be.

"You can’t learn much from a book you can’t read," Allington said (also the title of an article he wrote on the subject).

*His principles for getting responses to instruction/intervention:

  • Match texts to readers
  • Dramatically expand reading activity
  • Use very small groups or tutoring
  • Coordinate interests with classroom curriculum
  • Expert teacher provides instruction (i.e., a certified reading specialist)
  • Focus on meaning

For more info on Allington or for materials on reading, you can check out his site.

Posted by Arin Gencer at 4:13 PM | | Comments (8)
Categories: Baltimore County, NCLB, SpecialEd, Teaching, Testing

The story behind my Alonso series

A colleague in The Sun's circulation department asked me to write the backstory to my series on Dr. Alonso that could be e-mailed to subscibers in our Reader Rewards and Newspapers In Education programs. I thought I'd share what I wrote with you here:

As the reporter covering the Baltimore city schools in mid-2007, I had been working my sources trying to figure out who the system’s next CEO would be – and barking up the wrong tree. I thought for sure the job was going to a guy from Philadelphia, until the name of Andrés Alonso leaked into my e-mail box on the morning of June 13.

Two hours later, he arrived at The Sun’s offices to introduce himself to the editorial board. I saw him again that afternoon at the press conference where the school board officially announced his appointment. He gave me his e-mail address and cell phone number, saying I should feel free to contact him at any time.

Was this guy serious? At that point, I’d been covering education for seven years, in two states and many school districts, and the protocol for contacting a superintendent always went something like this: Call the press office, submit questions, wait. In Baltimore, school officials often would wait until I was past deadline to get back to me, and then get angry that their views weren’t more fully represented in my articles.

Not only could I e-mail Alonso directly, he almost invariably responded within about five minutes. Soon, I realized, he wasn’t only responding to me. He was waking up before dawn every morning to reply to teachers, parents, community folks. The days of a shrouded bureaucracy were over.
Things started happening – fast. Alonso replaced central office administrators, overhauled system policy on suspensions, and took on the teachers union. All within his first two months. It was clear I had quite a story on my hands.

The managing editor suggested that I start shadowing Alonso in hopes of developing a big piece to run at the end of his first year in Baltimore, in July 2008. Alonso being Alonso, he had no problem giving me the access I requested.

I started checking in with his assistant every week to get his schedule, and I began tagging along with him to events I would not be covering for the daily newspaper: parent gatherings, school visits, the monthly principals meeting. He even let me go with him on an unannounced visit to a troubled school, provided I wouldn’t name the school or its staff. As it happened, a kid pulled the fire alarm while we were there.

Projects at The Baltimore Sun have a tendency to take longer than expected, and mine was no exception. As July approached, my editors and I decided that my story – or stories – might best be timed for back-to-school in late August. And then, over the summer, both my editor on daily coverage and my editor on the project left the newspaper during a round of voluntary buyouts.

I was assigned to work with the new projects editor, Bernie Kohn. Having already followed Alonso for a year at that point, I hoped I could just do a little rewriting of the four-part series I’d drafted with my prior editor. No such luck.

Alonso had been incredibly open with me about anything involving his professional life. He’d connected me with his former colleagues from Newark, where he taught special education for a decade, and from New York City, where he was deputy chancellor before coming to Baltimore. I’d talked to his classmates and professors from Harvard. Until then, though, his family was off limits.

The absence of their voices was a glaring hole. I was (reluctantly) willing to concede Alonso that point. My new editor wasn’t. In particular, he said, I absolutely had to interview Alonso’s adopted son, Joel, one of his former special education students. Given Alonso’s adamant opposition as a protective father, I thought the story might never be published.

But in time – maybe because I was earning Alonso’s trust, maybe because he felt bad for me that my project was taking so long – he relented. He agreed to ask Joel to talk to me, and the three of us met for breakfast on a Sunday in November. I also interviewed Alonso’s sister, who inspired him to become a teacher after he decided to abandon his law career in the 1980s.

At the request of Bernie and Marcia Myers, the deputy managing editor who became involved in the project after the managing editor’s departure in the fall, I interviewed many more stakeholders in Baltimore schools than I had previously, when I thought my series would revolve around the recreation of scenes I observed. I talked to more kids, parents, teachers, principals, central office staff. This resulted in some of my favorite quotes, perhaps most notably the one from the administrator who said that if Jesus had brought Alonso the Lord’s Prayer, he would’ve had edits.

The reporting, writing and editing dragged on for seven months past the initial target date for publication. A spokeswoman for the school system began referring to the project as my “dissertation.” It morphed from four stories to one story, back to four and eventually down to three.

Despite my frustration, it was stronger as a result of the delay. While it’s still much too soon to judge the success of Alonso’s tenure, I was able to get early indicators with the release of test scores (which were up for his first year) and enrollment figures (up for the first time since 1969). Sadly, I was able to watch his response to a tragedy: the murder of a boy outside a Baltimore middle school on the Friday before Thanksgiving.

Through it all, the one thing that never changed in the series was the opening anecdote of the first part, detailing Alonso’s tirade over neighborhood opposition to the creation of a new school in a building previously slated to close. The racially charged controversy illustrated what the CEO says is the key to his character: combativeness in pursuit of righteousness. By the time the series finally ran this week, the new school was open – and inspiring hope.

Alonso agreed to let us videotape him narrating a slide show of personal photos to post on our Web site. He also went along when we asked him to try something new The Sun: a live online chat within a blog. Alonso talked with readers on InsideEd for an hour Monday afternoon, showing every side of the personality we wrote about. There was so much interest that readers submitted 43 questions before the chat even started. As one fan wrote to us via Twitter, “Video, text, chat - So this is that whole synergy thing I’ve heard so much about.”

Coincidentally, the attention comes at an opportune time for Alonso, who is fighting to protect the school district from state budget cuts. It’s good timing for us at the newspaper as well, as we struggle to maintain our relevance in the ever-changing media landscape. In the past few days, I’ve been gratified to receive e-mails from dozens of readers who say the stories resonated with them – because the subject himself is such a compelling figure, because we were able to show his impact on thousands of people, and because his work is at the heart of what needs to happen for a renaissance in Baltimore.

Stories like this are the reason we’re here.
Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:08 AM | | Comments (6)
Categories: Baltimore City

February 12, 2009

The Homeland Security exodus

I got updated figures today on the departures from Homeland Security Academy.

Total number of underclassmen who left for other schools: 278
Total number of freshmen remaining: 68
Total number of sophomores remaining: 31
Total number of juniors remaining: 12
Total number of seniors remaining: 117
Total number of staff recommended for transfer: 14
Total number of staff slated to stay: 34 

Keep reading to see where the students went.

School name, followed by the number of Homeland students it received. 

Institute of Business and Entrepreneurship High: 33
Southside Academy High: 8
Maryland Academy of Technology and Health Sciences: 2
Edmondson-Westside: 24
Mergenthaler: 21
Paul Laurence Dunbar: 19
Digital Harbor: 23
W.E.B. DuBois: 4
National Academy Foundation: 15
New Era Academy High: 5
Academy for College and Career Exploration: 11
Baltimore Talent Development: 17
Augusta Fells Savage Institute of Visual Arts: 6
Coppin Academy: 15
Renaissance Academy: 12
Frederick Douglass: 20
Carver: 21
Masonville Cove Community Academy: 1
Friendship Academy of Science & Technology: 2
Friendship Academy of Engineering & Technology: 1
The Reach! School: 2
*Excel Academy @ Francis M. Wood High: 9
*Baltimore Civitas School: 4
*Patterson: 1
*Vivien T. Thomas Medical Arts Academy: 1
*Laurence G. Paquin Middle/High: 1

*Schools not initially slated to receive Homeland Security students.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 3:57 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Baltimore City

Baltimore schools have 2nd stabbing in 2 days

A boy from Baltimore Talent Development High was stabbed in the left shoulder outside the school this morning. He was alert and talking as he was taken to the hospital. Two boys from Augusta Fells Savage, located in the same Harlem Park complex as Talent Development, are in custody.

This comes after yesterday's stabbing at Carver. The student there who was stabbed in the side after classes let out yesterday was in good condition at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 11:27 AM | | Comments (6)
Categories: Baltimore City, School Safety (Or Lack Thereof)

February 11, 2009

Missing school construction money in Senate stimulus bill

The investigative reporting Web site ProPublica has created a database showing how much school construction money school districts around the nation would gain under the House version of the economic stimulus bill -- and lose under the Senate version. In Baltimore, the figure is $72 million. In Baltimore County, it's $21 million.

As I mentioned here yesterday, the House version of the bill contains $14 billion for school construction. The Senate version does not.

In the city, Dr. Alonso points out that state capital dollars went down from $52 million two years ago to $41 million last year. As of now, Baltimore schools are only expecting to get up to $25 million for school construction and renovation this year. The system has hundreds of millions of dollars in basic maintenance needs. "Given our needs these dollars are still about the basics (while for other folks it’s about value added)," the CEO wrote in an e-mail to me today.

UPDATE: Moments after I posted this entry, I got word that the two chambers have reached a compromise on the stimulus. It would contain $6 billion for school construction. I will update as soon as I know what the impact would be in Baltimore.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 4:24 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Around the Nation

MATHS suspension rate: not a typo

As you'll see in my story today, the city school board tabled a vote last night on whether to extend a contract for Baltimore's first charter high school: the Maryland Academy of Technology and Health Sciences, or MATHS. Board chair Brian Morris wondered if it was a typo on the PowerPoint that MATHS had an 83 percent suspension rate last year. But, no, it wasn't. More than 80 students at the small school were suspended at least once, and many more than once, last school year. Dr. Alonso said he was relieved for the board to table the vote so the issue could be explored further. He initially planned to recommend non-renewal of MATHS' contract but ultimately was swayed to recommend a two-year contract extension. Laura Weeldreyer, his deputy chief of staff, said the school's leaders acknowledge they were over-using suspensions and are working with outside groups to improve behavior policies this year, when the suspension figures have been much lower.
Posted by Sara Neufeld at 8:16 AM | | Comments (12)
Categories: Baltimore City

Tisha Edwards appointed Alonso's interim chief of staff

The city school board last night appointed Tisha Edwards, who has been special assistant to Dr. Alonso, as his interim chief of staff, effective through the end of the school year. Edwards previously served as the founding principal of Baltimore Freedom Academy, the charter high school with a social justice theme that recently made the U.S. News & World report list of the nation's best. She replaces Gen. Bennie E. Williams, who resigned in December.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 8:04 AM | | Comments (11)
Categories: Baltimore City

February 10, 2009

Less for education in Senate economic stimulus plan

I've been bombarded by e-mails this afternoon by advocacy groups outraged that many of the cuts in the Senate's version of an economic stimulus bill involve education and other spending for children. And, according to my colleagues, the Senate package would direct $953 million less to Maryland (for all things, not just education) than the House's version. It does not include $450 million in discretionary money for the state. Education advocates have been hoping that Gov. O'Malley would use that discretionary pot to prevent the changes in funding formulas that would hurt Baltimore and Prince George's County schools so badly. The remaining stimulus money for schools is earmarked for things such as Title 1 and special education, so it wouldn't close a budget shortfall when a school district needs money to pay teachers.

The National Head Start Association points out that the Senate included just over $1 billion for Head Start; the House version has $2.1 billion.

The House version contains $14 billion for school modernization; the Senate version does not.

A joint committee will now hammer out the differences between the two.


Posted by Sara Neufeld at 5:13 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Around the Nation

One-stop shopping at North Avenue

Want a free hand massage? Blood pressure screening? Baltimore's vocational students are marking Career and Technology Month by offering up their skills in the North Avenue lobby on several dates in February. Those lucky enough to pass through between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. today were offered cookies baked by culinary students at Carver. Tomorrow, Edmondson-Westside students will do blood-pressure screenings. On Thursday, Carver's cosmetology students are providing hand massages.

A more complete list of events is below.

Wednesday: Students from Edmondson's business, health, media, trade/industry and auto programs will carry out various demonstrations, including the blood-pressure screenings.

Thursday: Carver's cosmetology students provide hand massages.

Feb. 17: Presentations from Mervo's construction and cosmetology programs.

Feb. 19: Heritage business students present a photo display, while entrepreneurs from Frederick Douglass show off their sales skills. "Hold onto your wallet!" a school system letter promoting the events advises.

Feb. 24: More blood pressure screenings by Edmondson students.

Feb. 26: Numerous activities with students from the Institute of Business and Entrepreneurship and Patterson.

All events are from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 3:45 PM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Baltimore City

February 9, 2009

Alonso chat debriefing

Thanks to everybody who participated in today's chat with Dr. Alonso. He felt badly that he didn't get to more of the questions that were submitted in advance of the event, so he has graciously agreed to respond to more of them in the next few days. I will post his answers as soon as I get them. We can't take any new questions for him at this time.

And to clarify for anyone reading the transcript and confused about who this Anica Butler is: Anica is my colleague who works in multimedia at The Sun and was moderating the chat. Midway through the session, Dr. Alonso (along with everyone else in his office) lost Internet access. Fortunately, Anica was there with her laptop, which remained connected. We couldn't log out of the chat program to sign back in as Dr. Alonso or the session would have ended. So he continued typing from her computer, appearing as her. 

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 7:32 PM | | Comments (6)
Categories: Baltimore City

Chat with Andrés Alonso, Baltimore city schools CEO

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 12:00 PM | | Comments (13)
Categories: Baltimore City

Preparing for today's guest speaker

Have you done your homework? Assignment #1: Read my story from yesterday. Assignment #2: Read my story today. Extra credit: Watch the related videos on our Web site.

Then, check back with us at 3:30 this afternoon for our live chat with Dr. Alonso.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:06 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Baltimore City

February 6, 2009

Stay after school Monday with Dr. Alonso

From Sunday through Tuesday, the newspaper will be publishing a series I wrote about Dr. Alonso: his background and his work in Baltimore. At 3:30 p.m. Monday, InsideEd will host the first live chat ever on a Sun blog. The CEO will be with us for an hour to answer your questions. While we have the utmost confidence in this yet-untested technology, we'd love to have some discussion topics submitted in advance. So post your comments for Dr. Alonso here, and tune back in on Monday afternoon...
Posted by Sara Neufeld at 7:06 AM | | Comments (46)
Categories: Baltimore City

Does passing test = passing course?

In Baltimore and around the state, educators are focused on getting the approximately 3,500 seniors yet to pass the High School Assessments to the finish line by graduation. Generally, these students made it to senior year having passed the courses related to the tests: Algebra 1, English II, biology and American government. But in Baltimore, a few hundred students fall into the opposite category. They've passed their HSAs but not yet the related courses. In some cases, they're still stuck in 10th or 11th grade as a result. Administrators are studying why this is, since to pass the tests, students have to demonstrate at least a basic level of proficiency. Were they truant from class? Did they have disciplinary problems? Fail to turn in homework?

Whatever the case may be, officials alerted schools in the fall that they were looking into the prospect of exempting students who have passed the HSAs from having to do the remedial coursework. A teacher who e-mailed me this week put it slightly differently: She said guidance counselors were instructed to grant exemptions in the fall -- and they changed transcripts accordingly. Now they're being told they didn't have the necessary school board or state approval and the students must make up the work.

Tisha Edwards, special assistant to the CEO, says the school board will take up this matter in the coming months. She says no one should have changed students' transcripts, and students will have this second semester to complete their remediation.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:09 AM | | Comments (7)
Categories: Baltimore City, Testing

February 5, 2009

AP teachers should get the kudos

I received this response from a former teacher to my story on Maryland seniors scoring well on AP exams.

Does Nancy Grasmick or anyone else in the upper brackets of academia ever give credit to teachers for what's happening in Maryland public schools?  Teachers were only mentioned once in your article and that was to say that they "develop their own lesson plans in more than 30 courses...".   In my recent brief career as a high school math teacher (13 years) I didn't teach any AP courses, but I shared a classroom with AP math teachers and observed their classes.  Those AP teachers were outstanding teachers and worked their butts off to develop lesson plans that prepared their students for those AP tests.  Yes, that's what they get paid to do, but just once I'd like to read a quote from Ms. Grasmick or the governor that gives credit to these teachers. 

Posted by Liz Bowie at 3:36 PM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Around the Region

Bottle bomb leaves Baltimore principals in the cold

City school system sources confirm that the Professional Development Center at 2500 E. Northern Pkwy. has just been evacuated following the explosion of a bottle bomb at the new Friendship Academy middle/high school located there. No one injured, but a lot of administrators are inconvenienced: A citywide principals meeting is taking place at the building today. So as I write this from the comfort of my heated office, all the principals in the city are standing outside in the 22-degree weather.

UPDATE, 1:15 p.m.: My colleague Gus Sentementes spoke with a fire department spokesman, who confirms that a plastic soda bottle exploded on the second-floor hallway of the school shortly after noon. (No, this was not a science experiment.) Everyone was just allowed back into the building. School police, the fire department and the city police department's arson unit are investigating.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 12:51 PM | | Comments (11)
Categories: Baltimore City

A suggestion for Michael Phelps to repair his image

The Baltimore Brew suggests that Phelps donate money to repair the pool at Baltimore City College. It would be a win-win: City, short on cash, capitalizes on the swimmer's deep pockets. Phelps, in need of some positive press after the infamous bong photo surfaced, capitalizes on the school's good name.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:10 AM | | Comments (14)
Categories: Baltimore City

February 4, 2009

Character education in schools

My story today about a new character education initiative at Baltimore County's Kenwood High School is really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this field.

I came across a lot of interesting information about a variety of models used throughout the state, and thought I'd share some of those additional details here.

Several people I spoke with emphasized the importance of data in using these programs. Tom Zirpoli, a McDaniel College education professor, mentioned how tricky it can be to link behavioral changes directly back to school or classroom discussions about honesty or other principles. Nancy Hanlin, one of the Kenwood teachers who also happens to be the attendance and tardiness monitor, mentioned trying to figure out a way to do just that.   

The appeal of Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, according to one of the educators I spoke with, is that it has a good measurement tool.

In Anne Arundel County, school officials have seen reductions in suspensions, referrals and extended suspensions at all levels in PBIS schools, said Virginia L. Dolan, the PBIS facilitator there. 

"You really want to make sure that you have hardcore evidence that it really works and that you're doing some things with fidelity," Dolan told me, when we discussed the PBIS framework, which seeks to create safe, supportive schools using data as a guide.  Nearly 70 schools are using PBIS there. But Dolan - along with school officials in other counties - also say the same framework or model may look different from building to building, as schools make them work for their particular communities.

Finally, for those interested in reading more: Paula McCoach, a character education specialist at MSDE, pointed me to a character education book the state put out last fall on this subject.

Posted by Arin Gencer at 11:59 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Around the Region, Baltimore County

Maryland No. 1 again, in Advanced Placement pass rates

The College Board released its annual Advanced Placement report this morning. Out of all 50 states and the District of Columbia, Maryland had the highest percentage of students with a passing score on at least one A.P. exam: 23.4 percent of the class of 2008, compared with about 15 percent nationally. Maryland is also one of six states highlighted in the report with the highest five-year gains.

The state today is calling attention to six high schools for their A.P. achievement: Polytechnic Institute in the city; Franklin, Perry Hall and Pikesville in Baltimore County; Broadneck in Anne Arundel County; and River Hill in Howard County -- plus two that were specifically singled out by the College Board, Eleanor Roosevelt in Prince George's County and Paint Branch in Montgomery County.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 11:35 AM | | Comments (15)
Categories: Around the Nation, Around the Region, Testing

At Baltimore City College, out of the pool

I got a call yesterday from the three very frustrated captains of the Baltimore City College swim team, all seniors at the school. Since swim season started in November, the co-ed team has yet to be able to practice in the City pool because of one problem after another: with the drain, with mold, and so on. Several times, they thought the pool would open. Every time, something else came up. There are enormous challenges associated with maintaining a pool up to the health department's strict standards in buildings as old as Baltimore's high schools; this isn't the first time I've written about students stopped from swimming.

City has tried to make accommodations for its students this season. Those haven't worked out, either.

The team started out practicing at the Harry & Jeanette Weinberg YMCA. But the practice hours after school were during the Y's peak time, and the students had to move on. On to Mervo, where the pool was shut down more than a week ago for problems of its own. School athletic officials then arranged, and paid for, the swim teams from City and Poly (where the pool has also been out of commission the past few days) to practice at a public city pool, Callowhill Aquatics Center. The students took buses there only to find out that, oops, swim classes were going on and they couldn't get in.

Which brings us to today, when the City and Poly swim teams are scheduled to compete against each other in advance of Saturday's Baltimore swim championships. Only neither team has been able to practice in more than a week. About half the students on the City team have already quit. After consulting with those remaining, the captains were so frustrated that they were prepared yesterday to forfeit their season, undefeated thus far (albeit with some meets canceled). But, it turns out, only school athletic officials can make the decision to forfeit, and at least a few students on the team still want to swim. And so today's meet will go on.

It's worth noting that the pool isn't the only problem in the building at City, the so-called Castle on the Hill. The school was closed last week due to lack of heat. When I talked to Principal Tim Dawson last night, he said the pool situation underscores the dire need for school construction dollars to upgrade old facilities. "The kids have a right to be upset about this," he said.

UPDATE: Poly's pool, which was expected to be ready by today, is still inoperable, so the meet between the rival schools has been canceled.

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

February 3, 2009

In Reginald Lewis teacher beating case, girl not guilty of 2 of 3 charges

I just heard from my colleague Justin Fenton at the juvenile courthouse. The girl charged in the Jolita Berry beating was cleared on the two most serious charges against her: criminal assault and school violence.

She was found guilty on the third, lesser charge of disrupting school activites.

Circuit Court Judge Paul A. Smith said that he found both sides credible -- and that both sides acted deplorably. He could not determine who was at fault for starting the brawl.

UPDATE, 5:30 p.m. Here's a statement from Marietta English, head of the Baltimore Teachers Union: "This is terrible. It’s unfortunate that the judge saw it this way. It sends the wrong message to our students, now they will feel they can get away with just about anything in the classroom.”

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 4:39 PM | | Comments (24)
Categories: Baltimore City, School Safety (Or Lack Thereof)

Seventh District: Celebrating its Blue Ribbon status

State Superintendent Nancy Grasmick and Baltimore County Superintendent Joe Hairston were at Seventh District Elementary this morning for a special assembly marking the elementary's being named a Maryland Blue Ribbon School.

Seventh District was one of six schools to receive that honor in December. The other schools are Western High School in Baltimore, Southern High in Anne Arundel County, Hammond Middle in Howard County, Highland Elementary in Montgomery County and Stephen Decatur Middle in Worcester County. (The state can recognize up to six schools, and selects them based on high performance and/or significant improvement in reading and math.)

Seventh District, along with the others, will represent Maryland in the national Blue Ribbon Schools competition, for which winners are expected to be announced this fall.

Posted by Arin Gencer at 2:39 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Baltimore County

Dumbarton Middle School parent meeting

Dumbarton Middle School parents met last night to discuss plans to move Rodgers Forge fourth-graders over to Dumbarton this fall. 

The change in venue (this meeting was at DMS) wasn't the only thing that differed from last Monday's meeting at Rodgers Forge.  Only a dozen parents were in attendance for the session that lasted about 45 minutes - compared with more than two hours last week - and things were decidedly more low-key. 

Principal Nancy Fink and Lyle Patzkowsky fielded parent questions - of which there were also decidedly fewer than those coming from the 70 or so parents at Rodgers Forge last week.  But here are a few additional tidbits regarding plans for next year, which Fink described as having "pretty minimal" impact on her school:

*Dumbarton will have four portable buildings (which Fink prefers to call "learning cottages") next year to make up for the five second-floor classrooms that fourth-graders will use. 

The school had such buildings during its renovation a couple years ago, Fink said, and the electric meter is still there and ready for use. Two health teachers, a couple math teachers and a social studies teacher will be making the move to the portables.

*Dumbarton's capacity is 1200, and its current population is well below that, at about 950, Fink said. So there aren't really any concerns about overcrowding there, even with the incoming fourth-graders.

"We have lots of room," Fink said. And plenty of lockers, too.

*Fink emphasized that she and other school officials have worked hard to ensure there's "little interaction - if any - between fourth-graders and middle-school students," responding to (elementary) parent concerns on that score.  Rodgers Forge kids begin their day an hour after Dumbarton does, and will be moving about when the middle-school students are either in class or at lunch, Fink said.

Finally: Tomorrow evening, Rodgers Forge parents can take a tour of Dumbarton and see the space where their children will be this fall.  Middle school students will be their guides.

Posted by Arin Gencer at 1:10 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Baltimore County

Teachers' urban school reform blog returns

The Challenge to Care in Charm City, a blog by BCPSS teachers enrolled in an urban school reform graduate course, is back up and running as a new class starts this semester. The first entry, posted yesterday, talks about the proposed budget cuts to Baltimore and Prince George's County and makes the case that, even when fully funded, Thornton "simply maintains a system of 'equitable' de facto segregation."

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

February 2, 2009

Witnesses say Jolita Berry provoked fight

The much-publicized teacher beating case out of Reginald F. Lewis High School last spring is in court this week. And today, a stunning development: Former principal Jean Ragin, school employees and students all testified that the teacher, Jolita Berry, provoked the fight with a student in her art class -- and might have even made the first move. Ragin testified that Berry "pushed" the girl, and "the fight was on."

The later parts of the fight, where the girl is pounding Berry, were captured on a student's cell phone video and made national news as the images were replayed. The girl is charged with battery, and the case is in juvenile court. According to my colleague Justin Fenton, who was in the courtroom today, the defense made a presentation questioning Berry's teaching skills, noting that she was on a performance improvement plan at the time of the incident and a hall monitor was assigned specifically to stand outside her classroom. A special education aide testified that Berry often sparred verbally with her students.

More to come from Justin in Tuesday's newspaper...

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:38 PM | | Comments (22)
Categories: Baltimore City

Homeland Security half empty

As of today, the city school system reports, 249 students have left Homeland Security Academy, and 264 remain: 126 seniors and 138 underclassmen, mostly freshmen. For those 138, the deadline to transfer to another school has been extended to this Friday. No staff will be moved out until that point.

Perhaps not surprisingly, two schools with admissions requirements and vocational programs -- Carver and Edmondson -- were the most popular transfer options. Since no school is taking more than 20 kids, some of the students had to go for their second choice.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 3:46 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Baltimore City

Education's $140 million loss

I am posting above a presentation that the state Department of Legislative Services made last week to the Maryland Associations of Boards of Education, outlining how much school districts would get under the revised funding formulas the governor has proposed.

Bottom line: While the direct cut from this year to next is in fact $67 million (see page 9), the overall loss from what districts had expected to see under Thornton is $140 million. And once again, Baltimore and Prince George's bear the brunt of the loss.

Keep in mind that school districts' basic costs increase by at least 3 percent a year, largely because of step increases in employee salaries.

On page 8, you can see how much the state saves by changing calculations such as the cost of private placement for special education students: $102.5 million. Then there's the reduction in GCEI, the geographic cost index for districts where the cost of living is higher. That's another $38 million.

It's true that some of these cuts would be offset by the federal economic stimulus package, but that's a one-time gift. If the funding formulas change, it's for good -- until there's further legislative action.

The advocacy group BUILD has planned another rally for 6 p.m. tonight at the city delegation room in Annapolis to protest the changes.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:09 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Around the Region

February 1, 2009

Michael Steele's broken promise to Douglass High

I wonder what recent graduates of Frederick Douglass High School think of Michael Steele's rise to the national Republican Party leader.

Three years ago -- on Feb. 1, 2006, in the midst of the bitter Ehrlich/O'Malley gubernatorial campaign that used city schools as a political football -- I was part of the press corps when Steele paid a three-hour visit to Douglass. At a meeting in the school library, he humiliated then-schools CEO Bonnie Copeland and then-Principal Isabelle Grant by talking about what a horrible school it was in front of the media. And he looked students in the eye and promised them he'd make it better. "When one asked if he would put that in writing, he said, 'I'm asking you to check me on it. My word is my bond,'" my Feb. 2, 2006, article reported.

Douglass has improved since then, as it has parterned with Talent Development at Johns Hopkins University. But it's not thanks to Steele, who said before leaving office as Maryland's lieutenant governor that the school system didn't want his help.

When Steele visited Douglass, he made a point of noting that the carpet in that library was taped together. That was something simple he could fix. I thought of that day when I was back in the Douglass library recently for a press conference announcing a Maryland Business Roundtable initiative to get students into more rigorous courses. As it happened, my seat was right next to the piece of tape in the carpet.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 3:49 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Baltimore City
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