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April 30, 2009

West Towson Elementary update

As many in Towson already know, a hearing took place Tuesday in Baltimore County Circuit Court about a group of residents' request to stop the Board of Education from continuing with its plans to build West Towson Elementary.

I wanted to share a letter to the editor from local resident Kris Culp about the overcrowding and the suit against the board, posted here with her permission.

Dear Editors,

I was pleased to read that some neighbors to the proposed second school on the Ridge Ruxton School site in Towson have chosen to challenge the School Board’s decision to move forward with a project of questionable merit (Neighbors sue school board over plan for new Towson elementary in 4/24/09 Sun).

Your article quotes a real estate attorney in Towson as saying “In most instances, the state’s concern is that the local government capacity calculations satisfy the state’s requirements.  That becomes the threshold issue, not necessarily matters of process.”  This suggests that just because there is overcrowding, the process is unimportant.  This is appalling!  A respect for process by government agencies is one way the public is assured their tax dollars are being spent responsibly.

Let’s look at some numbers.  The proposed school, called the Towson West Elementary School, is to be located on the southern portion of the Ridge Ruxton School site.  This site is located inside the boundary of the nearby Riderwood Elementary School.  Riderwood has a state-rated capacity of 463 students and its enrollment as of September of 2008 was 517 students (according to data at ).  Riderwood has 54 extra students this year. Yet a new school designed for 451 students is being built within its boundary.

The next closest school district to the site is Rodgers Forge Elementary.  As has been widely publicized, Rodgers Forge Elementary School is overcrowded.  It has a state-rated capacity of 396 students, yet its enrollment as of September of 2008 was 707.  So, take the 311 extra students from Rodgers Forge Elementary and zone them for the new school.

A careful reader will see a problem here.  There aren’t enough extra students from Rodgers Forge Elementary and Riderwood Elementary to fill up the new school (311 plus 54 equals 365).  The new school is supposed to have a capacity of 451 students.

Why is a new school being built at a location where there are not enough extra students to fill it using the nearby districts?  Because process was ignored.

A vocal group of angry parents insisted that a new school was the only solution to the overcrowding problem.  The Baltimore County Public Schools’ Board bent to the public pressure and ignored their mandated procedures.  Additions to existing schools, redistricting, or more appropriate sites for a new school geographically (like the Bykota site or the Towson YMCA site) were not adequately considered.  Planning and process are missing in action as our tax dollars get spent on a very expensive project.

Furthermore, there is not a comprehensive study of how long the overcrowding situation will persist.  The housing bubble had a lot to do with many houses in Rodgers Forge turning over from empty nesters happy to sell their houses for a handsome sum to parents of young children eager to buy a house in a good school district.  To young families, Rodgers Forge has more affordable housing stock than other districts. This, coupled with the all-day kindergarten mandate, would explain why Rodgers Forge, in particular, got so crowded, but it doesn’t explain how the numbers work going forward.  Broad demographics suggest that the school-age population has been declining.  Ask the county for a study showing where the school population numbers are going in the greater-Towson area and you won’t find a study.  Yet a whole new school is being built for a need that may not be long-term at a location that doesn’t match even the current need is.

I care about how my tax dollars are spent.  If Baltimore’s only large newspaper isn’t capable of being a consistent government watchdog, I will not shed a tear for its continuing decline.   Please start reporting on this issue with the same interest in neighbors’ concerns as you have shown to the neighbors of the Towson University Arena (which even in its original plan was further away from a house than the proposed Towson West Elementary will be) and to the neighbors of the Keswick multi-care center proposal for the Baltimore Country Club.

Most sincerely,

Kris Culp
Posted by Arin Gencer at 2:45 PM | | Comments (6)
Categories: Baltimore County

April 29, 2009

Cases of swine flu in Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties

A letter from Milford Mill Academy Principal Nathaniel Gibson has been posted on the southwest Baltimore County school’s Web site, with some details about the one student who appears to have swine flu.

The Anne Arundel student attends Folger McKinsey Elementary School in Severna Park.

Check out the story so far.

Scrapping high school "gatekeeper" courses

In addition to everything else I've already written about from last night's school board meeting, the board heard a proposal for changes in the city's graduation requirements. The changes -- which will be presented again before a board vote --  would officially make the HSAs a graduation requirement in Baltimore. But that's just a formality. More significantly, they would eliminate the so-called "gatekeeper" courses: To go from ninth grade to 10th, students currently must take and pass English 1 and Algebra 1; going from 10th to 11th requires English 2 and geometry or American government.

The administration's presentation to the board says the gatekeeper courses:
-- "do not benefit students who have earned sufficient credits to be promoted to the next grade"
-- "unnecessarily prevent students from taking upper-level classes on-time" and
-- "unnecessarily discourage at-risk students by freezing their school status based on an outdated policy."

The board also voted last night to increase tuition for non-city residents next school year by 10 percent, from $3,500 to $3,850, over the protests of member Anirban Basu. It delayed voting on a proposed 30-percent increase for the 2010-2011 school year, which would bring tuition to $5,000.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 5:10 PM | | Comments (11)
Categories: Baltimore City

April 28, 2009

Baltimore school board signs off on closures

The board has signed off on all the proposed school closures that it was asked to vote on tonight. The vote on Harriet Tubman was 5-4, likely because of the recent investment in the school by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. The vote on Samuel Banks and Thurgood Marshall was 6-3. Most of the other votes had one or two board members dissenting.

Kweisi Mfume was among dozens who showed up to oppose the merger of Paquin with Rising Star Academy. He said it would be "untenable" and a potential disaster to put 200 boys in a school with pregnant girls and infants. Paquin director Rosetta Stith urged the board to look at a new proposal to expand Paquin into an all-girls program.

So where does the Paquin proposal stand? I don't know. It wasn't on the agenda because Paquin is technically a program rather than a school, so Dr. Alonso can close or merge it without board approval.

UPDATE: The presentation of the charter school report I wrote about today as been postponed until the next meeting.

UPDATE: Dr. Alonso says the Paquin/Rising Star merger will happen unless someone gives him a proposal for another arrangement that makes better sense. He said he is open to other possibilities.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 9:55 PM | | Comments (30)
Categories: Baltimore City

Neil Duke elected city school board chair

The Baltimore school board has elected Neil Duke as its new chair. He'll assume the position this summer when Brian Morris steps down (and also fill in for Morris at the May 12 board meeting). George VanHook will be the new vice chair.
Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:29 PM | | Comments (6)
Categories: Baltimore City

NAEP scores show mixed results

There's really only one standardized test that has charted long-term trends in reading and math and the latest results are out today. Depending on who you are, you can find hope or despair in the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Released by the U.S. Department of Education, the assessment showed that 9-year-olds and 13-year-olds have made some significant strides in both reading and math since the early 1970s. Unfortunately, the same does not hold true for our 17-year-olds, whose scores remained relatively flat over the 35-year period. What's perhaps the most discouraging is that the best performance of this high-school age group was in the mid- to late 1990s.

Most encouraging, several education groups pointed out today that the achievement gap between whites and Hispanic and black students has been narrowing.

When you look at the trends in the past four years, the last time the test was administered, education groups say there's little to find encouraging except that 9-year-olds improved in math.

For those of you who might be confused, there are two NAEP tests given. The results released today include a version of the test that has remained relatively constant since the 1970s. Another NAEP, which does change over time, produces state data. That test is given this spring.

Fair Test, an organization that is opposed to high stakes testing and No Child Left Behind, said today the NAEP results are an indication of the failure of NCLB. "NCLB is demonstrably unable to produce sustained and significant improvements even on a standardized test in the two subjects on which it focuses, reading and math," the organization said in a statement.

Another national education group, EdTrust, said in a statement released today, that "Thirty five years of relative stagnation in reading and math achievement among high school students overall should be cause for great alarm." While reform of the elementary grades seems to have taken hold, it has not translated to the upper grades. And so high schoolers will be less prepared to enter a more complex world that holds fewer jobs for those without a college degree. 

The number of students getting a college degree has gone up only slighly while twice as many jobs now require an undergraduate degree, according to EdTrust.

Baltimore City took a bold step and decided to take part in a NAEP test that compares urban school systems. City students will take the test in numbers that are large enough to allow the results to be compared to other students around the United States. Those results will be a good indication of just how Baltimore's school reforms are taking hold.


Posted by Liz Bowie at 3:23 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Around the Nation

A case to save William H. Lemmel Middle

This is a letter written to the school board by Karen Kotchka, an IST at Lemmel, making the case to keep the school open. The board votes on the school closures tonight.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Dear School Board Member:

I am writing to urge you to vote against the abrupt closing of Wm. H. Lemmel Middle School at the upcoming School Board meeting on April 28th.  The planned disbursement of the 449 students projected to attend Wm. H. Lemmel next year to schools throughout the city would cause instability and disruption in both the lives of our students as well as the schools that they will be siphoned into.  We currently have 275 sixth and seventh grade students who are unfairly being asked to uproot themselves and adjust to a new school setting, unlike students at other middle schools that have been closed down in a phase out plan such as Harlem Park, Canton, Hamilton, and Thurgood Marshall.  For our seventh grade students in particular, it will be a strong disadvantage to try to start anew at a school for their 8th grade year. They should be building a strong record in 8th grade in grades, test scores and extracurricular activities to help their citywide high school applications instead of getting used to a completely new environment, teachers, administrators and possibly losing out on special programs that they have been involved in for two years. 

Your decision should be and I’m sure will be based on what is best for the children, but our children are not being given real choices.  They are being asked to give up their community school where in most cases, they have been successful and feel safe, and transfer to another low-performing school outside of their neighborhood.  Baltimore City has had a strong need for some years to address the needs of middle school students whose performance on state tests drops off sharply in the middle school years, but we have failed to do so.  Closing a school is not the same as improving or restructuring a school and even the Secretary of Education would not agree that the proper strategy to improve a school or an incentive to compel improvement would be to close the school down.  Closing down Lemmel is not making a “hard decision”.  Closing the school is as easy as just saying ‘yes’ to Dr. Alonso’s plan.  A hard decision would be to restructure the school as a charter school or to zero-base the staff and commit to re-staffing it with 100% highly qualified staff or to find the resources to establish performance incentives for students and staff.  Unlike high school students, our middle school students are not paid cash incentives to improve their performance on the “high-stakes” tests that we have used to judge the effectiveness of our schools.  Our students take the MSA test in March and yet they do not learn how they performed until the following school year.  Most educators know that immediate feedback is the key to motivation and performance and yet no feedback, no reward and no consequence are tied in to either passing or failing the state MSA tests.  And yet this is the data that we are using to make the most consequential decisions of closing schools. 

Upon review of the at-a-glance sheet for Wm. H. Lemmel that was distributed at our school by the CEO’s school reorganization team, I can say that the data presented to justify the decision to close the Lemmel program does not present a solid picture of a school in decline.  Our enrollment declined from 2006 to 2009 with the addition of K-8 and charter school options but for next year it seems our enrollment has stabilized.  We currently have 453 students and our projected enrollment for 2010 is 449.  Our attendance has not yet met AYP but it has gone up almost three percentage points since 2006.  Our MSA reading scores went up 5 percentage points from 2006 to 2009.  Our school climate positive responses went up 9 percentage points from 2006 to 2009.  The only indicator that showed true decline was our MSA math proficiency score which declined 5.3 percentage points.  This decline can likely be explained as a result of many of the students having long-term subs or untrained teachers as well as the math curriculum failing to be properly aligned with the assessments.  No, we are not proud and we are not satisfied with our students’ performance on these “high-stakes” tests, but the overall picture of our school that is presented by the data is that of a school struggling to keep its head above water while making incremental progress.  We are not slipping backwards, but we are also not progressing quickly enough to be able to provide every child with a quality education. 

Somehow when a “glance” was turned towards Lemmel, a lot of the data was overlooked.  For example, did you know that 52.8% of Lemmel’s 8th grade students taking the HSA Algebra test last year passed on their first attempt?  This result is comparable to Mt. Royal’s result of 53.8% and much higher than the City School’s pass rate of 26.2%.  Yes, we had 169 one-year overage students and 74 two-year overage students at the beginning of the year, but we successfully transferred many of these students to more appropriate programs.  Of the 93 one-year overage students that we have left, 67 are passing for the year and 26 are failing, a success rate of 72%.  What is it that we at Lemmel have been able to do to help our overage students be successful that should be replicated at other schools?  The problem of the overage student at the middle school level is a district-wide problem as evidenced by the large number (24) of transformation schools that the administration is planning to open.  And yet Lemmel will be shut down without regard to distilling the lessons that could be learned to help these overage students.

We have many special programs at Lemmel that will become lost opportunities to our students who are forced to transfer to other schools.  We have a third-year Gifted and Talented Education program that will be disbanded, a Pilot Technology program funded by the Abell Foundation at a cost of $25,000 that will fail to come to fruition, a mentoring program from Goucher College that will be discontinued as students are disbursed to an unmanageable number of schools, and a Truancy Court program that has helped turn around a great number of students as the only participating traditional middle school program that will now be looking for a new home.

As I ask you to consider an alternative to immediate closure of Lemmel’s educational program, I am reminded of the old saying ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’.  It is a phrase of German origin taken from a treatise written on fools who, by trying to rid themselves of a bad thing, succeed in destroying whatever good there was as well.  Please take the time to make a thoughtful decision and at least allow our current students to complete their middle school career here or better yet, take the time, initiative and resources to reshape Lemmel into a quality middle school option.

Karen Kotchka

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 7:31 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Baltimore City

Sizing up Baltimore's charter schools

Here's the report on Baltimore charter schools that I write about in today's newspaper. Not surprisingly, the report found that academic performance at the city's charters varies significantly. Climate-wise, they seem to be better than regular city schools, especially at the middle school level. We've always known that charter students (except those at neighborhood conversion charters that take the place of zoned schools) have an inherent advantage because their parents are making a choice and seeking out a quality option on their behalf. Now we know how that translates: The charters have fewer special ed, over-age and free/reduced lunch students than regular schools do. As a whole, they're also more racially diverse, though there are examples of charters that are almost completely segregated and charters that are almost perfectly integrated. One finding that was a little surprising: There aren't many students coming to the charters from out of the system, though seven schools are the exception to that and draw students who wouldn't be attending city public schools otherwise.
Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:05 AM | | Comments (23)
Categories: Baltimore City, Charter Schools, Study, study!

April 27, 2009

Monday evening musings

I wonder what the children at Samuel F.B. Morse Elementary saw on their way into school this morning; a dead body was found across the street at 7 a.m... Teach Baltimore (formerly Epiphany In Baltimore) blogs about the ambivalence of students on his baseball team when they discover that a guy is hiding heroin under the grass in the playground where they practice... Now, in addition to street violence and the drug trade, we have to worry about cyberbullying. The Anti-Defamation League, in partnership with Frederick County schools and the Maryland State Department of Education, is holding the Mid-Atlantic's first cyberbullying conference in Frederick tomorrow. Closer to home, the International Institute for Restorative Practices will hold a daylong training in Baltimore on the technique it says reduces school violence. Isn't it a shame you have to be in school? Also tomorrow, NAEP scores for the nation (not broken down by state) will be released. Tomorrow night, the Baltimore school board casts its much-awaited votes on school closures and reorganizations. And that's not all that's on the agenda. The board will hear reports on the state of charter schools and summer school and get a recommendation to change its high school promotion policy, dropping the requirement of certain courses in particular grades. More to come on all these topics... Looking ahead: I'll spend Thursday to Saturday this week at the Education Writers Association conference in Washington. Saturday evening, Frederick Douglass students and alums will put on a concert to honor the late Anne Brown.

State school board takes step toward new tests

The state school board hasn't made any commitments yet, but it took another step today toward giving a sampling of students in Maryland an international test next fall to judge how well-prepared our students are compared with those around the world.

Nancy Grasmick told the board she is having a conversation with representatives of The Programme for International Student Assessment, known as PISA, to see if it's feasible to give the test to a large enough sample of students in the state to get results that could be compared with a country overseas.

PISA was last given in 2006 in 57 countries. The board told Grasmick to continue looking into the possibility. 

Posted by Liz Bowie at 7:15 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Around the Region, Testing

What's behind the Bridge projects, HSA figures

Here's a video shot by Sun photographer Kim Hairston and narrated by Southside Academy math teacher LaShaviar Burns on the Bridge project grading process. It was filmed during the weekend grading session at Edmondson-Westside following last month's onslaught of Bridge submissions.

I went to a City Council education committee meeting last week about Bridge and HSAs. Most of the information presented in a PowerPoint by school system officials was review to me (and those of you who have been following my coverage here). But two slides stood out, showing the breakdown of where students who entered high school in 2005 -- those who are supposed to be seniors now -- ended up. The first slide shows where they were last fall; the second shows where they are now.

Between the beginning of the year and now, the size of the class of first-time seniors grew from 3,984 to 4,088 as students who were behind in credits got promoted. But the number of students who should be seniors and are still underclassmen shrunk by more than the number of seniors grew. I've asked if that means they dropped out and am awaiting a reply. The number of students who started high school in 2005 and are still juniors declined from 592 last fall to 399 now. The number who are still sophomores went from 377 to 259. And 170 are still freshmen, down from 248 in the fall.

Of the 4,088 seniors, there are still 109 who have not passed any HSAs (down from 678 at the beginning of the school year) and 141 who have passed only one (down from 403). On the bright side: 1,968 (up from 689) have passed all four exams needed to be eligible for their diplomas. The number who have met requirements overall has gone up from 2,373 to 3,336.

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

April 24, 2009

Light weekend reading

McKinsey & Co. released a troubling report this week called "The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in America's Schools." It concludes that:

"If the United States had closed the international achievement gap between 1983 and 1998 and raised its performance to the level of such nations as Finland and Korea, US GDP in 2008 would have been between $1.3 trillion and $2.3 trillion higher, representing 9 to 16 percent of GDP."

"If the United States had closed the racial achievement gap and black and Latino student performance had caught up with that of white students by 1998, GDP in 2008 would have been between $310 billion and $525 billion higher, or roughly 2 to 4 percent of GDP. (The magnitude of this effect will rise in the years ahead as blacks and Latinos become a larger proportion of the population.)" 

If you don't feel like spending time this sunny weekend reading the whole report, here's a good summary from Tom Friedman.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 5:49 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Around the Nation, Study, study!

Comment awards, inaugural edition

Picking a Comment of the Week was harder than I thought! I spent much of the morning pouring over more than 140 comments from the past seven days, most of them very thoughtful. I had so much trouble deciding on one that I sought outside counsel from my boyfriend. Here are the results of the deliberation:

The Most Creative Award goes to Corey for his hilarious haikus. He also gets the Team Spirit Award for actually trying to win Comment of the Week and for persevering in submitting the comment several times after getting an error message that he'd been blocked from our site.

But since the point of the contest is to foster dialogue, I have to give the overall Comment of the Week to Just an Observation for this provocative comment, which inspired Bill (to whom I award Most Prolific Commenter) to ask him/her for an in-person meeting:

Once a supporter of AAA, I now believe many of us have been naïve to much about maneuvers within our school system. We have provided fertile ground for putting into practice a hodgepodge of think-tank theories, ideas plucked from dissertations, pandering to “some" parents, vocal dissenters, selected community groups and politicians, placing non-renewed, poor performing, district to district, ill prepared ambitious and arrogant individuals with limited instructional experience or leadership potential in key positions. And, let’s not forget the young white intelligentsia who easily quote an array of theorists, historical figures and politicians ready to tell us poor city folk what we don’t know, how this regime is the only hope to provide our children a brilliant future and how absolutely terrific that some of us actually take part in the process. Likely these condescending folks served our children for as little time as possible in a classroom unable to provide authentic instruction or classroom management. They will move on readily dropping names and opening conversations with, “when I was _____”.

Closing problematic schools is too easy a solution; send all these folks in to “stay” as teachers, support personnel and again to serve as principal until they can get it right. My children and my
neighbor’s children attend neighborhood, city-wide and charter schools, we attend meetings, speak out and engage in meaningful discourse. We want quality education provided in every school where it stands, closing, relocating, renaming is a sham. Shame on us for allowing it to happen.

Posted by: just_an_observation | April 21, 2009 9:30 AM

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 4:33 PM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Comment of the Week

Were kids in school today?

The city school system reports that attendance appears to be normal today. But one teacher I follow on Twitter reported that it's senior skip day at his school. The Smallest Twine, who teaches sophomores at another school, tweets that she had 11 of 28 students in first period and 12 of 24 in fifth. She suspects the combination of beautiful weather and Friday caused students to skip. She also said that most teachers at her school don't turn in attendance sheets until the end of the day, which could be the reason the central office hasn't been alerted.

UPDATE: A Digital Harbor staff member reports on Twitter that it's senior skip day there, too.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 2:59 PM | | Comments (6)
Categories: Baltimore City

Positive news about city kids

The Baltimore school system has launched a new Web site to highlight student accomplishments. It's called Great Kids Up Close.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 12:42 PM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Baltimore City

Plans to build West Towson Elementary challenged

My story today looks at a lawsuit filed yesterday by several Towson residents against the Baltimore County Board of Education, calling for a halt to plans to build West Towson Elementary - the new facility meant to relieve crowding in other schools in the area.

The grass-roots group Towson Families United, which long pushed for a solution to the crowding problem, has already posted a detailed response to some of the concerns voiced by the plaintiffs in the case. 

The plaintiffs live on properties that border the proposed site, located on Charles Street next door to Ridge Ruxton School.  They contend that the Board of Education failed to follow proper procedures - and comply with several policies and state laws - in deciding to build the school last May. The suit comes just a couple days after board members approved the school's name, as well as a couple contracts dealing with site improvements and excavation.

We have closely followed this story for more than a year now, documenting the twists and turns in a lengthy struggle to alleviate the crowding in Towson elementaries - especially Rodgers Forge, the county's most overcapacity school.

I'll continue to follow this as it develops...and keep you posted.

Posted by Arin Gencer at 9:50 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Baltimore County

April 23, 2009

Tree-planting with the Obamas

Barack Obama and Chris JacksonChris Jackson, 17, was camping in the Appalachians last weekend, so he was late in getting the cell phone message with the news. The Baltimore City College junior was selected to plant trees for Earth Day with the Obamas, the Bidens and Bill Clinton, thanks to his involvement in the Student Conservation Association. So was Antica Howell, 18, a senior at NAF.

Due to national security concerns, the students were supposed to keep the plan a secret. To arrange an excused absence from school, Chris did let it slip to City Principal Tim Dawson that he would be meeting the president -- but he wouldn't say where he was going. "He's a faithful soldier," Dawson said this afternoon as he let Chris and I use his office for an interview.

On Tuesday morning, Chris, Antica and six other students convened at Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens, where they spent the day preparing for the 5 p.m. event. Each of the students was assigned to help a dignitary with the heavy labor involved in digging a hole in the ground and sticking a tree in it. Antica was paired with Clinton. Chris, along with a girl from Washington named Brenda, got President Obama. They were making plans to present him with gloves and a shovel when Chris heard a loud voice ask, "Where's Chris and Brenda?" And he realized: "That's the president speaking."

The next thing he knew, Chris was shaking the president's hand, chatting with the first lady about tree-planting and asking about the new family dog. He had prepared formal answers to any questions the president might have, but "he was just really friendly" and kept the students calm as the cameras were snapping away. 

In boots, Michelle Obama was better prepared than her husband, in dress shoes, for the digging that was about to ensue. Chris said the first lady "seemed a lot smaller" in person than he expected -- and she does have great arms.  Overall, he was impressed with the stately group. "They all looked perfect," he said. The vice president's chattiness and goofiness also took him by surprise. "Joe Biden and his wife were throwing worms at each other," he said. "It was really cute."

After helping Barack Obama plant a redbud, Chris gave the first lady a hand with her tree, the biggest in the bunch, prompting the president to give him a high-five. At the end of the ceremony, he got to keep the glove Obama wore on his left hand (they're both left-handed) and he presented the president with an SCA fleece.

On the MARC train back to Baltimore that night, Chris couldn't contain his excitement as he called family and friends from his cell phone. As it happened, a former Sun editor who now works in Washington was siting next to him and Antica. He was so moved by the phone conversations he overheard that he suggested I blog about their experience.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 4:59 PM | | Comments (7)
Categories: Baltimore City

City grad: One size doesn't fit all

Walter Gill, a teacher and former university professor who was the first black student to enter Baltimore City College following the 1954 Brown decision, has an op-ed in The Sun today. He argues that urban schools are not meeting the needs of the masses and need to do more vocational training for the students who are not going to college.
Posted by Sara Neufeld at 11:58 AM | | Comments (20)
Categories: Around the Nation, Baltimore City

Comment trouble

We've been having trouble with our blogging software over the past day, with some people getting error messages saying they've been banned from commenting or otherwise not allowing the comments through. I'm horribly sorry for the inconvenience. Our IT folks believe they've just fixed the problem. But please e-mail me directly -- -- if you get an error message again.

UPDATE, 11:45 a.m.: So apparently our spam software detected too many comments coming from the IP "Baltimore City Public Schools" and started blocking them as spam. Oops. I'm again assured the problem is resolved (it wasn't after my first post but we hope it really is now). Corey, bring on the haiku!

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 10:17 AM | | Comments (2)

Private school PD as a model for city schools?

We're all about guest posts here this week. This one is from Beth Drummond Casey, executive director of the Middle Grades Partnership, about Park School's professional development event on Sunday -- and how the model used successfully there might transfer into public schools:

Conventional wisdom might stress the importance of not looking back once you leave one job for another. Nonetheless, I found myself thinking somewhat wistfully of my 14 years working at Park School as I sat in the audience at Park’s 20th anniversary celebration of its professional development program, FACA (Faculty And Curricular Advancement), this past Sunday evening.
Devoted readers of this blog tend to care about and be associated with public schools. (Like me, for instance: I now help run a program for 600 Baltimore City public middle school students.) But I hope some of you – especially those who believe that effective teacher professional development is the best way to promote student achievement – will set aside your biases about private schools and will read all the way to the end of this post.

I’m remembering Sara’s blog entry last week, the one where she mentioned attending a lecture at which Deborah Loewenberg Ball, a noted education researcher, bemoaned the lack of quality professional development for veteran teachers. Ball noted that it was up to research universities to fill that gap. I disagree. Speaker after speaker on Sunday night at Park confirmed it: We don’t have to wait for universities to decide what we need. We can provide stellar professional development all on our own.

Park’s FACA program was founded 20 years ago by Parvin Sharpless, the head of school, with the support of his board of trustees head, Lee Meyerhoff Hendler. Both of these folks came back to the school Sunday night and reminded the audience of how this unique and still-thriving program came to be.

In 1989, two things bothered Sharpless about most teacher professional development. One was the very nature of typical PD for teachers: An outside expert spouts off for a few hours about new stuff; teachers are given no time to process what they have learned, and are sent back to their classrooms, to either forget promptly they ever experienced the PD or – worse – to be held accountable for the new subject matter or way of teaching, whether they had learned anything or not. Through FACA, Sharpless said, he hoped to upend that traditional model for PD delivery, where “what we knew NOT to do with kids, we still did with teachers.”
One other thing troubled Sharpless. Rather than spending the summer reflecting, reading, and thinking about the craft of teaching in community with other teachers, many of his finest practitioners were spending their summer vacations working in occupations that demanded little intellectual investment but offered modest, if not great, financial gain. As Hendler looked back on that time, she spoke of the “indiginity of professional educators becoming house painters in the summer,” just so they could pay their bills. 

So FACA was developed around these two entwined principles: Provide teachers time for reflection and collaboration with their peers, and then compensate them fully for an 11th month of work. Next came the truly revolutionary notion behind FACA: Instead of school leaders deciding what teachers should study or work on in the summer, teachers were given the freedom to propose projects themselves. They were urged to create projects that were collaborative and even inter-disciplinary and, whenever possible, were to engage teachers across all three divisions. (Park is a pre-K through 12th-grade school.) All this to create a kind of “intellectual jazz,” as Hendler described it.
FACA has grown tremendously over the years, to the point where – no surprise – proposals for summer work outdo the school’s capacity to raise funds to support every plan. Even so, every summer’s offerings are impressive. The topics teams of teachers explored in 2008 included adolescent readers, social class identity at Park, evaluating the lower school math curriculum, development of a Chinese program, technology and modern language, history of Park, broadening the conversation about race, taking advantage of tech, and developing and planning a new course in science and religion.

Clearly, Sharpless and Hendler’s original vision lives, breathes, thrives, and, for this writer at least, puts forth a model for educators near and far to ponder. Do you have to be a well-resourced private school to pull off this sort of program, or would this model work in a public school setting? Can significant professional development for public school teachers be organized around the intellectual exploration of essential questions in the company of one’s professional peers and still result in impressive rates of student achievement? 

I tried imagining a possible example. We can all agree that the problem of Algebra I readiness and mastery is huge both in the nation and in Baltimore. How to ensure more kids get the skills they need to excel in middle and high school math so that the path to upper-level math is open to all students? As far as I can tell, the only real “measure” of algebra mastery right now is whether or not a student passes the HSA test. But can we be sure that the test result tells us anything about a student’s true understanding of algebraic concepts and of his or her readiness to excel in future math classes? 

Instead of programming hours of PD to train teachers who then turn around and train students to pass the HSA or the Algebra I course, what if instead we gathered together a few other math teachers, some funders, a program operator or even an education writer who might be interested in exploring an alternative to HSA as assessment? This group would be made up of many who’d be willing to happily leap off the intellectual cliff together in search of answers to questions such as: How do I know when a student is a strong algebraic reasoner? Am I diagnosing the reason for learning gaps accurately? For my students who are already whizzes, am I serving their needs? What experiences must a student have in early elementary school that will ensure strong thinking is in place by middle school? What is the research that can offer answers to these questions and maybe even generate a few more to ponder?

I refuse to believe that a Park-School-like professional development experience is only possible within the walls of a privately funded institution. The FACA model envisioned by Sharpless and Hendler offers those of us in the public sector a challenge, yes. But it’s not an insurmountable one. Sharpless closed his remarks Sunday night by saying that it was high time for schools to “match the energy of students with that of the faculty, to then wrap it in subject matter” and see what happens.

I couldn’t agree more.
Posted by Sara Neufeld at 7:32 AM | | Comments (6)
Categories: Baltimore City, Baltimore County

Closing the STEM gap

I filled in for my colleague on the higher ed beat yesterday and covered the STEM symposium at University of Maryland. Chancellor William Kirwan presented some staggering statistics about Maryland's preparation (or lack thereof) of math, science and technology teachers: The state's public schools need 500 a year, yet its colleges and universities are only producing 175, resulting in unqualified teachers filling gaps, often in the poorest schools. At least Kirwan is recognizing the problem and pledging to do something about it, hence the symposium.

It was my first time seeing Arne Duncan live. He didn't say too much that I haven't read about him saying before, but for the sake of putting it on the record here on InsideEd: He wants a longer school day, week and year. He wants to keep the data disaggregation that NCLB requires but stop letting each state develop its own standardized tests. In other words, he wants to standardize the goal but provide more flexibility in how to get there. He kind of reminded me of Dr. Alonso when he said he wants to give states autonomy to reach a uniform goal and hold them accountable for the results. He also said he wants to be judged on the country improving its high school graduation rate and getting more students through college.

Nancy Grasmick was at the symposium. She said Duncan will be bringing states together to develop uniform assessments, and Maryland will be a part of the process. Both Grasmick and Kirwan were very impressed with a program out of the University of Texas called UTeach to recruit math, science and computer teachers and would like to bring some version of it to Maryland.

UPDATE: Alonso e-mailed this Wall Street Journal op-ed by Duncan to city teachers this week.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:05 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Around the Region, NCLB, Teaching, Testing

April 22, 2009

Happy Earth Day

A number of Earth Day activities took place today, and my colleague Mary Gail Hare was at Pinewood Elementary in Timonium. So were County Executive Jim Smith, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown and other local officials. Pinewood has been certified as a Green School

Here are some tidbits Mary Gail gleaned from students, who appeared unfazed by the showers:

Many students had painted a small blue earth on one cheek and “go green” on the other.

“You have to reduce, re-use and recycle to save the environment,” said Isabella Hsiao, fourth grader.

Classmate Annie Burns said Earth Day is important “because it teaches us all lessons.”

The children spent most of the day outdoors in a steady rain.

“We are celebrating what the earth has given us and learning how to protect it,” said fifth-grader Isabelle Andrews.

Matt Brandau, fourth-grader, pronounced any day that he can plant a tree “really cool.”

“We all have to share this earth,” said Scott Shuster, fourth grader.

Brendan Miller, a fourth-grader, said no one can be “disresponsible. Everyone has to pitch in.”

Fifth-grader Reed Matson helped put together a mural made from recycled bottle caps.

“The only reason people don’t recycle is because they think it’s too much trouble,” Reed said.


The Pinewood students are just another example of how enthusiastically kids embrace going green. I've noted other school-driven efforts to encourage recycling here before. 


The Maryland Association for Outdoor and Environmental Education sponsors the Green Schools program.  Baltimore County is home to about 20 percent of the public and private schools certified as green -- and is the jurisdication with the most such schools statewide, according to county officials. 


Besides Pinewood, the schools in Baltimore County that joined the green ranks this year include:


Krieger Schechter Day School

The Park School

Timonium Elementary

Windsor Mill Middle

Eastwood Elementary

Cromwell Valley Elementary

Stoneleigh Elementary

Westowne Elementary

Posted by Arin Gencer at 7:12 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Baltimore County

Masonville Cove police officer indicted on sex charges

My colleague Justin Fenton reports that a Baltimore school police officer was arrested today. A grand jury indicted Reginald Watson, 35, on charges that he sexually assaulted a 16-year-old girl. Watson is charged with sexual abuse of a minor, fourth-degree sex assault and second-degree assault for an alleged Feb. 19 incident at Masonville Cove Community Academy (formerly Benjamin Franklin Junior High, now a high school). The victim is a student there.

According to police, the girl was walking the school hallways when Watson bought her snacks (specifically, Pop Tarts) and took her into an office. There, he played the movie "Lean On Me" before allegedly making sexually explicit remarks to her and placing his hands on her hips and buttocks. Police learned of the incident after the girl relayed the account to a parent volunteer. 

Watson was indicted yesterday and arrested today. He's being held on $50,000 bond and has a bail review scheduled for Thursday morning in Baltimore Circuit Court. Justin, who covers city police, says the "sexual abuse of a minor" charge is usually reserved for parents or guardians accused of abusing their children, but Watson is being hit with it because of his role as a police officer and authority figure.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 5:53 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Baltimore City, School Safety (Or Lack Thereof)

What's in a graduate (and graduation rate)?

This is a guest post from Benjamin Feldman, research, evaluation and accountability officer for the Baltimore school system, in response to the graduation rate report released today by America's Promise:

T.S. Eliot called April the cruelest month, blaming lilacs as the source of misery. From the perspective of the Baltimore City Schools’ Division of Research, Evaluation, Assessment and Accountability, the real April misery is the annual reappearance of graduation rates derived from a tortured statistic called the “Cumulative Promotion Index,” or CPI. According to the CPI, in 2005 Baltimore had crawled from the dungeon of graduation rates, adding 7.7 percent points to achieve a 45.5% rate. Thank heavens for Indianapolis: they’re at 30.5%, even worse than Cleveland at 34.4%. The national average is reported as a pathetic 70.6%.

Since EdWeek first published the CPI, I have made something of a career talking about graduation rates: how they are calculated, what the politics are, who is to blame.  I even gave an evening’s lecture at the School of Public Policy at UMBC two years ago, so keen was the interest in this perennial topic.  Now that The Sun publishes a continuing blog on education issues, the time is ripe to offer the community a fuller insight into this most-important of all K-12 education outcome measures.

What’s a graduate?

For most readers of this blog, this question seems simplistic. We remember the late spring day when in rented cap and gown, we waited to hear our name called, shook the principal’s hand, and got our rolled up diploma. Equally memorable for me is a lunch-and-learn discussion I had 20 years ago with my first boss in Research and Evaluation who posed the question, “What’s a graduate?”  The answer then was a student (through the year in which he or she might turn 22 years old) who had accrued a certain number of credits by earning minimum grades, including a particular distribution of credits. Some grades, like honors, needed special weights. In addition, the student had to pass a battery of Maryland Functional Tests in reading, mathematics, citizenship, and writing. (The writing test was the killer.) Moreover, the student had to discharge all local requirements such as turning in his or her library books or paying outstanding fees. The principal and/or the counselor had to sign off on the graduation. Lastly, the various City Schools databases of record had to agree with the above information, and completed rosters had to be manually confirmed by the school.

Since then, the more challenging Maryland High School Assessments have superseded the old Maryland Functional Tests. These can be passed straight out, satisfied with a combined score of 1602, or satisfied with passing grades or quality independent Bridge projects, senior theses or extended independent research projects. The required 22 credits now include three in mathematics, four in English/language arts, three in social studies, three in science (including biology and two others with laboratory experiences in earth, life or physical science) one in technology education, one in fine arts plus a combination of foreign languages, advanced technology, electives or career and technology education. And a half credit in gym and a half credit in health; plus 75 hours in service learning. On top of all of this, the library books still have to come back, the fees settled, the principal endorse, the databases confirm everything, and the student not be older than 22. The Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) is our partner in all tracking these pieces.

What’s a graduation rate?

As noted above, the determination of the individual graduate is more complicated than the question initially implies. How then do school systems, states, and the nation get to a graduation rate in which we have consensus and confidence?

The most accurate method would be to implant a data chip into every child at matriculation to his or her first school. Then from huge CIA-type agencies we could continuously scan the environment to ascertain the whereabouts of these students. We would determine the first time the student puts a foot into ninth grade whether in Baltimore or in Guam and then test the graduation status (according to the above or comparable rules) four years later.  Or we could test this at the time the student turns 22.  Absent such a Big Brother solution, districts and states must struggle to estimate the performance of a cohort of students.

The reader will recall that a cohort is any group that shares some salient characteristic at the moment the group is defined and labeled. For the purposes of calculating a graduation rate, the characteristic of choice is the school year in which the student becomes a first time ninth grader. To make this real to Maryland readers, this year, high school Adequate Yearly Progress will be predicated on the status of 12th graders who were first-time ninth graders during 2004-05. If a ninth grader in 2004-05 was taking a second shot at freshman year, he or she is not part of this cohort. If a student was in the eighth grade in 2004-05 and skipped a grade, joining sophomores in 2005-06, he or she would be part of the cohort.

If only this were so simple! What happens with the student who shows up in our schools in the 10th grade from out of state? In City Schools, if the student or families do not give us the facts, we make the best determination we can from whatever information is available. A national student ID number would be great. It doesn’t exist. Moreover, MSDE is having a devil of a time establishing a unique state ID number. This is a discussion for another blog on another day.

If the world were static, a graduation rate would have graduates in the numerator and original ninth graders in the denominator. As the world is not static, MSDE has used a four-year “leaver rate” to estimate the cohort:

Grad rate=N graduates/9th dropouts+10th dropouts+11th dropouts+12th dropouts+12th grads

The denominator provides a cohort estimate, spanning four years.  There is no credit given for students needing more than eight semesters and no control for migration across district boundaries if the coding is not absolutely clean. Old data from closed schools returns and changes the rate after the system has closed its books. Moreover, MSDE has in the past looked at each year’s demographic files as an entity unto itself. Thus, a student who leaves, comes back the next year, and leaves again, would be counted in the denominator twice. It is possible for a student to be in the denominator as a dropout AND as a graduate. MSDE works closely with us to understand this phenomenon caused by a highly mobile population. To get a more accurate view, we have to work with all four years as a single event, not as four separate events. And even if the state unique ID were to work perfectly, this might help Baltimore some, but it won’t do a thing to help Prince George's County, which has movement between itself and the District of Columbia and itself and Fairfax, Va. What everyone seems to agree is that each student should have a single disposition: as a graduate or as a dropout. Present data systems do not get us to such clarity. Moreover, the highly fragile or mobile family might not thoughtfully withdraw the student from one school district and carefully identify the student for a new school district. These cases become “magic children,” as it were, multiplying their presence across many databases, and skewing rates… always to the disadvantage of urban districts.

The Cumulative Promotion Index (CPI)

The CPI does not attempt to estimate a cohort. It attempts to estimate a process. It assumes a completely static world where students go nowhere. It assumes that school districts neither grow nor shrink. It does not attempt to look across four years, but rather takes a pair of years as the proxy for the entire high school experience.  The new CPI is this:


Not only does this completely counterintuitive statistic paint the bleakest possible picture for the nation’s school districts, it also contradicts the calculation of every single state department of education in the country. 

What’s coming: a four-year on-time graduation rate

The four-year on-time graduation rate is the consensus model selected by the National Governor’s Association:

Grad rate=year 4 diplomas/1st time 9th grade cohort + transfers in – transfers out

Transfers in and out are “on grade level,” that is, they become part of the original cohort regardless of the district of origin. Retained and lost students remain in the cohort. Early graduates are credited. Summer graduates are NOT credited, but are reported in year "4+1," and thus appear to be lost to the cohort and of no benefit to the next year’s statistic. Some states plan to allow credit for English language learners and special education students with specific plans calling for more than eight semesters to graduate.

What’s missing?

Sara Neufeld questions why a graduation rate has to be nailed to a four-year metric. It is certainly true that students and families would like to finish high school in eight semesters, and it is equally true that a high school education is be delivered most economically to taxpayers if students pass through with conveyor belt speed. In reality, it doesn’t work like this. Neufeld speculates that as many as 20% of City Schools students need a fifth year. Our first look at last year’s numbers indicated that at least 10% of graduates had needed more than four years, and of these, 2-3% needed as many as six years.

MSDE is sensitive to this concern, and the state plans a variety of metrics to communicate a more thoughful multi-dimensional reality to stakeholders. MSDE may report four-year graduates and also graduates who took five years or more. MSDE works with us to recognize the important work we do to bring back students and give them another push toward a diploma or a GED. Under a punitive model like the CPI or an uninformed leaver rate, every time a district makes an effort to rehabilitate a lost student, it risks creating an inflated denominator and blasting the graduation rate. Should school districts be driven by the rate or should they do what is in the best interests of individuals?

We are gratified that the new America’s Promise Alliance report credits City Schools with a dramatic gain (looking back four years as it does, before our really exciting data movements in recent years), and we are glad to be out of the cellar. We agree that having a high school diploma is life-determining: without it a person’s financial horizon is bleak in the extreme. Readers of this blog know that the diploma is insufficient in the 21st century competitive global environment. The United States needs college graduates, students with professional preparation, students who are fluent in multiple languages, masters of information technologies and mathematics.  We need critical readers, critical thinkers, and lucid writers. 

If educators and policymakers want to have a meaningful discussion of graduation as the mission-critical outcome of K-12 education, we need to have a much better command of whom and where the cohort is. If our society believes that a competent graduate is the most important product we make as a nation, we ought to put the magnitude of resources into teaching and learning that we put into professional sports and popular entertainment.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 3:14 PM | | Comments (9)
Categories: Baltimore City

Welcome MATHS students!

David Donaldson, a first-year English teacher at MATHS who wrote an excellent op-ed for The Sun last November and a guest post for InsideEd a few months ago, is working to incorporate more technology into his classroom as part of a graduate course at Hopkins. He also wants to get his students more engaged in local issues. And so he's starting a project in three of his ninth-grade classes where 55 students are reading InsideEd and commenting on posts that are relevant to them. Before comments are submitted, there is a peer editing process and Donaldson gives his approval. You'll notice the students have submitted several comments today under the Columbine anniversary entry about teens' widespread access to guns. I'm delighted to have them as part of our ongoing conversations here and hope they will inspire more student participation on this blog.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 2:39 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Baltimore City

Calculating Baltimore's graduation rate

America's Promise Alliance, the collaborative founded by Colin and Alma Powell to improve the well-being of youth, has a new report out today with the on-time high school graduation rates in the nation's 50 largest cities. In Baltimore, the rate increased 7.7 points over a decade, from 33.8 percent in 1995 to 41.5 percent in 2005. We placed 46th out of 50 and were one of 16 city districts where the rate was calculated at below 50 percent. Suburban Baltimore schools were found to have a graduation rate 39 points higher than the city's, making us one of the regions with the largest gaps.

The report, called "Cities in Crisis 2009," did its calculations slightly differently than the oft-cited Education Week rankings, but for Baltimore the results are about the same -- and far lower than the city's official graduation rate as reported by the state: 62.6 percent in 2008 and 59 percent in 2005. The state rate is likely an overstatement because some dropouts are not officially recorded as such. But both the America's Promise and Ed Week calculations make things look worse than they are because they don't account for students moving in and out of the city.

And none of the calculations look beyond a four-year rate. I find this curious, as we judge colleges based on the number of students they graduate within six years and what matters ultimately is whether someone gets a high school diploma -- not how long it takes. Typically, about 20 percent of seniors in Baltimore need a fifth year to finish. In fighting to maintain the HSA requirements for this year's seniors, Dr. Alonso argued that he'll keep them around as long as it takes to get them to meet basic standards. (Students are legally entitled to stay in school until age 21.)

With all that said, here are more findings of the America's Promise report: 

The cities that saw the biggest jump in their graduation rates are Philadelphia and Tuscon (23 percentage points each), Kansas City, Mo. (20 points) and El Paso (14). Portland, Ore., and NYC went up 13 points. Nineteen of the nation's 50 biggest cities have seen their graduation rates decline in the decade measured, with the biggest drops in Las Vegas (23 points), Wichita (18) and Omaha (15).

The report estimates that about 1.2 million students drop out of high school each year. That's 7,000 per school day or one every 26 seconds. Nearly half of African-American and Hispanic students don't finish high school on time. The median income for high school dropouts is $14,000, compared with $24,000 for high school graduates and $48,000 for college graduates.

As for the different methodologies:

America's Promise calculates the graduation rate by looking at the promotion rate for freshmen, sophomores and juniors plus the graduation rate for seniors in a given year.

Ed Week looks at the number of seniors graduating compared with the number of freshmen four years earlier.

The state divides the number of 12th-grade graduates by the number of 12th-grade graduates plus the number of dropouts along the way. While Maryland is one of a number of states that will start giving students unique identification numbers to track them, and therefore produce more accurate graduation rates, those ID numbers can't be used when students move across state lines.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 5:46 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Around the Nation, Baltimore City

April 21, 2009

Supreme Court hears strip-searching case

The Supreme Court hears arguments today in a case involving a 13-year-old girl in Arizona who was suspected of possessing drugs and forced to strip down to her underwear in the school nurse's office. I've heard of drug and weapons checks in Baltimore where kids get patted down by school police, but nothing this extreme. Here's an article from NPR's Nina Totenberg with the specifics of the case. The Supreme Court ruled in the 1980s that schools may search students' bags but did not address the issue of strip-searching. As Totenberg tells us, the question before the court is whether schools have free reign in determining when a strip search is warranted and where the Constitution draws the line.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 2:10 PM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Around the Nation

A belated push to save Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman ElementarySun photographer Algerina Perna and I went yesterday to a community meeting at Harriet Tubman Elementary, where we found a dozen staff members, parents and neighborhood residents brainstorming to try to save the school before the April 28 board vote on the reorganization plan.

The group is rushing to submit something to the board this week with ideas for recruiting more students to the Sandtown school, recommended for closure because of low enrollment and academic performance. Tubman has 190 students enrolled and space for 360, according to the system. Last year, its MSA scores took a big dive; the third-grade reading pass rate was 37 percent; in math, it was 40. Fourth and fifth grades were somewhat better. The staff members at the meeting said there's been a turnaround this year under the leadership of a new principal, and they haven't had a chance to show it.

One question I had for Lou Fields, a community activist who organized the meeting: Why didn't this group attend the COMAR hearings? He said -- echoing complaints at the hearings -- that the locations at Poly and Lake Clifton made it difficult for west-side residents to attend. He said the room was packed when Tubman had its own meeting with system officials earlier in the month.

Fields argues that the way the school closure proposal was announced was hurtful to the parents and students who learned of it on the news. He says the school, home of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's OrchKids program, is a bright spot in a blighted neighborhood.

Most of the concerns I heard during the hour I stayed were social rather than academic: the gang-infested neighborhoods kids would have to walk through to get to their new schools, the trouble parents would have getting there. One teacher said she's worried about disruption in the mental health services that more than half her class receive. The group was searching for a hook, something it could do to make the case that it has to stay open.

There was talk of a public relations campaign, of recruiting parents who will pledge to send their children to Tubman next year, of sprucing up the school and asking Dr. Alonso and board members to visit. But I'll be surprised if the plan changes this late in the game.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:02 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Baltimore City

April 20, 2009

What school board functions?

The Baltimore school board has announced a closed session meeting for tomorrow afternoon "to discuss the functions of the Board." What does that mean?

I've got no inside information on this one, but my guess would be that they're meeting to talk about who will take over as board president when Brian Morris steps down this summer.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 7:02 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Baltimore City

Introducing InsideEd's Comment of the Week

Belatedly following the lead of some blogs I admire, I'm starting a Comment of the Week feature here on InsideEd. Keep submitting the thoughtful comments you already do, and every Friday (or thereabouts), I'll pick one to highlight in its own post.
Posted by Sara Neufeld at 7:21 AM | | Comments (3)

Ten years after Columbine

Do you remember where you were 10 years ago today? The Columbine High School massacre on April 20, 1999, was a moment in history I'll never forget.

I was a college student at the time, spending the semester abroad in Salamanca, Spain. My host mother, an elderly woman, burst into my room and started yelling in Spanish about how crazy Americans are, killing each other in their schools. She struggled with the word "Colorado," thinking it might have been my home state, Connecticut. I scurried out to an Internet cafe to get the details of what happened.

You'll find no shortage of news accounts about today's anniversary. Here's an A.P. update on the survivors. USA Today reports on the extra security that schools have added since Columbine, as well as the major school shootings since then. Reporter Dave Cullen, who covered the shootings, has published the book Columbine; he's interviewed in this Salon article.

There's also no shortage of public figures issuing statements on the anniversary and experts offering school safety tips. Yes, schools need to build students' social skills, pair them with needed social services and offer high-quality alternative programs for those who are chronically disruptive or violent. (All tips courtesy of the American Federation of Teachers.)

But perhaps the biggest variable is one schools can't control: kids' access to guns. As long as weapons like those used in Littleton 10 years ago are widely available, and as long as parents allow guns in their homes, those with the determination to cause deadly harm will have the means to do so. Here's a timeline from PBS outlining the gun control debate of the past decade.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:09 AM | | Comments (25)
Categories: School Safety (Or Lack Thereof)

April 19, 2009

A case against "readicide"

Nancy Schnog, an English teacher in Potomac, has a commentary in today's paper about "readicide," defined as "the systematic killing of the love of reading, often exacerbated by the inane, mind-numbing practices found in schools."

In response to the commentary, I got an e-mail today from a Baltimore school librarian who wrote that "getting kids to actually read anything is a constant struggle. I play the 'I have a great book for you game' every day all day. I sometimes think I am worse than a used car salesman in my selling tactics. BUT, kids need to be introduced to and sold on books. We need to give them choices of books, newspapers, magazines, ads, anything to hook them."

So how do you get kids to love reading in this age of standardized test prep? And where do you draw the line on the choices you give them? I feel like I'm beating a dead horse by bringing up the Studio Course debacle again, but part of the problem there was giving kids a choice deemed inappropriate (CosmoGirl magazine).

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 4:21 PM | | Comments (23)
Categories: Teaching

April 18, 2009

Inside on a sunny Saturday morning

About 50 people came out for the second and final COMAR hearing this morning, probably 20 of them system administrators required to attend. I'm sure there were people who decided to stay out and soak up the beautiful morning sun, but some speakers complained that both hearings (Thursday's at Poly, today's at Lake Clifton) were inconvenient for west-side residents. And some said people didn't turn out because they feel as though the decisions are already a done deal. Richard Stasio, a teacher at Dunbar Middle, said building crews are already out at the school preparing for its reconfiguration. Dr. Alonso responded that work has to happen now so the buildings will be ready if the board approves his school reorganization plan on April 28 -- but the board can still decide to change course. Stasio also said his school has been functioning without working heat, so if the system improves the conditions upon a merger with NAF, it's to be expected that student performance will improve.

Linda Jones, a teacher at Thurgood Marshall High, said she wished the system had given the school more support before deciding to close it. "I'm not sure why we never got resources," she said. Jason Kennon, who said he's involved at Lemmel, again warned the board against gang violence with the moves in and out of the Lemmel building (the middle school closing, IBE moving in). "How many of you have seen a drug raid or someone's brains blown out?" he asked the board members, talking about the social problems students are confronting. He said the system should be bringing new curriculum and programs to the children where they are.

City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke was the only person at either hearing to speak in defense of  Paquin, which is slated for merger with the Rising Star alternative school for overage middle school students. Because Paquin is now classified as a program rather than a school, it wasn't technically part of the hearings. Clarke said she came today "not with a lot of hope, but somebody needs to say something... It's a mess and I don't know how it's gonna be fixed." She said Paquin provides a "serene, safe environment" for pregnant girls, teenage moms and their babies, and to put it under the auspices of Rising Star would be "disrespectful."

Alonso uncharacteristically kept to himself for most of the hearing but then unloaded at the end, saying that if the reorganization does not work, "this is my accountability. If it doesn't work, I'm not gonna be around." He said he understands the concerns about gang violence stemming from school transfers are real, but if we accept that certain kids can't go into certain neighborhoods, "we are never going to be a city that works. Never." He reiterated that the plan is about giving families good school choices. "The only people in this city who have been getting choice," he said, "are the middle class and the wealthy and the people who get their kids into the citywide schools."

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 3:15 PM | | Comments (27)
Categories: Baltimore City

Professional development at Park School

If anyone doesn't have Sunday plans, there's an interesting event going on tomorrow at Park School to mark the 20-year anniversary of a unique professional development program. The Faculty and Curricular Advancement Program, or FACA, provides the funding for teachers to spend a month each summer working on projects to benefit the school. I hear there's some interest in trying to replicate the model for public schools. Various workshops will be going on throughout the afternoon; tickets are $10 at the door.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 3:05 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Baltimore County

April 17, 2009

Bluford Drew Jemison principal removed

The board governing the Bluford Drew Jemison charter school removed its principal, Kevin Parson, over the spring break. He has been reassigned to the central office. Not surprisingly, school officials declined to comment, since this is a personnel matter. Bluford has an atypical structure in that the principal reports to a "head of school," Kirk Gaddy. He is running the all-boys school on his own through the end of the academic year. Carl Stokes, the director of operations, said the board will launch a national search for a replacement.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 2:45 PM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Baltimore City, Charter Schools

IBE students, protesting in the rain


Larry Jackson, a senior at Homeland Security Academy and budding photographer headed to MICA, took this photo of Wednesday's protest outside the Walbrook complex. Students were rallying against plans to move the the Institute of Business and Entrepreneurship to the Lemmel building next year. As Homeland Security closes, the Walbrook building would be shut down for a year and reconfigured to house two new single-gender schools (one boys, one girls) starting in 2010.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 11:45 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Baltimore City

School closure hearing... could've been worse

More than 100 people attended last night's COMAR hearing at Poly/Western, and it got pretty heated and highly emotional at times. One man asked the school board members if they're trying to increase test scores or the murder rate. Like many of the others who spoke, he fears violence will rise if students have to cross gang lines to get to their new schools or if rival gang members are placed in the same school.

But, honestly, I was surprised it wasn't worse given the magnitude of changes proposed. I remember bigger crowds coming out a few years back when Samuel Banks was being moved into its current (and, it seems, final) location and gang warfare was predicted. This is not to take the concerns presented tonight lightly. On the contrary, it's incredibly sad that every time a school is relocated, gang violence must be a key consideration. This time around, the relocation of IBE to the Lemmel building seems to be of particular concern.

A number of speakers expressed confusion with logistics of the school reorganization plan such as transportation and were upset they didn't have a say in the proposal. Some lamented the partnerships with outside organizations that would be lost when schools close. Some came to defend Lemmel (the school slated to close, not the building that stays open), wanting to know where Dr. Alonso and other system administrators have been since they rushed out there after November's fatal stabbing.

Parents from the National Academy Foundation presented some interesting concerns. If the school absorbs Dunbar Middle in 2010, what about its academic entrance criteria? Would standards lower? What about the students who play sports for Digital Harbor and are counting on their placement on those teams for college scholarships? And can the school system provide a facility for NAF comparable to the one it would be leaving?

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:03 AM | | Comments (10)
Categories: Baltimore City

April 16, 2009

Northwestern's head of special ed arrested on drug charges

I'm bleary-eyed but back in Baltimore, ready for tonight's school closure hearing at Poly/Western. Sounds like I missed more drama yesterday, when the head of special education at Northwestern High was arrested on drug charges at North Avenue. Victoria Carter, 58, was being held on $40,000 bail at Central Booking following a long undercover drug investigation and the arrest of her 29-year-old son, Kenneth Carter. Police say they seized 50 grams of suspected crack from their home and a small amount from the mother's BMW.
Posted by Sara Neufeld at 4:05 PM | | Comments (13)
Categories: Baltimore City, School Safety (Or Lack Thereof)

Baltimore County teachers one step closer to pay raises

My story today looks at reactions to Baltimore County Executive Jim Smith’s budget – specifically as it relates to education. More than half of Smith’s $2.5 million proposal is allocated to the Board of Education.

Most seem quite pleased with the budget, including Superintendent Joe A. Hairston, but nothing will be final until the County Council votes on it next month. There's a public hearing at 7 p.m. April 28 in council chambers and a public work session on May 4.

Teachers union President Cheryl Bost also expressed her appreciation for the 3.5 percent increase.  But she also observed that, even if teachers get the pay raise, their lengthy push for better pay can’t end there. The county still remains behind others in terms of competitive salaries, she said, in part because there were no raises this fiscal year.

Bost emphasized that instructors are grateful for what they might get, considering the state of the economy. But she also said a long-term plan for teacher retention is needed.

Any thoughts on ways to keep good teachers on board?

Posted by Arin Gencer at 11:20 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Baltimore County

April 15, 2009

Disparities on California's high school exit exam

My breakfast with Jane Hannaway made me late to a session at AERA yesterday on high school exit exams, but I arrived in time for the presentation of a new study out of California, where students have had to pass an exam to graduate since 2005. The researchers, Sean Reardon of Stanford and Michal Kurlaender of University of California at San Diego, looked at the impact of the exams on students in the bottom quartile of their class. Within that population, the exams had a big negative effect on minorities and on girls.

Forty-six percent of Hispanic students in the bottom quartile graduated before the exam went into effect, compared with 31 percent after. For black students, the number went down from 53 percent to 34 percent. Asians, too, saw a decline, from 61 percent to 45 percent. But for whites in the bottom quartile, there was virtually no change: 44 percent to 43 percent.

Boys in the bottom quartile saw their graduation rate decline by 11 percentage points while the rate for girls declined by 19 points.

Students in the upper three quartiles were barely impacted by the exam. Overall, California's graduation rate declined between 3 and 4 percentage points. But Reardon said there's no evidence that the California exit exam had a positive impact on student achievement and he recommends doing away with it. His report will be made public next week, and I'll provide a link then.

It's worth noting that California does not provide students who don't pass the exam with a project option as Maryland does.

UPDATE: Here is a link to the study.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 7:31 AM | | Comments (8)
Categories: Testing

Do teachers hit a plateau?

The education reporters at AERA had breakfast yesterday morning with Jane Hannaway of the Urban Institute. She presented us with some research on teaching that I'm guessing will touch a nerve with some of you... She cited data showing that teachers get more effective, as measured by their students' test scores, for their first three to four years on the job, but then experience doesn't matter after that. So, she asked, why keep giving teachers annual raises when schools aren't getting a bigger return on productivity? She also said that a teacher's level of certification does not impact student test scores. Having a masters degree doesn't help, either, unless it's in a specific subject, namely math or science.

While it was hard for Hannaway to say what does make some teachers more effective than others, if not experience or advanced certification and degrees, she had data on the range of teacher effectiveness. The top 15 percent of teachers see their students make, on average, a year and a half worth of progress annually on standardized tests. The bottom 15 percent see an average annual growth of a half a year.

Hannaway was part of Urban's study on Teach for America that found TFA's secondary school teachers in North Carolina were more effective than their colleagues. There are policy implications to that, she said. Maybe it's OK to have a highly selective program that brings in teachers for a few years and gives them intensive support, even if it means that many of the teachers will leave after a few years. I asked about the social and emotional impact on children in the high-poverty areas that TFA serves, who rely on their teachers for more than just teaching. She said she's more concerned about the students moving than the teachers.

At a lecture I went to last night, Deborah Loewenberg Ball of University of Michigan said she's sick of hearing about the teacher plateau, which exists because of inadequate professional development for teachers after their first few years on the job. She made the case that schools of education at research universities should help fill that need.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:08 AM | | Comments (9)
Categories: Teaching

April 14, 2009

Juvenile shot in ankle during Harlem Park burglary

Looks like I'm missing a busy return from spring break... A juvenile was shot in the ankle during a burglary at the Harlem Park complex shortly after midnight when a school police officer's gun discharged. The officer, a 36-year veteran, is on administrative leave. My colleague, Peter Hermann, points out on his blog that so far the officer's name is being withheld. Here is a story and photo and the city school system's statement is below.

Statement from the city school system: 

At 12:15 a.m. on April 14, 2009 school police responded to an alarm at the Harlem Park complex.  Upon arrival, officers observed four individuals inside the building.  A perimeter was established with the assistance of Baltimore Police.  Four juvenile suspects were apprehended by school police personnel.  During the apprehension, one individual was injured when the officer’s service weapon discharged through the officer’s pant leg and struck the suspect in the ankle.  This individual was transported to Johns Hopkins Hospital for treatment.  The remaining three individuals were processed and transported to the Department of Juvenile Services. 

The discharge of the weapon is presently being investigated by Baltimore Police.  The officer, a 36-year veteran of school police, has been placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of the investigation by Baltimore Police. Further details will be provided at the conclusion of the investigation. 

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 7:05 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Baltimore City, School Safety (Or Lack Thereof)

Experience Corps study shows big reading gains

I write today about how being a volunteer in an urban school helps kids and the health of adult tutors. 

In talking about the tutors, I barely mention the kids. But a new study out of Washington University in St. Louis is worth a little more attention. It says that children who had these older adults as tutors made better than 60 percent more progress in two reading skills: reading comprehension and sounding out words.

Experience Corps is a national volunteer program that places at least 15 older tutors in a given school in kindergarten through third-grade classes. The volunteers, who have to be 55 or older, must commit to coming to the school for at least 15 hours a week for the academic year.

The Washington University study found that having an Experience Corps member in the classroom was the equivalent of reducing class size by 40 percent. The only groups that did not benefit, the study said, were students in special education.

The study was conducted over two years was funded by The Atlantic Philanthropies. It followed 800 students in 23 elementary schools in three cities. Half the students in the study were with Experience Corps volunteers and half were not.

What is so interesting, too, about these volunteers, is that many of them come from the communities around the schools. It's almost a formal way of having more neighborhood grandmas in schools. What kids wouldn't be helped having a grandma or grandpa there when they struggle to sound out a word or understand the meaning of a sentence?

And getting to know a few more adults in the neighborhood might also have benefits that carry into the streets. I am guessing here, but don't you think when those children move on to middle school and high school, they would be less likely to act up when they see the Experience Corps volunteer who sat beside them for hours in third-grade walking by?

Posted by Liz Bowie at 6:03 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Around the Nation, Baltimore City, Study, study!

On media marketing, test prep and renaming NCLB

Forgive me if this isn't my most coherent blog entry... More than 20 sleepless hours after my alarm rang in Baltimore, I've arrived in my hotel room in San Diego following the first day of AERA, the world's largest gathering of education researchers. There are 1,500 sessions being offered this week with 12,000 participants. The agenda is so long -- 500 pages! -- that people here call it "the phone book."

It is a testament to the excellent speakers I heard today (through a program arranged for a dozen education reporters by the Hechinger Institute) that I did not even come close to dozing through a single one of their presentations.

The first speaker, Holly Yettick of University of Colorado at Boulder, gave me some food for thought about the studies we write about on this blog... A former education reporter herself for the late Rocky Mountain News (may it rest in peace), Yettick is doing her dissertation on how the media cover education research. Through a six-month study of articles in Education Week and yearlong study of the New York Times and Washington Post, she found that advocacy-oriented think tanks are more likely to get their research into print than universities, where work is peer-reviewed. Why? The advocacy groups have aggressive marketing for their studies, even if there is less quality control. Universities produce 14 times more education research than the think tanks but only find their studies in the media three times more often.

Lorrie Shepard, dean of the education school at Boulder, presented some fascinating research about the downside of teaching to standardized tests, where students could not interpret facts they'd memorized for exams when presented in a slightly different way. For example, they could convert Roman numerals to Arabic but not the other way around. She doesn't recommend getting rid of tests but says tests need to be more thoughtful, especially the state exams used for NCLB. She says the formative assessments used in many districts to imitate the state tests have been "hijacked" by commercial test publishers.

The Hechinger group had dinner with Linda Darling-Hammond, who says that Barack Obama is more committed to education than any president since LBJ and wants to make decisions based on evidence showing what works. She predicts he'll have a difficult political road ahead reauthorizing No Child Left Behind, but says this much is certain: Obama will give the law a new name. Any suggestions?

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 1:45 AM | | Comments (0)

April 13, 2009

Closing the digital divide at home

Does having computer access at home make a difference for students? Many educators think so.

In my story today on the technology gap, I wrote about efforts to equip students with computers at home. It's an expensive undertaking. Many school systems struggle to provide computers in the classroom, let alone at home. That's where programs like Computers For Students enter the picture. The Howard County-based program will provide 100 Howard County students with home computers this school year. Parents, students, and educators alike praise programs like this agree that it helps with student achievement.

Great strides have been made when it comes to providing computer access to students in school. In 1996, the state's student-computer ratio was 16-to-1. Last year, the ratio closed to 3.4-to-1.

Around the state the number of students with computer access in the home varies greatly. At 88 percent, Howard County leads the state, and Baltimore City is the lowest at 43 percent.

What do you think? Is it the school system's responsibility to provide students with computers in the home? Or is it a luxury item that parents should be expected to purchase on their own? And is it necessary for students to have computers at home in order to be successful in the classroom? 

Posted by John-John Williams IV at 3:58 PM | | Comments (13)
Categories: Around the Region

An education reporter's professional development

I am fortunate to have received scholarships to attend two education conferences in the next few weeks.

I leave this morning for the first, the annual American Educational Research Association meeting in San Diego. It's the biggest gathering of educational researchers in the world. I'm grateful to the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, which provided the funding for me and about 10 other education reporters to attend. I'll be blogging from the meeting the next few days. The agenda is enormous, with dozens of sessions going on at any given time. (You can log in as a guest to see my options.) Linda Darling-Hammond, who advised President Obama during his campaign, is expected to speak at a dinner tonight about his education agenda.

I'll return on a redeye Wednesday night and will be back in Baltimore for the school closure hearings that start Thursday.

Then, from April 30 to May 2, I will attend the annual Education Writers Association conference in Washington. Arne Duncan is among those scheduled to speak.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 7:41 AM | | Comments (0)

April 12, 2009

So you want to go to Harvard?

In today's paper, I write about the saga of a group of talented, ambitious kids at Pikesville High School trying to get into the nation's best colleges. Educators give struggling students a lot of attention and so do newspapers, but I wanted to take a look at the students who are our best and brightest.

In some inner-city schools, we aren't expecting much from students. They graduate barely able to meet minimal standards. Just a few miles away, students are expected to be nearly perfect. It is quite a contrast.

Besides the story, there's a lot of additional material here on the Web site, including a video, a sample SAT quiz and information on getting into the nation's top colleges. Five of the Pikesville seniors write about their experiences here. Please use this blog to comment on what they had to say. I would like to start a conversation among other teenagers and the Pikesville students about the travails of the college admissions process. Parents and teachers, too.   

Posted by Liz Bowie at 6:02 AM | | Comments (27)
Categories: Around the Region

April 10, 2009

Fresh from the farm: school lunch

There’s an interesting op-ed in today’s paper praising Maryland for its Farm-to-School program. The program aims to put fresh, local food in school cafeterias and to teach kids more about where that food comes from. The op-ed considers the concept a win for everyone – students, farmers, local communities and the environment.

This focus on healthy eating is another facet of an ongoing conversation on childhood obesity and ensuring students are eating well during the school day. Even as they turn healthier, schools throughout the nation are simultaneously trying not to loose their young clientele by sacrificing taste. My colleague John-John Williams recently wrote about such efforts in a story about a Howard County contest allowing students to propose recipes for the cafeteria menu.

Posted by Arin Gencer at 12:53 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Around the Nation, Around the Region, Howard County

April 9, 2009

Will HSAs hold students back?

School officials in Baltimore and all over Maryland seem to think that the High School Assessments won't prevent many if any seniors from getting a diploma this year. Yes, there will be seniors who don't graduate, but that's the case every year. And those who don't graduate are those who would be held back anyway -- for failing classes, not showing up, not completing service learning hours, etc. Special education students and English learners who have done everything they're supposed to do can apply for HSA waivers.

So how to verify this claim?

I started by asking the city school system for the number of seniors it has graduated in recent years. Presumably, if the system graduates as many or more seniors this year (accounting for potential differences in the size of the classes), it will mean the HSAs didn't hold a lot of students back.

Last year, the system graduated 4,019 seniors. In 2007, the number of graduates was 4,118; in 2006, it was 4,108. This year, as I reported yesterday, 3,368 of 4,170 seniors in the city have met HSA requirements so far, and 802 have not. I thought that meant that nearly all 802 would have to get to graduation to make this year comparable to last -- until I remembered the over-age seniors. There are between 400 and 600 of them who started high school prior to the fall of 2005 and therefore are exempt from the HSAs. Some of these students are in special education and bound for certificates, not diplomas. (The city typically gives out 100 certificates or fewer per year.) Still, if 4,500 students or more are trying for diplomas this spring, it seems likely that the number graduating will be the same or more than in years past. But time will tell.

We'll be watching closely in Baltimore and around the state this spring to see how it actually plays out.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 7:34 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Around the Region, Baltimore City, Testing

April 8, 2009

From Maryland to Denver, outrage over porn

The porn wars at University of Maryland have become a dominant topic in this final week of the General Assembly, as you'll see from reading the Maryland Politics blog. But showing an X-rated movie in college is nothing compared with... high school. In Denver, a substitute teacher accidentally gave students in a geography class a sneak peak of a porno from the regular teacher's personal collection, in place of the movie they were supposed to be watching. Oops. Tip courtesy of Detention Slip

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 2:51 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Around the Nation

Maryland schools invest in pre-kindergarten

A report released today ranks Maryland ninth in the nation for the percentage of its preschool-age population enrolled in pre-kindergarten programs.

The report is by the National Institute for Early Education Research, which looked at the extent of pre-kindergarten programs in U.S. schools since 2002. Nationally, the number of children enrolled in free public pre-kindergarten classes increased by more than 100,000 last year to 1.1 million, but the report warns that could decrease next year as states make cuts to their programs during the recession.

In Maryland, funding jumped this year, allowing more children to take advantage of pre-kindergarten classes. Research has shown that low-income children who have good preschool opportunities do better later in school.

Posted by Liz Bowie at 9:55 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Around the Nation

On aging teachers and all-girls education

Two new studies I bring to your attention:

1) Just out from the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future. It predicts that more than half the current teachers in American schools will retire in the next decade. The largest teacher retirement wave in history is upon us, it says, with the peak predicted for 2010-2011. Charts with state demographics show Maryland's "upper quartile" for age starting at 53 (thanks to MSTA for correcting my earlier misreading).

2) Western and the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women can find common ground in a report out of UCLA that found graduates of all-girls schools are more academically inclined, more politically engaged and more likely to pursue a career in engineering than their peers at co-ed schools. Western and BLSYW joined with private girls schools in the area to put out a press release on the study. Worth noting, though, that the report was funded by the National Coalition of Girls' Schools.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 7:28 AM | | Comments (9)
Categories: Around the Region, Baltimore City, Study, study!

3,368 down, 802 to go

After the grading of 1,942 Bridge projects submitted in March and the acceptance of 1,800 of them, 80.8 percent of the city's senior class -- or 3,368 students -- have now met the High School Assessment requirements. Another 802 have not, but there's still the April test administration and another three chances to submit projects. Teachers are getting stipends to help about 100 seniors on algebra and biology projects during this week's spring break. And principals plan to apply for waivers for about 125 seniors, many of them in special education or learning English as a second language.

There's been a lot of progress among the seniors with disabilities, but still a long way to go if not for the waivers: Just 41.3 percent, or 161 of 390, meet requirements now, up from a single-digit pass rate last fall.

Getting to this point has been a ton of work, and school staff should brace themselves to do it again next year. Among the current juniors in the city, only a third -- 1,467 of 4,333 -- have met HSA requirements so far. This year, the city is faring better than Prince George's County, where, as of late March, 1,655 seniors (21.5 percent) were still trying to meet HSA requirements.

To give folks a sense of just how much work has been going on, I'm putting below the number of projects each city high school submitted in March and how many were accepted. Frederick Douglass High submitted the most projects: 208, of which 196 were accepted. Northwestern was No. 2, with 196 projects submitted and 181 accepted.

Officials say they expect that the only students in the city who won't graduate this year are those who wouldn't have graduated anyway: because of failed classes, missed service learning opportunities, etc. But the city has graduated about 4,000 seniors each of the past three years. To graduate 4,000 this year, all but 100 would need to get through. I understand that the size of the classes might be different, and that could skew the comparison, but I think it will be important for the public to know if, indeed, the HSA holds anyone back.

Southside Academy: 50 projects submitted, 49 accepted
Independence School: 1 project submitted, 1 accepted
Edmondson-Westside: 28 projects submitted, 26 accepted
Northwestern: 196 projects submitted, 181 accepted
Patterson: 158 projects submitted, 148 accepted
Forest Park: 98 projects submitted, 94 accepted
Mervo: 16 projects submitted, 16 accepted
Achievement Academy at Harbor City: 118 projects submitted, 114 accepted
Dunbar: 1 project submitted, 1 accepted
Digital Harbor: 11 projects submitted, 10 accepted
W.E.B. DuBois: 67 projects submitted, 63 accepted
Reginald F. Lewis: 117 projects submitted, 116 accepted
Samuel L. Banks: 80 projects submitted, 73 accepted
NAF: 2 projects submitted, 2 accepted
New Era: 4 projects submitted, 4 accepted
Baltimore Freedom Academy: 29 projects submitted, 26 accepted
Thurgood Marshall: 117 projects submitted, 109 accepted
Heritage: 47 projects submitted, 44 accepted
Doris M. Johnson: 70 projects submitted, 69 accepted
ACCE: 36 projects submitted, 24 accepted
Baltimore Talent Development: 57 projects submitted, 41 accepted
Vivien T. Thomas: 23 projects submitted, 22 accepted
Augusta Fells Savage: 49 projects submitted, 40 accepted
Maritime Industries Academy: 13 projects submitted, 13 accepted
Renaissance Academy: 34 projects submitted, 23 accepted
Homeland Security: 113 projects submitted, 105 accepted
IBE: 135 projects submitted, 132 accepted
Douglass: 208 projects submitted, 196 accepted
Carver: 51 projects submitted, 46 accepted
City College: 13 projects submitted, 13 accepted
Total: 1,942 projects submitted, 1,800 accepted

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:09 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Baltimore City, Testing

April 7, 2009

Scaling back on Thornton cuts

I'm still trying to get a handle on the specifics, and negotiations in the House/Senate conference committee are still ongoing, but lawmakers in Annapolis are backing down from the most severe cuts the Senate proposed for education. It sounds like they're getting the message that the federal government will withhold the second year of stimulus money from states that slash education spending and try to use the stimulus dollars to make up the difference.

UPDATE: I've learned -- and apparently the legislators in Annapolis have, too -- that the stimulus contains language prohibiting cuts to state education funding formulas after October 2008 if schools are to receive the federal dollars. However, the conference committee is planning to limit inflation increases to 1 percent the year the stimulus runs out, in fiscal 2012, which would prompt cuts at that time.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 12:02 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Around the Region, Baltimore City

April 6, 2009

South Baltimore's Catholic Community School to close

The Catholic Community School in South Baltimore has announced that it will close its doors in June after 125 years because of low enrollment and financial problems. I'll post below the letter that the principal sent to families on Friday. It's sad. (UPDATE: I've been corrected that, while a Catholic school has been at that location for 125 years, it's only been Catholic Community School for the past 37.)

The school will hold an event April 20 with representatives from other area Catholic schools to help its 165 students find placements. I wonder if anyone from the public school system will be there. While we all know there will never come a time when all private schools in the city shut down, as Jonathan Kozol suggests is necessary to integrate the public schools, the state of the economy does provide an opportunity for the public schools to attract middle-class families.

As of now, one other school in the Baltimore archdiocese -- St. Michael in Frostburg -- is slated to close this summer.

April 3, 2009

Dear Parents/Guardians,

May the Peace of Christ be with you.

It is with a very heavy heart that I write to you today; and to be very honest with you, I do not know where to begin.  I sincerely regret that I can not talk to each of you personally.

Catholic schools throughout the nation are facing enrollment and financial challenges and crises; and our school is no exception. Over the past six to eight years, student enrollment here at CCS has steadily declined, despite our many efforts to recruit and maintain students.  As the demographics in our immediate neighborhood have changed, so has the number of children living within our geographic area.  Currently, there are 165 students attending our school, and this compares to 250 students less than ten years ago.  Our projected enrollments for next year is fewer than 150 and in this challenging economic climate, we will likely struggle to reach that number.  

Our financial situation at this time is dire. The school has operated on a budget deficit for over three years, and there is a projected deficit of $330,000 for the 2009-2010 year.  At the end of the past school year, the school was forced to absorb a debt of $130,000 in outstanding tuition.  Currently, $250,000 in tuition is owed the school.  As the deficit grows each year, the enormous financial burden on our small school has made it more and more difficult to maintain day-to-day operations.  In fact, we anticipate needing assistance from the Archdiocese just to make payroll before the current school year is over.  Over the past five years, the Archdiocese of Baltimore has helped us cover over $500,000 of our expenses; and a very generous benefactor, who wishes to be anonymous, has donated another $500,000 to Catholic Community School over the past six years.  This assistance has been enough to allow the school to continue operating in the past. 

As critical as the financial picture is, the educational development of our students is also threatened by the declining enrollment.  Current class sizes are approaching critically low levels and with even smaller classes anticipated for next year, we fear that the quality of the education of the students may suffer.

For the past three months the CCS School Board has assisted me in consulting with our finance committee, the pastor, and the administrative offices of the Archdiocese of Baltimore to discuss these concerns and to study the statistics to determine whether or not our school can be sustained past this year. After prayerful considerations and painstaking discussions, we have determined that Catholic Community School will close as of this June, 2009.

We realize that this announcement comes as a painful shock to you, to our teachers, our staff, and most of all to our students. We would like to meet with as many of you as possible on Monday, April 20th at 7:00 P.M. to discuss this decision and to assist you in evaluating the educational opportunities available to your children, including enrolling them in other Catholic schools.  To that end, representatives from St. Casimir, St. Rose of Lima, and St. Philip Neri Schools will be on hand to provide specific information about their schools. 

Those who have already paid a registration fee for the coming school year and are current on their payment of this year’s tuition, will receive a full refund.  Every effort will be made to ensure that parents wishing to send their children to another Catholic school will be  able to meet their financial obligations to CCS prior to next school year.

I ask you to please tell your children about this announcement.  I also ask you to explain to your children that CCS closing is not their fault, and that you will find them another school that will be a good school for them.  The children need to be assured that their “new” school will welcome them, keep them safe, and give them a good education.  I have notified the faculty and staff and every effort will be made to address their employment needs and to provide for their spiritual well-being.  We will have additional counselors on hand to assist any student or faculty member in the days ahead as they struggle with this announcement.

After the shock, denial, and (disappointment) of this announcement washes over us, and we have time to think about the “next” steps, I will look to each of you to help me and to help our children bring this school year to a happy ending.  We will need to celebrate the time that we have had together.  For over 125 years, many generations of families received a quality education rooted in our Catholic faith and tradition here at our school.  We need to praise and thank our God for these many years.

Thank you for your loving support.  Please keep everyone here at Catholic Community School in your prayers.

May the peace and love of the Risen Lord bless you during this Easter season.


Sister Vicki Staub, SSJ


Posted by Sara Neufeld at 5:58 PM | | Comments (6)
Categories: Baltimore City

Report notes increase in Maryland's failing schools

The number of Maryland schools that have not met federal standards and had to restructure has increased rapidly in the past year, according to a report by the Center on Education Policy. Twenty-nine more schools were added to the list, bringing the total number of schools in restructuring to 85 this academic year.   

For the past five years, CEP has kept close track of how states are implementing No Child Left Behind. The report said that while Maryland's increase in schools in restructuring is notable, it is not unexpected because it has been five years since NCLB was initiated. So a school that wasn't meeting the standards has just that long before regulations say something radical has to be done to improve it.

A Maryland official, Ann Chafin, described this as a "bubble moving moving along" when interviewed by the authors of the report. Even so, the discouraging news is that we aren't finding many schools in this category that have improved a lot over the last few years.

CEP said only 13 schools have managed to improve enough to get out of restructuring. What is the most popular way to restructure a school? CEP says most schools are replacing all or most of the staff.

We will see if it works.

Posted by Liz Bowie at 12:55 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Around the Region

April 5, 2009

Public employees' freedom of speech

Peter Hermann writes today about a federal circuit court opinion issued last week in the case of a Baltimore police officer, Michael Andrew, who was fired and then reinstated to a lesser position. His offense: leaking a report critical of city cops to The Sun. Federal judges ruled that he might have been disciplined unfairly. To them, the question was whether the officer was acting in an official capacity (in which case he overstepped the boundaries of his job) or whether he was exercising his personal freedom of speech, which he has the right to do.

This case is interesting to me, since I regularly encounter school system employees who won't talk to me or provide me with information for fear of being disciplined. (This is not unique to Baltimore, by the way; it's been the case in every district I've ever covered.) I think one of the biggest assets of this blog is that it enables people to speak out without fear of reprimand, since you don't need to leave your name in the comments.

In this blog entry, Peter quotes a concurring opinion in the case by Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III, who says society actually needs more government insiders to leak information to reporters, particularly in this time of newspaper cutbacks.

"There are pros and cons to the changing media landscape, and I do not pretend to know what assets and debits the future media mix will bring," the judge wrote. "But this I do know—that the First Amendment should never countenance the gamble that informed scrutiny of the workings of government will be left to wither on the vine. That scrutiny is impossible without some assistance from inside sources such as Michael Andrew. Indeed, it may be more important than ever that such sources carry the story to the reporter, because there are, sad to say, fewer shoeleather journalists to ferret the story out."

You can read the decision here.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 8:27 AM | | Comments (9)
Categories: Baltimore City

April 3, 2009

Jonathan Kozol on "separate and unequal" schools

I had a great conversation with Jonathan Kozol before his talk last night at the University of Baltimore law school's Urban Child Symposium on the dropout crisis. He says the heart of the problem is segregation. Of Baltimore, he told me, "this is one of the most segregated school systems in America... this must be one of the closest to absolute apartheid." (I told him there are some schools in the city that are an exception to that. Folks at City Neighbors Charter had wanted to give him a tour of their well-integrated school, but it didn't fit into his schedule.)

Kozol quoted a recent speech by President Obama who said high school dropout rates have tripled since the early 1980s -- when, Kozol says, the schools began to "massively resegregate" and Brown vs. Board of Ed was effectively dismantled. He says black and Latino children are more segregated now than they have been since 1968, the year of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination.

"I'm utterly out of fashion these days in that I actually believe Dr. King was right," said Kozol, 72, who doesn't use a computer and had hand-written notes for the address he was about to deliver to more than 100 people in a university auditorium. He says segregated schools convey the message to the children there that "you have been sequestered in this institution so you will not contaminate the education of white people." Children get this message from the condition of the buildings (often "squalid surroundings") and from dispirited teachers who have to "give up joy and creativity to become drill sergeants for the state." (Kozol went on a hunger strike in 2007 to protest No Child Left Behind.) He says the most successful African-Americans he's seen -- including Obama and Kurt Schmoke (a student of Kozol's once upon a time at Yale) -- did not have to attend segregated inner-city schools.

So what's the solution? Kozol likes what Dr. Alonso often says in jest about closing down all the private schools of the city. And he supports cross-city busing to integrate schools. But clearly, those things aren't going to happen anytime soon. Kozol says that when he began his work in education decades ago, he thought he could effect change. Now, he says, he's just a witness.

On another note: Kozol is also on the same page as Alonso in saying that good schools don't resort to suspension or expulsion as punishment for truancy and other non-violent offenses. "Nothing could be more Orwellian in its absurdity," he told the crowd at UB. He also says that full-day pre-kindergarten (preferably for multiple years before kindergarten) is essential, and holding children back for failure increases their chances of dropping out of high school exponentially. We're willing to hold an 8-year-old accountable for her performance, he said, yet we don't hold government leaders accountable for their failure to give inner-city children the same resources as they insist on for their own children.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:05 AM | | Comments (30)
Categories: School Diversity/Segregation

April 2, 2009

Broad Prize finalists announced

The Broad Foundation today announced what it considers to be the five urban school districts making the most progress in raising student achievement:

Aldine Independent School District in Houston
Broward County Public Schools in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Gwinnett County Public Schools outside Atlanta
Long Beach Unified School District in California
Socorro Independent School District in El Paso, Texas

These districts are the finalists for the annual Broad Prize, the biggest award in urban education. The winner will get $1 million and the other four will get $250,000 each to use for college scholarships for high school students.

This Education Week blog points out that all five of the districts have high Latino populations. Officials in Baltimore have made no secret that they hope to be a finalist for this award in the next few years. New York City won in 2007.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 2:45 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Around the Nation

Access denied at new Frederick Douglass computer lab?

Douglass computer labGov. O'Malley, Mayor Dixon, Dr. Grasmick and Dr. Alonso were all on hand Monday afternoon to celebrate the official opening of a new $25,000 computer lab funded by Verizon at Frederick Douglass High School.

But according to this post by a Douglass teacher on The Challenge to Care in Charm City blog, neither students nor teachers have access to the lab, and they don't know when the situation will change.

"Now, don't get me wrong," the post says, "the new computer lab that has been donated to our school is gorgeous, and I am extremely grateful to Verizon and to those who worked tirelessly to solicit the donations and to assemble the finished product. However, it was disheartening for me and for my students when we were told that we were not allowed to actually use the lab. My ninth-graders had written outstanding research papers, and it was very frustrating for them when I told them that they would not be able to type them, even when the technology was clearly in place. Currently, neither students nor teachers are allowed to use the lab, and nobody will respond to inquiries regarding when or if this policy will change."

I'll let you know if someone responds to me. I've e-mailed the principal as well as officials from Verizon and the governor's office. So far I've heard back only from the Verizon spokeswoman, who said she doesn't know anything about this.

The teacher goes on to describe some school activities that are worthy of fanfare, such as a production last week of Live Blacks in Wax, where students portrayed historical characters.

"It was a true community effort, and it passed unnoticed by the people who have been so critical of our school. I would like to see less focus on the glitzy technology and more focus on what really matters-- the awesome things students are doing here every day."

The photo above was taken by Sun photographer Liz Malby.

UPDATE: Here is an e-mail from Principal Clark Montgomery, who says that teachers need to be trained to use the technology in the new lab and follow sign-up protocol. Other labs are available in the building.

I strongly disagree with the comments of this teacher. Frederick Douglass High School has approximately five computer labs, which are accessible for student and teacher use.  During the first semester, representatives from Verizon, MPT, and Frederick Douglass were discussing and developing the plans for the new Frederick Douglass High School Distance Learning Computer Lab.  During the second semester, as indicated on Monday, March 30, 2009, Verizon, Maryland Public Television, and Frederick Douglass High School teachers have been working collaboratively to provide professional development on Thinkfinity and Thinkport so that teachers will be able to integrate technology into their lessons; as a matter of fact, during professional development day on January 30th (three-rotating sessions) and after-school on January 6 from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.  Recently, selected teachers have worked with their students to train them (their students) how to use the equipment. Accessibility and accountability alike require teachers and students to follow procedures and protocol. When one of the computer labs is not available, teachers have an opportunity to access one of the other computer laboratories in the building; however, teachers must register to use the computer labs. They are also accountable for the computers and any other equipment in the lab.  We should highlight the positives in our schools.
Posted by Sara Neufeld at 1:03 PM | | Comments (10)
Categories: Baltimore City

School funding fight moves to conference committee

The Senate has approved the education funding cuts in its budget. It now goes to a conference committee to hammer out differences with the House version, which does not include the most harmful provisions for education. Here is a mass e-mail that Dr. Alonso and Brian Morris just sent out about the potential impact on the city schools.

Arne Duncan has said he will "come down like a ton of bricks" and withhold the second year of stimulus money from states that cut aid to schools with the idea that they can replace it with stimulus dollars. But that appears to be what's happening here in Maryland.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 11:41 AM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Around the Region

April 1, 2009

Senate approves GCEI cuts

The state Senate today approved cutting the geographic cost of education index -- or GCEI, the component of Thornton that gives more money to school districts where the cost of educating students is higher. The governor's proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year, as well as the version of the budget passed by the House of Delegates, funds GCEI at 100 percent. The Senate's version funds it at only 60 percent, with the remaining 40 percent going to plug a hole in school construction funding. For Baltimore, it would mean an $8.7 million loss. Montgomery, Prince George's, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties would also take significant hits.

The Senate is now debating further cuts to education for fiscal years 2011 and 2012 by continuing the cap on inflation that was supposed to lift next year and reducing something known as the "supplemental grant." These cuts would leave the city schools with annual shortfalls of at least $50 million for each of those years. Since the central office has already been slashed for this academic year and next, schools would see the impact directly. Why is it necessary to cut for future years now? Could it be that legislators want to avoid cutting schools next year, in an election year, so they're doing it now as a pre-emptive move?

It's worth noting again that these changes, as well as the GCEI funding reduction, were introduced late Friday night by the Senate's budget and tax committee when no one was watching. The two senators from Baltimore on the budget and tax committee, Nathaniel McFadden (chair of the city delegation and a school system employee) and Verna Jones, voted for the proposal. The reason no one was watching was because it was assumed that the committee would adopt its subcommittee's recommendations on education, but it did not.

Once the Senate's vote is complete, the budget will go to a conference committee with the House.

I just spoke with Dr. Alonso about the Senate's GCEI cut. "These are dollars that were intended to be used in recognition of the difficulty of certain districts in serving the children," he said. "It's part of Thornton, and it's wrong to take away from certain districts... It's wrong to take away from needy children."

Alonso said an $8.7 million loss would limit his plans to expand vocational education and reduce the scope of planned expansion of pre-kindergarten. "In a district where so many things need to be done, that is a tragedy and a missed opportunity," he said.

While legislators are saying that schools will make up the funding loss with stimulus money, the stimulus dollars come with strings attached. Alonso said he talked with U.S. education secretary Arne Duncan and "the stimulus dollars are meant to be used to change the character of education in this country. They're not meant to absolve local governments of their responsibility to adequately fund education." In addition, the biggest cut under the Senate proposal would come in fiscal year 2012, the year the stimulus money runs out.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 6:43 PM | | Comments (12)
Categories: Around the Region

Weighing speed cameras around schools

There's a lively debate going on today on the Maryland Politics blog about legislation likely to be adopted by the General Assembly that would allow speed cameras around Maryland schools. The legislation would permit cameras to be installed within a half-mile of any school (or highway work zone with a speed limit of 45 mph or higher), and anyone going 12 mph over the speed limit or more would be fined $40. The vehicle's registered owner would get the citation in the mail.

Most of the commenters on the politics blog oppose the idea, but I wonder if some of you here might feel differently, if you've seen firsthand the perils of speeding drivers in school zones -- and understanding the need to raise more local revenue. (The money from the fines wouldn't go directly to schools, though.)

UPDATE: In a surprise reversal, the Senate rejected the speed camera bill.

UPDATE, 4/2: The bill was brought back to life.


Posted by Sara Neufeld at 3:21 PM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Around the Region

Duncan supports mayoral control of schools... in Baltimore?

At the Mayors' National Forum on Education in Washington this week, Arne Duncan made the case that all urban school districts should be under mayoral control -- and said he would get involved in advocacy at the local level to see to governance changes. As described in this AP account of Duncan's talk, he singled out Dr. Alonso in the audience and asked how many superintendents Baltimore had over the course of a decade. Seven, Alonso answered. "And you wonder why school systems are struggling,'' Duncan said, according to the article. "What business would run that way?"

He said the tenure of urban superintendents is usually very short because of a lack of leadership at the top. Mayoral control provides stability, he contends.

Assuming the mayor is a strong leader willing to back the superintendent with politically unpopular decisions.

Around the country, the AP says, a few dozen mayors have some control of urban districts, but only seven run management and operations. Among the seven cities with full mayoral control are NYC, where Alonso was deputy chancellor before coming to Baltimore; Washington, where Michelle Rhee is getting a lot of attention for her efforts to rid classrooms of ineffective teachers; and Chicago, where Duncan was superintendent before becoming President Obama's education secretary.

I'm sure most of you know already, but as a refresher: In Baltimore, the school board is appointed jointly by the mayor and the governor, and the board appoints the CEO. It wouldn't be too much of a change if Sheila Dixon were given sole board appointment power, like the mayor of Chicago. Last year, at least, Gov. O'Malley deferred to Dixon anyway to select a new member. The other option would be to abolish the school board and have the superintendent report directly to the mayor, as in New York and D.C. Baltimore's mayor did have full control of the school board until 1997, when partial control was ceded to the state in exchange for additional state funding.

Posted by Sara Neufeld at 2:55 PM | | Comments (9)
Categories: Around the Nation, Baltimore City

Despite stimulus, schools could still suffer

Arne Duncan is to appear at Doswell E. Brooks Elementary School in Prince George's County this morning to announce how states and school districts can begin receiving the first installment of federal stimulus money. Gov. O'Malley and Nancy Grasmick are scheduled to be there, too.

A press release from the governor's office points out that in Prince George's County, administrators plan to use stimulus money "to avoid employee furloughs, layoffs, increases in class sizes and other education program cuts." That is true. But it's also true that such cuts could happen anyway in Prince George's if the state operating budget proposed by the Senate's budget and tax committee and now before the full chamber were to be adopted. I'm told P.G. stands to lose about $22 million next year. The ACLU of Maryland, which is tracking this carefully, said yesterday that the city could take an $18 million hit; yesterday I reported it would be at least $12 million. The House version of the bill contains some of the cuts, but not the biggest ones: a reduction in GCEI funding from 100 percent to 60 percent next year, and a continued cap on inflation increases for school districts in fiscal years 2011 and 2012.

Like the last time education cuts were proposed (only to be rescinded because of the stimulus), it seems the state's two neediest jurisdictions would suffer a disproportionate share of the pain. Montgomery County would take a big hit, too.

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