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.