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July 31, 2009

Nonprofit aims to boost middle school achievement

There's a new educational nonprofit in town, but this time it has an interesting angle. Higher Achievement, founded in Washington, D.C., has expanded to Baltimore and is attempting to give middle school students academic help and mentoring so that they can make it into the city's best college prep high schools. 

I will be writing more about this in the weeks to come, but the group has already recruited about 125 students in the neighborhoods around two schools: Collington Square in East Baltimore and Ashburton in West Baltimore. The students have been attending a summer school and will begin an after-school program in the fall. The after-school program runs from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. four days a week. Not only do the students get dinner and do their homework, mentor volunteers from the community come from 6  p.m. to 8 p.m. The organization is still recruiting mentors, but it hopes to have enough in place by September.

Higher Achievement isn't attempting to attract the students who are about to drop out or at the highest risk of failure. Instead, the group is concentrating on the middle, the students who might be successful with the right support; in other words, the students who might get lost.

Students who participated in the program in D.C. have increased their grades in math and English and have better attendance.

Posted by Liz Bowie at 10:00 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Baltimore City

July 28, 2009

Watch out, here comes another wave of changes in education.

In my reporting over the past week or two, I have been asking superintendents, principals, teachers and education advocates if they are aware of the tidal wave of change that might be coming in the next year. For the most part, they have only a vague notion of what is happening on the national level.

I predict that the words Common Core Standards (think national standards) will be the new common language in the education community in a year. NCLB may seem so 2004 in just a few months.


So what is up? About 46 states have signed up to develop common standards. This idea was considered an impossible idea even by proponents a year ago. But this time, the idea has come from a grass roots movement by the state governments and not from the federal government, so the concept seems to have gained more traction. These new standards would take the place of the Maryland voluntary state standards, which are actually not voluntary anymore. And these new standards for reading and math are expected to be out by the end of the year for K-12.

The next step is for the states to agree with those standards, which one might think would be an impossible task, but according to Maryland State Department of Education staff, the states are expected to move quickly. 

And it seems likely that Maryland would be one of the states that would agree to the standards. Once that happens, the Maryland School Assessments will disappear and we will have a national test. You might be thinking that it will take years to develop that test, but MSDE staff said it wouldn't actually be long. We have 50 states that have developed their own tests for No Child Left Behind and they have already been field tested. So a large database of questions already exists that could be turned in to a new national test.

So in a matter of a couple of years, it seems possible that Baltimore City or Montgomery County won't be worried about how well they did compared to other counties but how well they did nationally. Baltimore will compare itself to Washington or Boston or Phiiadelphia, not Baltimore County.

The bottom line is not likely to be the test, of course, but the curriculum, and that won't be put together in Maryland but by others around the nation. So what is taught in local classrooms will be more on par with what is taught in other places. Proponents argue that it is cheaper and that countries that have the highest-achieving students all have national tests. 

Still, expect a lot of discussion in the coming year about what will be taught in your classrooms, whether you are a parent, teacher or superintendent.


Posted by Liz Bowie at 3:48 PM | | Comments (12)
Categories: Around the Region

July 27, 2009

Saving the environment with plastic lunch trays

Tonight, a group of elementary school students is going to ask the Montgomery County Council to do away with styrofoam lunch trays at their school cafeteria and bring back the hard plastic lunch trays. To make the switch, they are asking for money for their school to buy a dishwasher for the trays.

These 9- to 12-year-olds will hold a rally and then make statements during the comment period of the Montgomery County Board of Education meeting. The students, all at Piney Branch Elementary School, are part of a Young Activist Club. They have created a press release that includes the breakdown in costs to use the plastic trays versus the sytrofoam. They will argue that the school system is overestimating the cost of the washing machine. Here's what a girl named Heather DeMocker, a sixth-grader, wrote:

"Our school uses styrofoam lunch trays that are terrible for the environment and are made from a neurotoxin, which is bad for our bodies. County school administrators think that we shouldn't put a dishwasher into our school because it will cost money and there will be costs to pay someone to operate [a] dishwasher ... because it will cost money to buy the toxic styrofoam lunch trays, drive them to the school, and for school workers to handle them and put them in the garbage, and then to ship them away to the incinerator, and burn them. We think the county should pay for workers not trash."

Posted by Liz Bowie at 6:30 PM | | Comments (6)
Categories: Around the Region

July 24, 2009

Does the "plateau effect" really exist?

In light of the ongoing conversation about the MSAs and testing this week, I thought I'd share this new study done by the Center on Education Policy, examining test score trends. 

The CEP reviewed test-result trends in 16 states with six to 10 years of consistent data for its report.

Interestingly, the study found that the so-called "plateau effect" - the idea that scores initially rise, then level off after the tests are administered for a few years - is not necessarily a given.  The plateau concept has often been cited when talking about state tests, and the likelihood of meeting the 2014 deadline for having every child pass the assessments.

Posted by Arin Gencer at 12:00 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Around the Nation, Testing, Trends

July 23, 2009

Woodlawn, Arbutus middle schools make it off state school-improvement list

In my story today, I take a closer look at two Baltimore County middle schools that managed to get off the state watch list, after making adequate yearly progress two years in a row.

Woodlawn Middle School was the first in the county to land on the school-improvement list during the 2001-2002 school year – and was also the first to put a restructuring plan in place, not waiting to be ordered to do so.  We’ve documented the school’s troubles – which, beyond poor test scores, also included at one time issues with attendance and violence – for nearly a decade.

Woodlawn Principal Damien Ingram and Kendra Johnson, principal of Arbutus Middle, both spoke of the importance of community involvement in achieving their goals.  Ingram said they had volunteers from a local church coming to help with students.  He also made it clear to parents, from day one, what he expected of the kids, he said, which translated into larger numbers of kids showing up for after-school and Saturday programs - and fewer parental complaints.

Ingram also pointed to the modified MSAs as being a big help for some of his special education students, among whom he saw a “drastic increase” in performance this time around. 

What do you think it will take to sustain these advances?  Ingram and Johnson said they basically are preparing to start the process again, with new batches of students – and thus different challenges – coming their way. 

For educators who administered the mod-MSAs this year, what was your experience?  I’m curious as to whether others found this alternative version made a significant difference for their students. 

Posted by Arin Gencer at 12:00 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Baltimore County

July 22, 2009

Is advanced the new proficient?

So many schools around the state have done so well on the Maryland School Assessments that it is difficult to really rank schools and say which are better. One third of all elementary schools now have more than 90 percent of their students who have passed the test. In some counties, a high percentage of their schools now are vying to see if they can get to 98 percent passing or 95 percent. In the city, 20 elementary schools have 90 percent of their students passing the test.

So what is the next bar to jump over? Perhaps it is time to sort by what percentage of students can place in the advanced category.

In interviews I am doing today for stories later this week, I hear people say that those top performing schools are now concentrating on providing the arts and music, as well as more creative approaches to helping every child develop his or her strengths.

Do principals and teachers think the MSA is becoming less relevant because it isn't that hard to pass? Is this a good thing?


Posted by Liz Bowie at 5:34 PM | | Comments (26)
Categories: Around the Region

July 21, 2009

And they're in: MSA scores

See our early online story, as well as the state Web site with individual district and school scores.
Posted by Arin Gencer at 2:27 PM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Around the Region

July 17, 2009

City elementary gets new name

Mary Ann Winterling had been an assistant principal or principal at Bentalou Elementary School since 1974 when she died in March of cancer. She saw the school through integration, then took the job of principal in 1980. She did such a good job that when the school board wanted to stop the imposed busing of students, white parents protested, saying they wanted their children to remain at the 90 percent black school.

In 2003, Bentalou was named a Maryland Blue Ribbon School. And at the board meeting this week, a stream of parents and teachers came forward to ask the board to please rename the school for their beloved principal. The board agreed to the renaming. So now the school that Mary A. Winterling gave her professional life to will bear her name. "We would like to honor a great, powerful educator," one advocate for the name change said.

Posted by Liz Bowie at 6:30 AM | | Comments (11)
Categories: Baltimore City

July 16, 2009

Baltimore City teachers tentatively sign contract

The Baltimore Teachers Union just issued its press release about the agreement it reached with the school system to continue the contract for another year. The teachers will take a vote on Aug. 26 at the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute and Western High School complex.

"Due to budget constraints we felt it would be fair to simply extend the contract for one year and make sure teachers and paraprofessionals keep their jobs," BTU president Marietta English said in the release.

Posted by Liz Bowie at 5:18 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Baltimore City

City Neighbors charter school gets the lease on a new building

At the Baltimore city school board meeting on Tuesday night, a large group of Hamilton neighborhood residents turned up to support the City Neighbors, a charter school that is hoping to open a new school in the building that used to house Hamilton Middle School beginning next year.

Residents talked about how they had wanted to stay in the city but were struggling with where to send their children. They wanted a school that was truly diverse; in other words, one that looked like their neighborhood. 

They got what they wanted. The city school board gave them a five-year lease that won't cost them anything, but the school agreed to spend well over $600,000 next year on improvements to the facility. Schools chief Andres Alonso said he has a policy of not giving up the school facilities but he is happy to see that the district won't have to spend money to renovate the building. "It is a good deal for us," he said.

Posted by Liz Bowie at 9:00 AM | | Comments (20)
Categories: Baltimore City

July 15, 2009

Should Towson Catholic High students stay in parochial schools?

My colleague, Mary Gail Hare, who has been covering the Towson Catholic High School closing saga, provides this update on the spaces that other schools have made available to the Towson Catholic students: Towson Catholic parents and students met with administrators from 15 area parochial schools in an effort to find placements for the fall. Our Lady of Mount Carmel High School in Essex has offered the entire senior class of 38 space in its classrooms. The TC students may be allowed to wear their own uniforms and may receive diplomas with both schools written on them. Tom Rose, OLMC coordinator of development, said the high school has room to add many more students and has spoken with several TC families. It is also looking at transportation opportunities for those who want to transfer. TC is about 12 miles from the Essex campus. The school's enrollment is 205 and as a co-ed school it is similar to TC in many aspects. Tuition is slightly higher at $9,818, but it will admit seniors at their TC tuition, which is $9,500 annually. "We would incorporate the TC seniors into our leadership group and the National Honor Society,” Rose said. “They can be involved in our athletic programs. We would honor the seniors’ academic scholarships.”

Archbishop Curley High School has agreed to take all the male students at the TC tuition of $9,500 annually.

The archdiocese has asked the schools who accept TC students to delay requests for tuition, until families have been reimbursed. A big question for parents facing the dilemma of where to send their child may be whether to stay in the Catholic schools. 

Hare says in her story today that parents wanted to know whether they can be assured that the schools their children transfer to will stay open or might also be in danger of closing in another year or two. No assurances were forthcoming from the archdiocese. In fact, Ron Valenti, superintendent of Catholic schools for the archdiocese, said, "Our schools are facing serious challenges and are in difficult situations."

Posted by Liz Bowie at 5:32 PM | | Comments (15)
Categories: Around the Region

July 14, 2009

Maryland School Assessments coming soon

The scores from this spring's tests are a few weeks late coming out this year. State officials said they want to release the list of those schools that have failed to meet the grade at the same time as they release scores.

So the state has held off until now, but they are expected to be released at the Maryland State Department of Education meeting on Tuesday. We will have all the scores online and in the paper next week. Scores would be expected to rise as they have in every school district since the test has been given.


Posted by Liz Bowie at 4:39 PM | | Comments (21)
Categories: Around the Region

July 13, 2009

How often should students prove they live in a district?

Once again this summer, Baltimore County schools are making the parents of sixth and ninth graders prove that they live within the school's boundaries. Even students who have been in the school system for six or nine years must provide proof of residency by August 14 for their child to be able to attend school on opening day.

Parents will have to provide photo identification, a lease or deed, and three piece of mail sent to their home address within the last 60 days. The school system says its "verification" process is intended to make sure students who don't live in the county can't go to county schools. Do county parents think this is an unnecessary burden or are they glad the county won't be using any tax dollars on "city kids." Do principals feel this is over kill and a waste of staff time or are they happy to have the rules that allow them to get rid of  that student they always suspected  didn't actually live in the district anyway?

Do any other school systems require this kind of documentation for students already in the school system?

Posted by Liz Bowie at 6:34 PM | | Comments (8)
Categories: Baltimore County

July 12, 2009

The case for changing the teaching of math

In today's paper, I write about the debate over how to teach math. College professors are arguing that high schools aren't teaching what students need to know for college. Too many students now have to take remedial classes when they arrive. About half of the high school graduates in Maryland who go to state community or four year colleges need a remedial class in math.

Interestingly, students who are put into a high math track early have an enormous advantage because they can take Advanced Placement Calculus classes and place out of the introductory classes at schools like College Park. But if they are left out of that high level math education, students may be far less prepared. I wonder what math teachers have witnessed? What do you think of the current math standards?

Specifically, the Abell Foundation argues in a report that the Algebra I/Data Analysis test now required for graduation isn't really Algebra I. Students are spending time learning other material that wastes their time and keeps them from getting a solid grounding in Algebra I, the report argues. The state says the HSA was never intended to be anything but a minimum standard and that school systems could still teach standard Algebra I.

Should the standards be changed?


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

July 10, 2009

Education Secretary Arne Duncan challenges unions

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan may be at an American Federation of Teachers event in the next several days. It will be interesting to note what he says there after last week's challenge to the other major teachers' union, the National Education Association. Speaking at their annual convention in San Diego, Duncan said the union should begin changing some of its policies on how teachers are paid and their job protections. He called for changes in rules governing the recruiting and retention of highly effective teachers. Duncan believes that student achievement ought to be a factor in how teachers are evaluated. He said,  "Test scores alone should never drive evaluation, compensation or tenure decisions. That would never make sense.  But to remove student achievement entirely from evaluation is illogical and indefensible.”
Posted by Liz Bowie at 2:45 PM | | Comments (12)
Categories: Around the Nation

July 9, 2009

Private schools and the economy

I'm working on a story looking at how private schools - and their families - are faring during these tough economic times.  I am on the lookout for parents - in the city and the suburbs - who've decided not to continue sending their kids to an independent school because of the cost, or who've had to pull together additional resources to send them back another year.

Please send me an email if you'd like to share your experience.  Thanks.

Posted by Arin Gencer at 1:39 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Around the Region

Looking for a Baltimore charter school?

I was talking yesterday to Carl Stokes, one of the leaders of Bluford Drew Jemison Science Technology Engineering Mathematics Academy. They are opening a new school in Southwest Baltimore this school year and are still looking for students. While the school received its charter some time ago, the city school board didn't approve a facility for it to operate out of until early April, by the time most charter schools have already signed students up.

As a result, the school has plenty of space for new sixth-graders. They have 60 students now but would like to sign up another 40 at least. They have room for 120.

The new school, which will be operated out of Diggs Johnson Middle School near Carroll Park, will begin with sixth grade this year and add on a grade each year until it becomes a middle and high school.

Their first school on Caroline Street in East Baltimore is an all-boys academy where students dress in white shirts and ties. The school goes until 6:30 p.m., offering after-school activities and dinner.

Stokes said parents of sixth-graders who are interested can go to or call 410-276-3270.


Posted by Liz Bowie at 9:57 AM | | Comments (26)
Categories: Charter Schools

July 8, 2009

Towson Catholic closes its doors

Today, about 100 students and parents gathered at Towson Catholic High School to protest the sudden announcement yesterday that the school is closing after 86 years.

The school had lost about 80 students over the summer and could no longer afford the loss of revenue. Today, on our Web site, parents and alums have been talking about what might have happened if they had known about the financial trouble. Some argue that the school might have been able to get enough donations to keep the school open another year.

I wonder why so many parents pulled their children out over the summer? Was it the downturn in the economy that made paying for a Catholic school education too much for some parents or did they have concerns about the school?

And if some of the exodus was caused by the economy, are there other private and parochial schools in the Baltimore losing students?

Towson Catholic is the latest in a series of Catholic school closings this year and the archdiocese said it must find a new plan to sustain the existing schools as enrollments drop and the cost of supporting those schools goes up. One of the options is to provide some state taxpayer support to the parochial schools. We wonder what readers think of the idea?

Posted by Liz Bowie at 5:43 PM | | Comments (11)
Categories: Around the Region

July 6, 2009

Who is deciding what will be taught in classrooms of the future?

We've recently found out who will be writing and reviewing the new national or "common core" standards for math and language arts. For those of you who would like to know who is likely to be the group deciding what is important to be taught in classrooms, here's the list

This year, Maryland and 45 other states decided to jointly develop a common group of standards for what should be taught in kindergarten through high school. The collective wisdom among most education policy experts is that it would be easier and cheaper if there were national standards. In other words, what a second-grader might need to know in Florida or Massachusetts varies little.

But for years, every state developed its own curriculum, standards and tests. That process will likely change soon. For a good story on the subject, go to Education Week.

Posted by Liz Bowie at 1:53 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Around the Nation

July 3, 2009

Baltimore schools and colleges

Baltimore schools chief Andres Alonso proudly presented a group of high-achieving students going off to the Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland, College Park at a board meeting recently.

It was an honor for the students, who are among a smaller-than-usual pool who had been accepted at those schools through special programs.

In recent years, Hopkins and College Park have attempted to boost the number of city public school students who were able to attend their institutions – among the most prestigious in the state – by getting rid of one of the most difficult barriers: money.

Hopkins has agreed to give any student in the city who can get admitted free tuition. Maryland has said it will do the same for one student from each of the nine city high schools each year.

The results have been mixed, with enrollments up some in the past decade, but the numbers are still small overall. This year is no exception.

In 2008, only 13 students were accepted at Hopkins. Next fall, 15 city students will attend the school, up slightly, but still far below the 23 who were accepted to Hopkins in 2005.

Maryland gave only seven students scholarships this year. Two schools, Northwestern High School and Forest Park High School, didn’t have a student who was qualified to be accepted into the state’s flagship school.

Of those students who have been accepted to Hopkins, three are from City College, two are from the School for the Arts, one is from Digital Harbor High and one is from Mergenthaler Vocational Technical High School. The remaining eight students come from Polytechnic Institute.

Here is a list of the Maryland College Park Scholars:

Sade Diggs, Western; Ashley Hall, Baltimore School for the Arts; Kori Hill, City College; Juan Peralta, Digital Harbor; Tamicka Smithson, Dunbar; Shamia Stewad, Poly; Tiara Whitfield, Mervo.

The Baltimore Scholars accepted to Hopkins are:

From City College: Anais Naharro Murphy, Zoe Rammelkamp and Rachel Smith.

From Poly: Hannah Bands, Teno Boone, Morgan Glaze, Kayleigh Horst, Michael Lampart, Chardaye Matthews-Page, Joseph Schwartz, Christian Wisner-Carlson,

From the School for the Arts: Christopher Digregorio and Shea Lawson.

From Digital: Zachary Bowman.

From Mervo: Lance McCoy.


Posted by Liz Bowie at 9:00 AM | | Comments (8)
Categories: Around the Region

July 2, 2009

Maryland State Board takes on job of vetting candidates

The Maryland State Board of Education has decided to take on some of the role of vetting candidates for the city school board. In my story today, I detail the questions the board is now asking candidates who apply for the job. It seems they are trying to prevent a repeat of the Brian Morris problem. Morris, the former city school board chair, was found to have a long history of financial problems. 

One of the questions on the candidate questionaire asks if there is anything in the candidate's background that would be potentially embarrassing to the citizens of Baltimore if it came out. State school board president James DeGraffenreidt said the school board expects to "conduct more detailed inquiries concerning the qualifications and backgrounds" of the candidates. In other words, the state will be doing its own background checks.


Posted by Liz Bowie at 3:42 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Around the Region
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