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August 31, 2009

Dunbar's comeback

Today marked a new beginning for Paul Laurence Dunbar High School as it reopened its doors after a two-year renovation. I can't claim to have been to every school in the city, but it is at least as nice as any I have been through. The hallways are bright, curved in places and wide. The burgundy and yellow colors of the school are carried throughout in the tiles and walls. The school has a feel that what happens here matters.

It is thoroughly air-conditioned and it doesn't seem to be freezing in some places and warm in others. Students can drink the water because of a new filtration system.

The old gym is still there and it retains the feel of a gym that has been well used and loved.

We can all point to lots of shabby schools that have produced high student achievement, but it was interesting to speak with a school advocate at the ribbon cutting today who noted that where the system has renovated schools, achievement has since risen. She pointed to Digital Harbor and Abbottston Elementary. Dunbar has already made its comeback from a low in the 1990s, but it will be interesting to see if students are inspired by their environment. Will the clean new classrooms with smart boards, new computers and new science labs make a difference in what students aspire to and what they achieve?

Posted by Liz Bowie at 7:10 PM | | Comments (24)
Categories: Baltimore City

August 28, 2009

Maryland students post mediocre results for science

The state released the results of the Maryland School Assessments for science this week and they improved only slightly over the past year.

The tests don't count for No Child Left Behind, and state officials believe that schools and teachers aren't stressing them much with students. Still they are some indicator of what students know.

Only 63.7 percent of fifth-graders passed the test and only 65.3 percent of eighth-graders passed.

This is only the second year the exams have been given and there was a 4 percentage point gain in eighth grade, but the scores were flat in fifth.

Still, the test results are about 20 percentage points below reading and math. State school board members seemed disappointed by the results, particularly since there is a new emphasis on math and science in a state trying to market itself to biotech research and businesses.

The state did release graphs comparing results in Maryland with other states. The tests are different, but Connecticut had a much higher pass rate than Maryland.

State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said she thought that the enormous effort that has been made on reading and math in the past five years under NCLB has sucked attention away from subjects like science and history.

I would like to know what science teachers out there have to say about how seriously they and their students take the tests and whether they believe their subject is given a lot less attention than it should be given.


Posted by Liz Bowie at 11:00 AM | | Comments (8)
Categories: Around the Region

August 26, 2009

The dropout rate declines

Maryland's dropout rate took a big dip in the past year, but it is unclear whether the change is due to better data collection or a true drop. Only about 2.8 percent of students dropped out of high schools this past year. The big question that hasn't been answered yet is what effect the High School Assessments may have had on the graduation rate, and therefore, the dropout rate.

The figures reported yesterday at the state school board meeting don't include the seniors who didn't graduate because they failed to meet the HSA requirement. Right now they are in the same category as a student who doesn't get enough credits to move on to the next grade. So when they don't show up for school next week, then we will know more.

The bottom line is that we still don't have good data on what effect the HSAs may have had on kids in the Class of 2009, and the data aren't expected out for another month.


Posted by Liz Bowie at 6:00 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Around the Region

August 24, 2009

Preparing for H1N1

If a school system sends home dozens of students in the face of an H1N1 outbreak, how would students keep up with their classwork? It is a question that the U.S. Department of Education is asking and directing school districts to start carefully considering.

At a news conference today in Washington, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan suggested school systems might want to wade into some new technology and consider providing online classes or live classes with video coming over the Internet to students at home. At a more basic level, the schools might have technology that would allow a teacher to have a conference call with many students at the same time. School systems, the guidance said, might also arrange with book publishers to provide instructional materials to students if they are out for a long period.

Of course, the department also suggested the obvious: packets of homework materials that could be sent home in case of an H1N1 outbreak.

With everything teachers and administrators have to do these days, is this extra planning an important step or a nuisance contingency? How many teachers think they would be able to communicate effectively with students in the case of a school closing for a couple of weeks? How proficient are schools at getting a lot of material onto their Web sites?

Posted by Liz Bowie at 7:05 PM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Around the Nation

August 21, 2009

Flip flops, other 'fashion' frowned upon for Howard County teachers

Today the paper ran a story I wrote about Howard County's latest effort to thwart inappropriate attire for teachers.

"Expectations for Professional Attire" is a pamphlet that the school system gave to its teachers this year for the first time. From what I've been able to find, Howard County is the only school system in the area with something of this nature.

The expectations frown upon: garments that expose underwear; sheer clothes; torn, tattered or disheveled clothes; flip-flops; hats; clothing with obscene, vulgar or profane language or illustrations; clothing with sexual overtones; and shorts for employees who do not teach physical education.

The expectations also list as inappropriate visible tattoos that are provocative or obscene; and jewelry or any other objects that are connected to the nose, tongue, lip, eyebrow or other exposed body part that may be "deemed a safety issue," according to the pamphlet.

The school system folks say that these are not requirements, but simply recommendations. Something tells me otherwise.

So far there hasn't been an major resistence from the teachers. But, I'm sure there has to be at least one who is not doing back flips of joy.

What do you think? Is this going to far? Should teachers be allowed to wear what they want? Or do you agree with many of the new teachers I interviewed yesterday who believe that dressing in a professional manner earns them more respect from their students in the classroom.

Posted by John-John Williams IV at 12:17 PM | | Comments (15)
Categories: Howard County

August 20, 2009

Update on Alonso's bonus

As many of you weighed in on the question of Dr. Alonso's performance bonus for 2008-2009, I wanted to give you an update.   The city school board decided to award him a $29,000 bonus. 

Some background: board Chairman Neil Duke told me today that Alonso received the same amount last year.  The bonus is in addition to his salary, which is now $250,000, as there is an automatic $10,000 pay raise in his contract.

Mr. Duke also shared the myriad factors the board weighed in making its decision, some of which were:

- Rising enrollment

- Reaching more students early on, with expanding pre-K and more students starting kindergarten "full ready" to learn

- Student gains on the Stanford 10

- MSA Results

- Significant HSA gains

- Record-high graduation rate, as well as the 94 percent of the Class of 2009 that met the state's HSA graduation requirement

- Record-low dropout rate

- Rise in SAT Scores

- Exiting “Corrective Action.”

- Expanding school options

- The addition of collaborative planning periods in every school

- Fair Student Funding (changing the way schools are funded, to give principals more control

- A leaner, more responsive Central Office

- Community Support for Schools Initiative

- Family and Community Engagement Policy

- Increased national attention on city schools (several identified as America's best high schools)

Posted by Arin Gencer at 6:57 PM | | Comments (23)
Categories: Baltimore City

August 19, 2009

ACT scores released today

There's an interesting Education Week article today on the ACT results, which indicate most students are not ready for college.  And while a higher percentage of Maryland students are deemed prepared, the number (30 percent) is still low.

You can see how Maryland students did on the exam, and also check out the state's college readiness report.

SAT scores are expected next week, so stay tuned.

Posted by Arin Gencer at 12:21 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Around the Nation, Around the Region, Testing

August 18, 2009

Training new Baltimore County teachers

I dropped in on the three-day new-teacher orientation that started today at Randallstown High School, where about 650 newbies were being schooled on what it takes to be a teacher, of any stripe, in Baltimore County.

The hundreds filling the school’s auditorium were welcomed by a host of people: state schools Superintendent Nancy Grasmick, county schools Superintendent Joe Hairston, County Executive Jim Smith, school board President JoAnn Murphy, TABCO President Cheryl Bost and PTA President Nancy Ostrow.

This isn’t my first teacher orientation, but I still get a small kick out of seeing teachers go through the same exercises they will make their students do in just a couple weeks: introducing themselves, sharing what their interests are, and their burning questions for the coming year.  These nervous but excited individuals going from room to room are like a preview of their future classes, toting brand new bags packed with materials and loads of information.

Before and during the practical sessions that gave teachers a blow-by-blow of the units they would be covering, along with some details on assessments, several folks – including Bost – emphasized the importance of building relationships with fellow instructors, with parents, with students.

Dr. Grasmick noted that nearly 100 of the newcomers are career-changers — which, she said, shows some “recognition of the rewards of teaching.”

She also said seeing the new faces serves as a reminder of her own start as a teacher, and the excitement she felt about the opening of school — a feeling that hasn’t diminished.

“There’s not a lot in life that has the beginning and end [like] a school year,” she said.  “It’s pretty thrilling.”

This Friday, Hairston is supposed to officially welcome back district supervisors, at Chesapeake High.

Posted by Arin Gencer at 6:26 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Baltimore County, Teaching

Vaccinating children in schools for H1N1

When schools open this year, school officials will have another worry: the swine flu. Health officials are predicting a larger than usual number of students will be out sick with either the seasonal flu or the swine flu, and they are asking schools to help vacinate the school-aged population. In a story that ran over the weekend, we talked about the possible need for schools and colleges to do mass vaccinations in hopes of stemming the spread of the virus in this susceptible population. We were wondering if parents want their children vaccinated at school and if they would be willing to be involved in helping in schools to get the job done? The health department believes the community and particularly parents will have to be part of a volunteer effort on the days the vaccine is offered. Parents could escort children from their classroom to the place at school where they will get the vaccinations, for instance. It is likely that schools will have to give the vaccine twice about two weeks apart for a student to get the full immunity.

Are parents and teachers nervous about the flu season ahead or do they feel there is no need to get alarmed now because the flu does not seem to be any worse than the seasonal flu?


Posted by Liz Bowie at 6:00 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Around the Region

August 13, 2009

How much of a bonus does Andres Alonso deserve?

The Baltimore school board will soon be deciding how much of a bonus the CEO should receive this year. While readers of this blog may not actually get a chance to take a vote on this issue, I thought maybe you would like to give your two cents to board members who will be evaluating his job performance.

According to my reading of his contract, Alonso will receive a $10,000 automatic increase. In addition, the board can give him up to $12,000 for "demonstrated increases in the academic performance" of the city schools, up to $12,000 for management efficiencies and up to $6,000 for "implementation of creative and innovated programs" that enhance reform of the school system.

In all, Alonso could receive an increase this year of $40,000. When he was hired in 2007, he earned $230,000, about average for superintendents of large systems in the state.  I haven't been able to nail down yet what his current salary is, but I will do soon and add the information to this post. I believe he is now earning $270,000.

So what should Alonso earn? Does he deserve the whole $40,000 or none at all? Some city officials said they would donate their pay increases. Should Alonso donate his increase or defer it until the recession is over?

Posted by Liz Bowie at 11:50 AM | | Comments (30)
Categories: Baltimore City

August 12, 2009

Gearing up for 2009-2010

As I mentioned earlier this week and reported in today's paper, Dr. Alonso officially welcomed back city schools administrators, and laid out plans for the coming school year, during yesterday's CEO Leadership Institute.

For those who might be interested, here is Alonso's PowerPoint on the state of schools, which includes test data as well as information on city suspension, dropout and graduation rates, among other interesting tidbits.

And some of the most enjoyable parts of the event - the performances from some wonderfully talented students - are also online (no video, unfortunately, but several original poems are posted).

Posted by Arin Gencer at 5:01 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Baltimore City

Baltimore schools move toward opening day

While I was on vacation, my colleague, Olivia Bobrowsky, covered the city school board meeting on Tuesday night.
Here's her report:
Last night, the Baltimore school board discussed preparations for getting schools ready when they open later this month.School officials said they are on track: all facility renovation projects are on schedule, bus routes are established, the school police force is fully staffed and the list goes on. Still, of all the readiness indicators, one new measure stuck out as particularly exciting.
This year, city schools are putting the application for Free and Reduced Meal Service online. In an effort to increase application return rates, the e-form will allow web-based completion and submission. Chief of Staff Tisha Edwards said that step will also offer regular, real-time data tracking and sharing with principals, ensuring ;efforts are targeted towards meeting common goals.
The school board also discussed the progress of several new initiatives, including new school openings, reorganization of special education, and the expansion of pre-kindergarten classes. Nine new schools will open in the fall, including 4 college prep schools, t3 accelerator schools designed to get students who are behind to graduate more quickly and two charter schools. The schools are all prepared with staff, furniture and instructional materials, according to the school officials. Every school is already assigned to a school support network, which have filled 54 of their 56 staff positions. The city;s redistribution of special education classrooms has offered choice and placements to 100 percent of students working to gain life skills;and 90 percent of students with emotional disabilities. And finally, 36 of the 40 teachers needed for the city's 40 new pre-k classrooms have already been hired. Construction should be completed and materials should be delivered by Aug. 20.

Posted by Liz Bowie at 1:56 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Baltimore City

August 11, 2009

Debate on permanent expulsion begins

If last night’s work session on permanent expulsions is a preview of future discussions on the subject, then the road ahead is going to be a long one, fraught with debate.

Fortunately, as board Chair Neil E. Duke pointed out last night, it’s just the beginning of the process.  The board is expected to examine the issue for some time, with opportunities for the public to weigh in, before voting one way or another.

As has already been discussed here, there are strong feelings on both sides of the issue, and board members fall on either.  A couple (Maxine Wood and student member Jerome Hill) are still settling on their position.

Dr. Alonso and Jonathan Brice, the executive director for student support, reiterated last night their belief that a clear line must be drawn when it comes to acceptable school behavior.  The proposed policy on permanent expulsions, they contend, aims to do just that, highlighting certain offenses that warrant being shown the door.  Acts such as arson or detonating explosives put the entire school community in danger; at the same time, these cases represent a very small number of the incidents that occur in schools.

As I noted in the story, several board members disagree with that view.  They argue that the school system has a responsibility to educate even the most difficult children.  Member Jerrelle Francois advocated seeking alternative programs and other services that could curb such bad behavior, saying that there are usually underlying causes for it.  Similarly, member George Van Hook said, even if a line must be drawn, it shouldn’t push students out of schools.  Rather, the arsonist, gang member, etc. needs to be in school, so they can be educated otherwise.  The question, he added, is where they are to be educated — and what resources are available to make that happen.

Anirban Basu was the lone member to unequivocally express the opposite view, describing his colleagues’ statements as “soaring rhetoric on behalf of the few against the many.”  Basu said he has a bias for kids who behave, want to learn and don’t pose a threat to their peers.  And various counties’ expulsion policies* indicate he’s not alone in that opinion, he said.  It’s not a question of denying a student’s rights, but of denying that student the right to remain a threat to others.

So…looks like we’re back to square one.  What do you think?  Is this about the rights of the individual versus the majority?  The need to establish a clear standard for student conduct?  What should this permanent expulsion policy look like — or should it exist at all?

 *Other districts' policies (outlined by Brice):

Baltimore County: expelled students reviewed for reinstatement quarterly (K-8) or at end of semester (high school)

Harford: student excluded for at least remainder of school year, no alternative education services provided.  May be required to repeat school year.

Montgomery: student expelled with no guarantee of right to return

Carroll: alternatives for student’s education explored with parent, and conditions for return to be determined

Prince George’s: high school students may apply for alternative school

Posted by Arin Gencer at 3:44 PM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Baltimore City, School Safety (Or Lack Thereof)

August 10, 2009

City schools this week: permanent expulsions, Alonso address

Tonight, the Baltimore City school board is holding a work session on permanent expulsions.  You all may recall Sara's story back in May on this subject, as well as the debate here on Dr. Alonso's decision to permanently exclude students who intentionally set fires or detonate explosives from city schools.  I'll keep you posted on what happens during tonight's discussion.

I'll also be at Morgan State University tomorrow morning for Dr. Alonso's speech to school administrators about the state of schools and his goals for the 2009-2010 year.  The mayor is also expected to be there....check back here for an update.

Posted by Arin Gencer at 12:38 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Baltimore City, School Safety (Or Lack Thereof)

August 5, 2009

Transfer option meetings in Baltimore County elementaries

Last night, I attended a parent meeting at Halstead Academy, a Baltimore County elementary school in the Parkville area.  Because Halstead did not make adequately yearly progress this year, and is a Title I school, parents must be given the option of transferring their children to either Carroll Manor or Jacksonville elementaries.  A similar meeting was to be held at Riverview Elementary about the same time last night.  The two are the only elementaries in the county on the state school-improvement list.

Crowded into a classroom, parents met Halstead’s new principal, Karen Blannard, taking over for Jill Carter, who was transferred to Halethorpe Elementary.  It was interesting how much some of the tension dropped once Blannard did a presentation explaining the position the school was now in: Halstead failed to make AYP for its special-education students, but met requirements in all other areas.  Blannard noted that attendance, which counts toward AYP, fell short by one-tenth of a point.  She and the many teachers present emphasized that they need parents’ help in improving the situation in the coming year.

A few other tidbits:

*Parents expressed some frustration with not being able to choose their own transfer school, particularly as the two choices are about 30 minutes away from their home school.  Some also pointed out the different demographics at the choice schools, which do not mirror Halstead’s primarily African-American population.  But Lisa Williams, who used to head the district’s Title I office, explained that the two schools are the only options, and that a number of factors go into deciding on choice schools, including the building’s capacity, available resources and transportation.

*The principals from the choice schools encouraged parents to consider that some of the services Halstead provides won’t be at their schools, simply because they don’t have that extra Title I funding at their disposal.

*Children can transfer back to Halstead if they find the choice schools aren’t working for them.

*Students who transfer can remain at their choice schools until fifth grade, but could be on their own for transportation after the school makes AYP for two consecutive years, and gets off the state watch list.

* A number of initiatives are planned to improve next year, including homework clubs before and after school; family nights with a focus on academics; and attendance support and recognition programs, among other things.

Blannard called for another parent meeting — this one a brainstorming session on strategies to address the attendance issue — at the school Aug. 24 at 6 p.m. (babysitting provided).

Posted by Arin Gencer at 5:34 PM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Baltimore County, NCLB, Parents

August 3, 2009

Maryland names persistently dangerous schools

Members of the Maryland State Board of Education didn't speak the words "persistently dangerous" at the most recent meeting, but they quietly voted to give the designation to seven more Baltimore City schools. Of the seven, many are being closed. 

The schools to get the designation are Canton Middle, Garrison Middle, Hamilton Middle, Dunbar Middle, Samuel L. Banks High, Thurgood Marshall High, and Institute of Business and Entrepreneurship.

Last year, the board agreed that the designation uses criteria that are more stringent than most across the country. For several years, no schools were designated as persistently in many major urban areas in America that have larger school populations that Baltimore.

So this year, the board took action to fullfill its obligation under NCLB but is clearly trying to downplay the action.

The question remains whether the board will have to change its criteria if NCLB is not reworked in the next year or two.


Posted by Liz Bowie at 2:42 PM | | Comments (11)
Categories: Around the Region
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