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December 30, 2010

What were the top Baltimore city school stories of 2010?

Bullies and cheating scandals marked the first half of 2010 for Baltimore city schools, while a landmark teachers contract and notable accomplishments of black male students rounded it out. Much will unfold in 2011. And as we await word if schools CEO Andres Alonso will sign on for another three or four years, the future of city schools will be scrutinized like no other.

But we'll start worrying about that on Monday.

As I mark my first year-end on the city schools beat (though it's only been 8 months), I thought it'd be fun to share my picks for the top stories of 2010:

1. Principals Under Fire- City school principals undoubtedly took the most heat this year, having been at the center of the biggest scandals in the distrct.

It all started in March when Sun reporter Liz Bowie wrote of accusations that Janice Williams, principal of the Institute of Business and Entrepreneurship High School, forced Filipino teachers to sell Mary Kay products for her financial gain. Williams denied any wrongdoing, but even the president of her union couldn't defend her.

The principal scandals flared when we broke the story about rampant MSA cheating at George Washington Elementary school, for which Principal Susan Burgess was held responsible. She also denied any wrongdoing, but lost her teaching license and set a prescedent for the school system to supposedly hold principals responsible for what takes place in their schools, even if they claim ignorance. 

Case and point: Angela Faltz, principal of Abbottson Elementary, who was removed after it was revealed that her test scores were being investigated by the state; and then there was Erma Jefferson, who was removed from John Eager Howard Elementary after allegedly having a slew of family members on the school's payroll.

A year of controversy also saw the departure of Ledonnis Hernandez of Gilmor Elementary, the school that gained national attention after a disabled third-grader was almost pushed to the edge--literally, of a window--because of chronic and ignored bullying.

We also learned in 2010, that this year's departures account for about 1/3 of the principal turnover that has taken place under schools CEO Andres Alonso. He makes no apologies for it. He's impatient about results, he said, and doesn't make his decisions based on the fate of adults.

For instance: Among the most high-profile (rather than scandalous) turnovers in 2010 was the reassignment of Barney Wilson, who left Polytechnic Institute to lead Reginald Lewis High School, and the resignation of Tim Dawson from City College. Alonso said Wilson's reassignment was part of a new approach to putting the best principals with the worst schools, and he was assigned to get Reginald F. Lewis High School on the path to Poly's success. I have yet to hear of another "best principal" and "worst school" pairing since then...but we shall see. 

Dawson's resignation was a "mutual decision," school leaders said, though it was dicovered later that the prestigious high school (who had a bad PR year in general), has noted declining academics and climate for the last couple of years. Two staff members at the school are facing criminal charges, along with a student who has been charged with allegedly trying to beat a classmate to death.

And, let's not forget: The retirement of principal Eleanor Matthews, a 41-year-vet of the school system, from Western High School this year has left all three of the city's flagship high school starting 2011 without permanent leaders.

Alonso said leadership will be a major focus in the New Year, and has already sent out a "Take a Lead in City Schools," email-blast for 2011. It calls for those who are interested in education to explore one of the many organizations that funnel teachers and principals into city schools, such as New Leaders for New Schools, Teach for America and the Baltimore City Teaching Residency.

In the e-blast, Alonso said, "As we approach the holidays and New Year, I want to call your attention to some unique upcoming opportunities for educators and non-educators alike to assume critical leadership roles in City Schools—and encourage you to explore them for yourselves and share them with colleagues and friends."  

Translation: Leadership was a hot topic in 2010, and it shows no sign of cooling down in 2011.

The rest of my top city school stories of 2010 are:

2. Baltimore City teachers reject, then ratify landmark union contract--but the real story will come with 2011 implementation.

3. City reports record high for graduation rate, record low for dropout. Alonso is looking to sustain the numbers with another "Great kids come back" campaign in January.  

4. Maryland Wins Race to the Top funds, and Baltimore gets largest share of federal funds for education reform

5.City student dies after falling from the back of a school bus. Bus training/ transportation policies may have been broken. School system says it will review policies on trasnportation safety--again.

6. Agreement reached in Vaughn G. Lawsuit- A U.S. District Judge accepted an agreement from the school system and the Maryland Disabilities Law Center, in the 26-year-lawsuit filed on behalf of several special-education students who said they were not being offered adequate services.

7. Snowpocalypse stalls school- City students missed nearly two weeks of school in the beginning of the year, after a blizzard dumped nearly 2 feet across Maryland. The missed days were referenced, in part, for stalled scores the district noted on the 2010 Maryland School Assessments.

What do you think were the top city schools stories of 2010?

Happy New Year!

Posted by Erica Green at 4:11 PM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Baltimore City

December 20, 2010

Vote for a greenhouse for Northwestern High School

A retired biochemist from Lutherville has taken it on himself to try to rebuild a mothballed old greenhouse on the roof of Northwestern High School in the city into a place where students can do real science. The catch, of course, is coming up with the money. Philip Filner discovered that Ikea is holding a contest called the Ikea Sustainability Grant. Filner's greenhouse project is one of five finalists chosen by Ikea from 2,000 entrants. The project that gets the most votes by January 17th will win $100,000. "You can vote once a day every day," Filner said. "We urgently need the help of the people in Baltimore to vote to support the project. Currently, he said, it is in third place.
 Filner said the greenhouse renovation was the brainchild of the principal who has been trying for several years to figure out a way to do the renovation because he believes it will encourage students toward careers in the sciences. To vote, go to

Posted by Liz Bowie at 4:53 PM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Baltimore City

December 14, 2010

Questions raised as family prepares to lay student to rest

Jeremy Jennings, Jr., the 6-year-old Baltimore city school student who died after falling from the back of a city school bus last week will likely be laid to rest on Friday, his mother said Monday.

Meanwhile the city school system is facing questions of policy and procedures for meeting the needs of special education students, particularly those they send out of the city because they suffer from such severe emotional and behavioral problems. 

The school system has been mum about how they're grappling with these issues in the wake of Jeremy's death, but released the following statement Sunday after they received word that he had died:

"City Schools is profoundly saddened by the death of one of our students who was injured
during an accident last week while returning home from a non-public school in Baltimore
County. We express our deepest sympathy to the student’s family, loved ones and school
community. We will work with Baltimore County authorities as they fully investigate the
circumstances surrounding this tragic accident, and respond as necessary after we know
all the facts concerning the accident."

Jeremy's mother, Lisa Avery--who is very well versed in special education law and rights--is anticipating the school system's response, demanding the answers to three poignant questions: Why wasn't Jeremy in his harness, as his IEP mandated? Why didn't the bus driver stop the bus when her son and another student were fighting? Why wasn't one of the two adult aides on the bus able to stop Jeremy from opening the door?

Concerned parents of special-needs students--including some whose children attended school with Jeremy--are also awaiting the same answers.

Several parents contacted The Sun saying that the environment of school buses that transport their children to and from the city fits the script of the disarray that is described in the account of the moments leading up to Jeremy's fall. They say it's mostly because aides are often ill-equipped to handle the needs of their students.

But, we've also been contacted by special education professionals who say that Jeremy's death highlights the challenges of controlling one, let alone multiple students with severe behavior problems. They raised questions about whether the suspension of the bus driver and the two aides was reasonable, given that they were in a compromising situation having to be responsible for five special-needs children, including one who was intent on escaping.  

We continue to investigate all angles of this story, but for now would like to hear from our readers. 

Posted by Erica Green at 3:15 PM | | Comments (9)
Categories: Baltimore City

Alonso's 2011 school reorganization plans meet little opposition

The two public forums centered around the closing of one city high school and the reorganization of four other schools drew very little opposition from school communities this year. Two public meetings were held Wednesday and Saturday of last week to discuss Alonso's recommendations, due to be voted on by the city school school board in January.

The third year of "Expanding Great Options" plans, announced by Alonso last month, is notably less radical than previous years. During his tenure, Alonso has orchestrated the closing of seven failing schools over a two-year period, and relocated five schools to other facilities. Last year, he closed five schools, replacing two of them and merging a third with an expanding school. Those recommendations were marked with contentious debate.

I wonder what was different this year: Are school communities just more accepting of change? Or has Alonso convinced the city that he's targeting the right schools?

Posted by Erica Green at 2:37 PM | | Comments (12)
Categories: Baltimore City

December 9, 2010

Baltimore Teachers Union contract is signed, sealed, and checks will be delivered

School system and Baltimore Teachers Union officials signed the dotted line Wednesday night on the recently ratified teachers union contract, solidifying the pact that will revolutionize the teaching profession in Baltimore for at least the next three years. 

The school board voted unanimously to approve the contract Wednesday, which union members voted to ratify on Nov. 17, after initially rejecting it in October.

On hand to officially sign the contract were: Schools CEO Andres Alonso, BTU President Marietta English, America Federation of Teachers Executive Vice President and longtime BTU chief negotiator Loretta Johnson, and Neil Duke, president of the city school board. 

It seemed to be an emotional and momentous occasion, particularly for Johnson, a longtime fixture in the city school system. Described as a tough-as-nails negotiator, Johnson has been approved by the AFT to stay on hand to negotiate the contract for the city's paraprofessionals and school related personnel, along with English. The principal and administrators union is also renegotiating its contract.

The immediate affects of the teachers union contract, which overhauls the way educators are promoted and compensated in the district, will be seen in teacher paychecks. After not receiving a pay raise for two years, educators should see a retroactive 2 percent pay raise and a $1,500 stipend sometime this month, Alonso told me last night.  

District and union officials will also begin meeting to establish two committees that will oversee the implementation of the complex pact, which eliminates traditional "step" increases and introduces a career ladder that teachers can climb through acquiring "achievement units"--essentially bonus points for those who go above and beyond, that can contribute to pay raises and promotions.

Those committee appointments are due to be released in January.

Posted by Erica Green at 3:11 PM | | Comments (13)
Categories: Baltimore City

December 8, 2010

School board attorney says Hairston had authority to sign legal agreement on AIM

At last night's Baltimore County school board meeting, the school board's outside legal counsel said that Joe A. Hairston acted within his legal authority when he signed an agreement with former employee Barbara Dezmon. The agreement gives Dezmon the right to market a product that she had the idea for, but that county employees turned into a software program.

School board members said they hoped this put the issue to rest. However, critics may well say that one of the most important issues is whether Hairston should have signed the agreement because it offered a special deal to an employee.

What do readers believe? 


Posted by Liz Bowie at 5:52 PM | | Comments (11)
Categories: Baltimore County

December 7, 2010

Baltimore joins Gates Foundation effort to foster district-charter collaboration

Baltimore is among nine districts around the country that has signed on to the latest project by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation , which is geared toward fostering collaboration between public and charter schools to explore the best of what each model has to offer to students districtwide.

The project, formerly called the "District-charter collaborative compact," was announced this morning during a conference call with education reporters.

Vicki Phillps, director of education for the Gates Foundation, said that the initiative could diffuse a longstanding tension between privately run charters and traditional public schools. “Too often these stale debates make it difficult for teachers and schools to learn from each other,” Phillips said.

Baltimore will join other districts like New York, Denver and New Orleans in receiving a $100,000 education grant for signing onto a pact--literally a written contract among charter and school system leaders--that will stipulate information and data sharing about what is working in the best charter and public schools, in hopes of drawing the best practices from both and applying them across the district.

Among the most important discussions to take place between district and charter leaders will be that of equitable funding and facilities. Other conversations will center around everything from teacher effectiveness to better supporting students with special needs. Each district has a pact tailored to their needs.

The nine districts that are participating represent 2.1 million students, roughly 83,000 of which are in Baltimore. The city also has 30 charter schools, all of which have signed on to the compact, through the endorsement of the Coalition for Baltimore Charter Schools. Not all charter schools have signed on in other districts, officials said, for various reasons, including maintaining thier competitive edge.

City schools CEO Andres Alonso was on the call, saying that the pact is something that Baltimore would benefit greatly from, particularly as the district has moved toward letting the majority of its students choose what schools they want to attend.  And, the majority of the city's charter schools sprouted during Alonso's three-year-tenure, and more are coming to the district next year.

“We have to change the way we do business to ensure the success of all schools,” Alonso said.  
“It’s been huge for us to see this, not as something on paper, but as an evolving conversation about how we need to change.”

We'll be reviewing the city's compact, report back with more details.

Posted by Erica Green at 2:43 PM | | Comments (7)
Categories: Baltimore City

PISA results show U.S. students lag behind in math

Despite attempts to improve STEM education in the United States, a report from the Organizaiton for Economic Cooperation and Development shows the U.S. lags behind a dozen other countries in academic achievement.

The report shows that 15-year-old American students had average scores in reading and science and below average scores in math, ranking behing Korea, Finland, Canada, Japan, Singapore, New Zealand and two provinces in China.


Posted by Liz Bowie at 12:52 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Around the Nation

December 2, 2010

Alonso and progress of city schools highlighted

The New York Times today profiles Andres Alonso and his efforts to improve the city schools. There's really not a lot of news here for those who have followed his tenure in Baltimore, but it is interesting to note that he and the reform measures in Baltimore have begun to garner some national attention.
Posted by Liz Bowie at 10:20 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Around the Nation
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