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February 14, 2012

Mayor, Alonso do agree on one part of school construction plan

In a story today about Mayor Stephanie-Rawlings Blake's State of the City address, our City Hall Reporter Julie Scharper touched a lot on how the mayor has essentially rejected city schools CEO Andres Alonso's plan to rapidly rebuild the city's dilapidated school buildings with more debt, and instead champions a plan based on a slower, but arguably steadier, stream of revenue.

But, I believe a sleeping giant is where the mayor and Alonso are of the same mind: schools, possibly some pretty historic anchors in communities, will have to close in order for any facilities overhaul plan will work.

If you remember, I wrote in October about Alonso's plan to close schools that are underutilized or beyond repair--which he warned would be a large-scale, but painful process.

The school system commissioned an inventory of sorts on the school system's facilities, which will guide the decisions about what schools will close. That report is expected this month, or next. 

The mayor also touched on this part of Alonso's plan in her speech on Monday, telling city residents that, in order to begin fixing schools,"we need to look at the current inventory and how we are using the resources that we have."

"Some schools will expand, some schools will merge, and some schools that we may have fond memories of will need to close," the mayor said. "Nostalgia has the power to make the past a priority over the present. And we might not always like what is proposed, but all of us should support the work of the School Board on this mission—it’s what’s best for our kids, our future, and it will help get Baltimore growing again."

Posted by Erica Green at 12:50 PM | | Comments (4)
Categories: Baltimore City

February 10, 2012

HCC Part of Student Advocacy Day

By Joe Burris

Three years ago, Ben Fischer suffered a traumatic brain injury from a car accident that left him with slow cognitive skills. The Howard Community College student said that at the time doctors were uncertain whether he would to return to a traditional learning environment.

But Fischer battled back from the accident, and now advocates for students with disabilities. Earlier this week, he joined hundreds of community college students across the state to petition state lawmakers to boost funding to two-year schools.

The event is part of the annual Student Advocacy Day, which features speeches from student leaders, state lawmakers and community college presidents. Students also meet with their respective state delegates and senators.

“Primarily I am standing up for disabled students who are going to college at this point and time,” said Fischer, who was among 15 HCC students who attended Student Advocacy Day. “It takes me longer to understand things than those who don’t have these deficits that I do.”

Fischer commended HCC’s disabilities program and said that its Learning Assistance Center helps students with disabilities better understand class instruction.

“The best way for people to understand what another person is going through is to really relate to that person first and explain your story that, 'I used to be a normal student and I used to just go to college, just take the classes, and that’s all I really cared about at that point in time,'" said Fischer. "But now I actually care about people who are disabled, who are actually going through harder times.”

Joining Fischer on the trip from HCC was HCC student Jennie Wang, a single mother, who said that she chose HCC in part because of the opportunities the school’s Children’s Learning Center provides for her preschool daughter.

“It’s not a daycare; it’s a mini school for babies and kids,” said Wang, who added that the learning center enables her to concentrate on her own studies. “They teach the kids educational stuff every day. I have the peace of mind that my daughter is not playing around not learning anything.”
HCC students left campus at around 7 a.m., for a one-hour, 15-minute time slot with lawmakers at 11 a.m.

HCC student Zuri Chavers said that all students met with the lawmakers in groups of three. The son of a single parent who is launching his own business and has done an internship for Walt Disney World, he said that he conveyed to the lawmakers how much the college experience has aided his career endeavors.

“It was definitely a great experience for me,” said Chavers, “and a good chance for me to get insight from senators and delegates on what’s going on in government.”


Posted by Jennifer Badie at 6:45 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Howard County

February 9, 2012

Ten states to get NCLB waivers

The Associated Press is reporting that the White House will soon announce that 10 states have gotten waivers to No Child Left Behind, essentially lifting the strictest requirements of the accountability law in return for state assurances that new goals will be set for student achievement and teacher evaluations.

In states that are given a waiver, schools will no longer be labeled failing if they don't meet certain testing goals.

The announcement would seem to bode well for Maryland which is expected to apply for the waive in the next several weeks. Only one state, New Mexico, that applied by the first deadline last year did not get a waiver. At least another dozen states have signaled their intention to apply in the second round.

Posted by Liz Bowie at 9:56 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Around the Nation

Updated: After Alonso PIP letter went out, teachers' PIP stories rolled in

Just before our story about the rise in PIPs among city teachers posted last night, Baltimore city schools CEO Andres Alonso sent out a letter to teachers explaining the district's new approach to evaluating teachers, which many are decrying as a way to cut down on union contract costs the district can't afford. And we've also learned that city principals are also experiencing a surge in PIPs, which their union leader believes is a strategy for the city to more easily fire principals. 

 Updated: February 9 at 8:19 a.m.

After this letter went out, the PIP stories began rolling in. I thought I'd share some since, despite my best efforts to include as many teacher voices as possible, many couldn't speak on the record for fear of retribution. Though rare, The Sun granted teachers anonymity for this story, given the position many were in. So, I thought I'd share some feedback to my story.

One teacher wrote and said that they discovered Wednesday they had retroactively received unsatisfactory ratings--having never been observed or gone through the mid-year evaluation process.
The teacher never sat or signed anything, they said, and the evaluation was submitted after the due date. Consequently, they was placed on a PIP without anyone ever even informing them.

"Generally improvement plans tend to only work if we know [we] are on them," the teacher wrote.

Another, a veteran teacher, said they were informed from the city's benchmark MSA scores, that their 'interventions' weren't working for 34 percent of their students, half of which had never shown up to school.

"They just said my data shows my interventions aren't working," the veteran teacher said. "I thought: How do you know? And if they haven't been working since October, why are you just telling me in January?"

One veteran teacher, who said "the system doesn't need us anymore," wrote in and put the interventions in perspective: 

"Just imagine, a 14 or 15 year who walks out of you class cursing you," she wrote. "This same student makes no effort to complete any class work. Part of your interventions is to communicate with a student's home. Some parents may curse you out or call the principal and make a false report about you nagging them."

Another wrote in and said that she tried to present evidence to challenge her unsatisfactory ratings, and was told that 'it wasn't necessary,' because it was going to be in place anyway.

"A lot of us showed up to a meeting, and my principal broke the meeting, telling us there was no point," she said.

A parent also wrote in yesterday, asking if I had any school-by-school percentages, because she was interested in knowing if her student's school was experiencing the PIPs. When I couldn't provide it--the school system declined to provide data, calling it a "shifting number,"--she had one response: "Disturbing."

Below, I've posted the letter sent by the system explaining its take on the angst the PIP situation has caused.

Update on Professional Support for Teachers
February 7, 2012
Dear City Schools Teachers,
Thank you for all that you have done—and continue to do—for our students. In so many ways you and City Schools are at the forefront of the national effort to strengthen student success in big-city public school districts. And as we all know, along with the thrill and satisfaction of being innovators come plenty of challenges and hard work.
Your contributions have been invaluable as we roll out new standards and assessments for students, build new evaluation systems for employees and continue to improve how we support schools. With our new teacher contract, and our current participation in a state pilot with six other Maryland school districts to explore different ways of evaluating teachers, we in City Schools have a unique opportunity to dramatically improve our teacher evaluation system. But a shift of this significance is complex, and important work takes time.
We have reached significant milestones in the implementation of the new teacher contract to date, especially in the development of processes and criteria for teachers to advance within and move across pathways. The team of union and district representatives leading the contract implementation have established a peer review process for, and articulated roles and responsibilities for Model Pathway applicants; they are now working on the same for Lead Pathway applicants. And perhaps what is most gratifying about this work so far is that we are hearing from teachers about how the application process has improved their practice—helping them to be more self-reflective and partake of new supports available to them at the district level. One art teacher’s students wanted to help her produce a video as part of her application, and that spurred her to create a whole new Digital Filming/Mixed Media unit for them. She saw what they could and wanted to do, and created the learning structure to make it happen.
Because building a new teacher evaluation system takes time, we are doing what we can to move the work forward with tools we already have in place. Professional development is the most important of these tools, and we as a district are committed to providing teachers with professional development that is rich, relevant and ongoing. We have redesigned our professional development model, replacing one-off workshops with multi-session courses, and created an office of Teacher Support and Development within the Office of Teaching & Learning dedicated to overseeing this work. We are also committed to providing strategic professional development tailored to specific content areas. For example, we are providing for a first time this year professional development around early learning and adolescent literacy.
And we are committed to professional development that is tailored to the particular needs of individual teachers. The performance improvement plans we currently have in the district (popularly known as PIPs) are an important way to achieve this targeted support. I know PIPs have carried a negative connotation in the past; because City Schools was, for many years, a district where teachers received little feedback on how they could grow in their profession, performance improvement plans were often seen as negative, or even punitive. But as their name implies, they represent a tangible agreement between supervisors and staff that identifies both areas for improvement, and the necessary supports needed to help ensure that that improvement occurs. Many of you have heard me say this before and I’ll say it again and again: Every single one of City Schools’ 10,800 employees has room for growth—including me. Whether formally or informally, every one of us should be on a performance improvement plan—as a way to make sure that we are striving to be the best we can be for our kids.
As a district, we have worked hard in recent years to ensure that evaluations are completed on a regular and timely basis. We now require schools to report whether mid-year evaluations are occurring, and on the content of those evaluations. And as part of this renewed focus on evaluations, there is a sense that there are more teachers on performance improvement plans than in the past. Because performance improvement plans are a school-level activity and the number varies from day to day as plans begin and end, and because we do not require information on performance improvement plans as part of the evaluation reporting that principals do, we cannot quantify an exact number. And we should keep in mind that the common assumption that these plans are always tied to unsatisfactory evaluations is unwarranted. A teacher with a satisfactory evaluation might still have a performance improvement plan.
As teachers, you are at the heart of real progress for our students and our schools. I appreciate both your ongoing input and your patience as the evaluation system gets developed and refined. I also appreciate—and ask for—your continued patience with the implementation of the teacher contract overall. But mostly, I thank you for your work each day in the classroom to help our students succeed. Please keep an eye on our employee website, City Schools Inside, for latest updates on the development of the evaluation system and the contract implementation.
I look forward to continuing to work together, as we advance our shared goal of providing great schools for all 85,000 of our great kids.
Posted by Erica Green at 8:27 AM | | Comments (13)
Categories: Baltimore City

February 8, 2012

Baltimore County school board passes budget

Baltimore County school board members voted unanimously Tuesday night to adopt a $1.23 billion budget with an amendment that would add two more auditors at a cost of $190,000. Board members said they believed the existing auditors had been burdened recently with additional duties that involved checking out tips from the public. The school system recently out-sourced a hotline for tipsters to call to report problems with the school system. The new system has created a higher volume of reports to be checked out, according to school board members. School board president Larry Schmidt said legislators had asked that an internal auditor to report to the board. The board already has several auditors.

The budget amendments were passed shortly after Dulaney High School parents came forward to protest the increase in class sizes this year as a result of cuts to teaching positions at the high school. The board cut nearly 200 teaching positions in the middle and high schools last year, but did not cut administrators. The 2013 budget will add teaching positions in schools where enrollment is expected to increase and cuts about 45 non-classroom jobs. The budget does not restore any teaching positions in the high schools, however.

Posted by Liz Bowie at 6:53 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Baltimore County

Twenty apply for Baltimore County school superintendent job - so far

On Tuesday, the search firm hired to help find Baltimore County a new superintendent reported it has 20 applications that are either in hand or started, and discussions are underway with other applicants as well. While that number may be low so far, it is still higher than the applicant pool for Orange County, Florida, a much larger district than Baltimore County.

 The question that wasn't answered is how experienced and qualified the people who have applied are so far. No hints came on that score at the school board meeting. A report from the search firm said that members of the public want a new leader who is a good communicator, is ethical and can bring people from diverse backgrounds together. People with a wide range of perspectives - from students to administrators, business people, legislators and teaachers - emphasized the need for the new superintendent to be able to handle the diversity in schools from Dundalk to Towson.

Posted by Liz Bowie at 5:26 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Baltimore County

Union Leader: City principals also seeing PIP surge

On Wednesday, we ran a story about the stark increase in the number of Baltimore city teachers who received unsatisfactory ratings on their mid-year evaluations, and were consequently placed on Performance Improvement Plans (PIPs).

The plans have caused angst among educators, having historically been used as a precursor for dismissal, and many city educators said they believe the surge reflects that the district has signed onto a union contract it can't afford. 

While the story focused on teachers, I've also learned that this isn't just taking place among city teachers.

Jimmy Gittings, president of the administrators union, said that a large number of principals have also been placed on PIPs.  He said he believes this is part of district strategy to make up for past missteps, and this is a strategy to more easily fire administrators.

“The only reason people are on these PIPs is because since Alonso came, they’ve violated our contract and were firing people without them,” Gittings said. “So what they have done to cover their tracks is put everybody on a damn PIP.”

Gittings said he didn't believe that the rise in the plans reflect the number of principals who need to improve their performance. “It's that now," he said, "if they come across someone they want to fire, there’s nothing I can do about it.”

The district claims that it is now redefining PIPs in using them as a constructive feedback and professional development tool.

In the past, they have represented an agreement between teachers and principals (or principals and their evaluators) about areas of improvement. If a teacher didn't hold up their end of the bargain, the district can recommend for dismissal (though, that's not nearly the end of the process.) 

Though officials dispute there's no conspiracy, they also acknowledged that the system's teacher evaluation system is long broken, and that there to be a new focus on improving teacher quality under the new Baltimore Teachers Union contract.

Baltimore city schools CEO Andres Alonso has also told principals that they were not properly evaluating teachers. At the beginning of the school year, Alonso pointed to inconsistent evaluation data which he told principals illustrated "an unwillingness to do the right thing."

But, teachers said their biggest fears about the new union contract--that it would promise to pay teachers more but make them more vulnerable during evaluations--have been realized. And to make matters worse, they said, they didn't see this coming.

Experts are of the mind that, for better or worse, Baltimore is experiencing growing pains in its effort to improve teacher quality in a time when teachers are feeling attacked for the challenges facing public education.

I think one of our experts said is best when she said that at the end of the day,"this effort all falls on how well the district is able to communicate with teachers."

I heard district sent out a letter from city schools CEO Andres Alonso on Tuesday night explaining the new approach to PIPs, soon after The Sun had posted its story. 

So, what to make of the PIP situation? There's no doubt that the system needs to reform its evaluation system, but it this the way to do it?

Posted by Erica Green at 10:30 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Baltimore City

February 7, 2012

City schools boxing champion wins second national title

What a breath of fresh air I received today in a phone call from the mother of Lorenzo "Truck" Simpson, the City Springs Elementary/Middle school student I wrote about last year after he won the 2011 National Silver Gloves Tournament of Champions in his weight class and age group.

According to his mother, Danica Carroll, Lorenzo took the title again last week at the 2012 championships in Kansas City, Mo.  Lorenzo, now a sixth grader, won the title for the 10-11age group, 100 lbs. She also reported that he is still doing extremely well in school, academically and in his behavior.

Congrats, Lorenzo! 

Posted by Erica Green at 2:46 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Baltimore City

Phasing in new testing for Common Core

In a story today, I look at the ramifications of moving to the Common Core standards and a new set of tests.  When the state school board discussed the issue last month, it sounded an alarm about online testing. They don't believe that school districts have enough technology to mandate the tests be done online. In addition, there's a concern that children will get too much testing the year that the old tests and new tests overlap.      
Posted by Liz Bowie at 9:45 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Around the Region

February 3, 2012

City principal pay below average

Today, I wrote a story about principal pay in the city, which I was surprised to find was below the average for the state, and that of the other large, surrounding districts. The story accompanied a database The Sun has published of all school system employees, which we've also done for every state, city, and Baltimore County school system employees.

The jist of the story is that in the last four years, principals' pay have not caught up to their ever-expanding responsibilities in the city school system. While the story didn't appear to get nearly as much attention as the database, principals have written in that they are surprised by the disparity.

But school system and union leaders have acknowledged that principals--who under immense pressure in the city--are underpaid, and point to the new administrators union contract as a remedy to reward and retain the best leaders, who arguably have one of the hardest jobs in the state.

Posted by Erica Green at 10:04 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Baltimore City

February 2, 2012

Why we still don't know the real story about Baltimore City school system salaries

Today, The Sun published a database with the salary and overtime for every school system employee--by name and job title--dating back to 2008.  It's part of a series of databases that we will be compiling on public employee pay in the city. So far, we have published the same information for employees who work for the state, the  Baltimore City government, and the Baltimore County School System.More school districts will join the bunch in the coming months.

However, the Baltimore City school system salaries that you see only tell part of the story about how much system employees make--particularly administrators at North Avenue, whose salaries can shift more than school-based personnel. While teachers and principals' pay are reflected in a scale that is published on the Maryland State Department of Education website with every other district, administrative positions are more arbitrary.

I feel compelled to offer a glimpse into a rather tortured journey to transparency in obtaining this information--and why the public still doesn't really know what they're paying the stewards of the city's public education system, and the $1.3 billion budget it takes to run it.

The journey began when The Sun requested the school system's salaries--normally, the most basic public information request you can make, and the most readily available--on Nov. 16. 

After blowing the 30-day response deadline outlined by the Maryland Public Information Act--a law--by nearly three weeks, the city school system produced inconsistent, and incomplete data.

And more importantly, they had  "interpreted" our request as one for negotiated salaries--which would show us what employees are supposed to make--rather than earnings, which would show us what the system actually paid out. And this information wasn't offered. I thought to ask as I started combing through the data, and finding some red flags. 

Because we specified overtime, we were able to grasp how additional earnings--like sick-leave conversion, bonuses, allowances--can significantly inflate a base salary.

So, naturally, we asked the school system two weeks ago for salaries that reflect all income--like what was reported to the IRS, and reflected on W-2's.

Given the history with MPIA deadlines, I was informed that the system would not treat the request as a legal one, and wouldn't have to wait another 30 days.  To date, we have not received the system's earnings and the district has not indicated when it intends to turn them over.

There were also other inconsistencies in the data we received from the system. There were more than 50 employees without job titles, but showing salaries. On Jan. 23, we asked the system to provide those job titles, which they could not immediately produce, and as of this date have not.

When the school system decides to turn its earnings over--whether it's tomorrow, next week, or however the district interprets the MPIA deadline--we will be able to write more substantive stories about how the district is paying its employees. 

More importantly, it will be then that citizens can truly make more informed judgements about how their money is being spent to educate their children.  

Posted by Erica Green at 12:39 PM | | Comments (90)
Categories: Baltimore City

February 1, 2012

Updated: Local attorney hopes to bring international perspective to city school board

Updated on February 1: 

A new member has been appointed to the Baltimore city school board, after two searches have taken place in the last year to find someone to replace Anirban Basu, the renowned economist who served as the business-minded board member since 2005.

Marnell Cooper, a Baltimore attorney, will be sworn in Feb. 14. According to his Charles Street law firm's website, Cooper specializes in representing small businesses locally and internationally. 

Updated: I caught up with Cooper on Tuesday, who said that it "is a tremendous honor to be able to serve in this capacity." 

"What I hope to bring to the board is my experience as a person who has been a part of, and a graduate of the school system, and matriculated through two universities to go on to do business around the world. Hopefully I can bring that insight into how to help the students of Baltimore.”

Cooper, who doesn't have children in the city school system, said that he hopes to build on the efforts of the system. He said that he has, however, received feedback from the community about the state of city schools, which he described as, "extremely positive in terms of what they see as growth over the course of years."

As an international attorney, said that he takes particularly interest in strengthening and expanding International Baccalaureate programs, an elite and globally recognized college preparatory program, currently offered at City College and Mount Washington Elementary.

When asked to identify some school system challenges he hopes to help tackle, Cooper said, "I haven't started serving yet, but I know there are some challenges coming up.”

School officials confirmed the appointment after The Sun obtained board members' formal notifications last week. Board members are jointly appointed by the mayor and the governor.

"We're very pleased with the joint appointment by mayor and governor," said Neil Duke, president of the city school board. "[Cooper] brings to our board a wealth of experience, and will be a great addition." 

The appointment of a new member has been a long anticipated. While board appointments usually take place in the spring, the Maryland State Department of Education reopened a second search in August for a new member after the first round of candidates didn't make the cut.

The listing was for a candidate to"possess a high level of knowledge and expertise concerning the successful administration of a large business, non-profit, or governmental entity and have served in a high level management position within such an entity..."

In addition to Cooper's appointment, current board members David Stone and Bob Heck were  re-appointed to the board to serve their second, three-year, terms. 

A call to Cooper's office on Tuesday was not returned, so I haven't been able to interview him about his motivations and aspirations for the school system in his new role. Will post when I do.
Posted by Erica Green at 11:48 AM | | Comments (8)
Categories: Baltimore City

Updated: Alonso's chief of staff withdraws name from superintendent search

Updated: Tisha Edwards, Alonso's chief of staff who traveled to East Baton Rouge last week to interview as a finalist for the parish's superintendent seat, withdrew her name from the running, according to a story published this week in Baton Rouge's newspaper, The Advocate.

Edwards, the mother of a city school graduate and a current student, said Wednesday that she chose to withdraw her name so that her son can finish his middle school education in Baltimore.

Edwards was one of six semi-finalists for the seat, and took part in a public interview before the East Baton Rouge school board on Jan. 23. The EBR parish has held an unusually public search for a new superintendent, devoting an entire website to the search, and posting interviews on You Tube.

You can watch Edwards' interview, during which she is questioned for two hours, and discusses everything from her leadership style, to her efforts and accomplishments in the city, and the reforms she was hoping to bring to the struggling school system.

Original Post:

Tisha Edwards, right hand (wo)man and chief of staff for city schools CEO Andres Alonso, is a semifinalist for the superintendent seat in the East Baton Rouge Parish of Louisiana. According to Baton Rouge's local paper The Advocate, Edwards is one of six candidates who will be heading down south for a public interview in the next week.

She joins a pool of competitive candidates, including the parish's current Chief Academic Officer and a current superintendent, for the job. But she appears to be a serious one, according to Louisiana media reports, having been 15 recommended candidates from a list of 44 applicants, and ultimately one of six semifinalists solidified by a 8-1 vote of the the parish's school board earlier this month.


The East Baton Rough district has a website that makes public each candidates' CV and application. I poked around a bit, and it was interesting to learn a bit more about Edwards, who--despite her reputation for ruling with an iron fist--is referred to as the backbone of this system ( Many say she's responsible for the details behind the concepts). It also appears from her application that she was sought out by head hunters hired by the school district to conduct the search.

In her capacity as Alonso's chief of staff since 2009 and his special assistant the year prior to that promotion, Edwards highlights many of the accomplishments (negotiating union contracts, graduation rates, dropout rates, central office reorganizations, new schools) under Alonso as well as her stint as the founding principal of Baltimore Freedom Academy, which she led from 2003 to 2007. Before entering education, Edwards, who studied social work and law, made a career of social work and serving at-risk youth.

When contacted Wednesday, Edwards declined to comment at this time.

But, in Edwards' response to the application's question of "Why [East Baton Rouge]?" Edwards, who currently earns a salary of $175,000 as the second most powerful official in the school system wrote:

"Being a native southerner, it has always been my ardent desire to return to the south to serve. EBR presents an opportunity to return home and assist my community in educating its children. It is my hope to use my professional experiences to help EBR to become a high-performing school system and leader in the region for educational reform."
Posted by Erica Green at 10:11 AM | | Comments (28)
Categories: Baltimore City
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