By many measures, Baltimore's parent-run Stadium School is doing exactly what it set out to do: challenging students to learn by solving real-life neighborhood problems.
So yesterday, alarm and anger were the reactions to an audit that prompted school board members to ask whether the groundbreaking 3-year-old school should be closed, in part because test scores are too low.
Founders and parents disputed the report, saying test scores are an inadequate measure of their nontraditional programs. And if scores are to be the bottom line, they said, many "regular" neighborhood public schools do worse.
"If they are going to close us, maybe they should first close about 30 other schools," said Jay Gillen, teacher-director at the first school that Baltimore gave to teachers and parents to run.
He said school board members and many administrators who must judge the Stadium School's progress have not set foot in his classrooms this academic year.
Some city school officials said yesterday that the report was a reality check. They said the solution could include a more balanced diet of old-fashioned basics and newfangled thinking projects; more oversight; and technical help from the central office to help the school fulfill its promises.
Community activists in the neighborhoods around Memorial Stadium, where they and students' families fought to open the school, saw the audit as the latest affront to their project, which has encountered hurdles from the day they first asked for control of a city public school.
"My heart was broken when I read this. That school is wonderful and in fact is one of the top five in the city in its [eighth-grade] critical-thinking scores," said Betsy Krieger, a longtime Waverly neighbor who raises money for Stadium School projects.
Many supporters of the school think the city has not backed their effort to find permanent quarters and wants to see it closed. The school is temporarily housed in the Samuel L. Banks Professional Development Center in the 2500 block of E. Northern Parkway, and some city officials have suggested that they want to see signs that the school will meet its goals before investing in a site.
In a letter to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke yesterday, the Waverly group wrote: "Despite being only two years old, and despite being located out of the neighborhood and having no permanent location, the Stadium School has done very well academically."
Eighth-graders at the school scored better on the Maryland critical-thinking tests, which are used to judge school quality, than did those at several middle schools drawing from the same part of the city, the Waverly, Lakeside, Montebello and Ednor Gardens neighborhoods.
But comparisons are difficult because the Stadium School is so small that one student's scores can dramatically affect the rankings. With seven teachers and 80 students, the school can keep classes tiny.
The school receives a city budget of at least $4,500 per pupil, more than many of the "regular" stadium-area schools and more than the projected $3,800-per-pupil that will be spent in September in each of 10 additional schools to be run by parent and nonprofit groups, school officials confirmed.
Still, the Stadium School's eighth-grade scores on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program are as high as those in some city middle schools serving wealthier communities. About 95 percent of Stadium School students are black, and more than 70 percent come from poor families.
Doubts about reaching goals
The school system report applauded eighth-graders' achievement but said the school lags behind the founders' stated goals: By the school's third year, they pledged, 80 percent of families would be positive about the school. By the fourth year, the school would meet 70 percent of state standards. By the fifth year, all state standards would be met or the school would close.
It is "highly unlikely" that those goals will be achieved, the audit says. It offers recommendations to help the school meet its goals: possibly eliminating elementary classes because fifth-grade test scores are low; more hours of math, science and English instruction; and more stringent evaluation of teachers -- currently, two of the seven teachers have more than two years of experience.
Some supporters said the founders' mistake was promising too much, gambling before they knew how difficult it would be to teach in and manage an urban school. But they also said they felt they had to sell the program hard to overcome political opposition.
"Troubling is the word I would use" for the report, said Arnita
Hicks McArthur, president of the city school board, which has called for further review.
"I think everybody wants to see the Stadium School do well, yet we have to take the report to heart," said McArthur, a community college professor and the only teacher on the school board.