Wiping the slate clean

Schools: New staff and reforms get their first tests as the year opens quietly in Baltimore.

August 31, 1999|By Liz Bowie and Mike Bowler | Liz Bowie and Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

Pupils at Southeast Middle School returned yesterday expecting the same demoralized teaching staff, drab classrooms and chaos in the halls they had left in June.

But all was new, from the floor tile to the principal.

"I have never seen it run so smoothly," said Marsha Grant, a parent and past critic of the school, who recalled last year's chaos of seventh-graders running from classroom to classroom. "This is the quietist I have ever seen it."

The same was true at Northern High School, where first day mayhem was replaced by relative calm and the new principal showed students a new order.

As bells rang on the opening day of Baltimore's third year of school reform, the turnaround at two of the city's once-troubled schools demonstrated the change that is slowly filtering through the system. "We have a long way to go, but we're getting there," said Robert Booker, chief executive of the city school district, who declared opening day a success.

Though neither Northern nor Southeast can claim victories in the bottom line -- student achievement -- both schools had a crisp, new seriousness about them.

The staff and curriculum at Southeast Middle School have been revamped so that pupils will get music, art and physical education for the first time in years. They will read for 50 minutes each day using a new reading curriculum -- a priority because the average Southeast sixth-grader reads far below his peers nationwide.

And they will have three new reading teachers, one at each grade.

"The whole point is to make sure we don't leave any kids behind," said Richard Nyankori, a new assistant principal who came with a business background.

Particularly encouraging for a school system where parents have rarely agitated for change is that a small group of parents, including Grant, lobbied hard for the school and had some success in getting what it wanted. For years, Grant said, promises to improve the school were never kept.

This year, the parents went to the school administration and made demands, she said. Grant hopes parents will come to the school and see the new floor tile that replaced the stained, 20-year-old carpet, the new partitions between classrooms, the beginnings of a new library and meet the two assistant principals, who are responsible for some of the changes.

"It is such a better learning environment for the kids," said Grant, who is the guardian of an eighth-grader.

Across town at Northern, the changes are just as significant. Students expected to mill around school on the first day because the scheduling was incomplete.

Principal Helena Nobles-Jones, 13 months on the job, was firmly in command, however. This summer, Nobles-Jones drew up the class schedules for the ninth- and 10th-graders at Northern, which has about 1,900 students, more than half of them freshmen.

On opening day for ninth-graders -- upperclassmen return today -- Nobles-Jones roamed the hallways, touching hands and heads, calming anxious students and parents, and crisply dispatching those in violation of the school's dress code. (Female students cannot wear dresses "with slits that reveal more than 2 inches of the thigh.")

One scantily clad girl tried to escape by covering herself with a blanket. It didn't work. Another, wearing Muslim headdress, was confronted by Nobles-Jones. "I don't think you're Muslim," said the principal, recognizing the girl from last year.

When the girl uttered an obscenity, Nobles-Jones said: "Now I know you're not Muslim. You go to my office, and when I get there we're going to call your mom."

In the principal's office, visitors watched a demonstration of the school system's computerized student tracking system. The system allows principals for the first time to know who's in their schools and what their class schedules are. Students no longer can be registered at two schools at once, a common occurrence in years past.

"I wish we had 40 or 50 more like her," said school board President J. Tyson Tildon of Nobles-Jones. "The system has so many different needs, and when you repair one, it feels like a huge success."

Booker has hired 29 principals for this year and is in the process of hiring several more. "Some of them are better suited for other occupations," Booker said.

School officials also have replaced a hodgepodge approach to math with new math textbooks at each grade, have revamped the teaching of reading to focus on phonics, and have put in a new teacher evaluation policy.

Hiring qualified teachers and keeping them happy in their jobs are the chief academic officer's top priorities this year. This summer, all new teachers were offered a four-week training session aimed at giving new college graduates a dose of reality. And it seemed to have worked, at least with three teachers who ended up at Dunbar Middle School, said the school's principal, Gwendolyn Statham. "They didn't come down all starry eyed."

For the first time since the reform of city schools began in June 1997, the top administrators can't claim distance from school problems. Booker and his chief financial officer have been in their jobs for more than a year. In addition, Booker has swept house among administrators, hiring eight directors for different areas.

Whether the changes will affect how first-grader Shaun Terrell feels about reading and math has yet to be seen. Shaun emerged from her first day of school at Madison Square Elementary eager and excited. "The boys had chased the girls," she said. She couldn't remember much about the academics. "The teacher said she didn't want us to be too tired."

At one point during the day, Statham sighed and said, "If only every day could be the first day."

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