A win for state's pupils

Awards: Maryland's most improved schools were amply rewarded for their efforts, sharing a $2.75 million fund.

September 24, 1999|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Just three years ago, Baltimore's Northwood Elementary School was threatened with a state takeover for its low pupil achievement. Yesterday, state educators decided the school had improved so much that they awarded it more than $40,000.

"We've been working so hard for this," said Northwood principal Lucy Jones Miller, clutching a plaque honoring her school's improvements. "This is proof to everyone that we can succeed."

Northwood received its award as Gov. Parris N. Glendening and state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick distributed $2.75 million yesterday to 94 of Maryland's most improved elementary and middle schools. Another 143 schools were honored for their progress with certificates.

"There's so much criticism and critical analysis of all levels of public education that there is a constant danger that we do not adequately recognize significant achievement when it takes place," said Walter Sondheim, president of the state school board and architect of Maryland's school reform effort. "This ceremony answers that."

Baltimore-area schools captured the bulk of the money, with 48 schools sharing almost $1.5 million for having made two years of significant progress, as measured by their scores on the state's annual exams and their pupil attendance rates.

Seventeen Baltimore County elementaries together won the most money of any school system -- $486,000 -- and $54,213 given to Harford County's Fallston Middle School was the largest award to any school in the state.

The ceremony at Martin's Eastwind in Essex also marked the gains made by many Baltimore schools that as recently as 18 months ago were labeled failing by the state.

Of the 43 city schools recognized with money or certificates -- the most of any school system in Maryland -- at least 22 had been threatened with takeover by state educators for low performance, known as "reconstitution."

"This is very exciting because we had 22 percent of [all] our schools here getting recognized," said Robert Booker, the city school system's chief executive officer.

In addition to Northwood, two schools threatened with reconstitution in 1996 -- Morrell Park Elementary/Middle in Baltimore and Van Bokkelen Elementary in Anne Arundel County -- also won monetary awards.

The recognition of the turnaround at some failing schools came just two days after state educators began preparations for what they will do later this school year if other low-performing schools don't make any progress.

`Wonderful balance'

"It's a wonderful balance to what happened earlier this week," Grasmick said. "It shows that it is possible to make progress, and I hope that more schools from the city will be here next year."

The annual Maryland School Performance Recognition Awards ceremony, first held in 1996, serves as the carrot in the state's carrot-and-stick approach to school reform. Low-achieving schools failing to show progress on the state's annual exams are threatened with takeover -- 97 statewide so far, including 83 in Baltimore -- while those making gains are rewarded.

"I'm proud that Maryland is a national leader in high standards and assessments and accountability," Glendening told the group of principals and superintendents. "What you're doing sets the standard for others to follow."

Awarded for gains

The $2.75 million, allocated by the legislature every year, is distributed to schools making significant gains on the state tests at least two consecutive years. The amount received is based on their pupil enrollment. This year, for the first time, for schools to be recognized they were required to show test score gains overall and within their different racial groups.

Schools are allowed to use the money on whatever they want to improve their schools, except for staff bonuses or extra pay.

At Baltimore County's Fullerton Elementary -- the only school in Maryland awarded money all four years of the recognition program -- the money has created an Internet-connected iMac lab, replenished classroom libraries, bought more instructional supplies and paid for a kindergarten through second-grade reading tutoring program.

"This has been our only outside source of funds, and it's become very important to us," said principal Kathleen McMahon, whose school won $29,226 this year. "It's been a big help to our school."

Middle school lagging

Of 94 schools receiving money yesterday, five were middle schools -- a sign of the lagging achievement in Maryland's middle grades.

"That flat-line at the middle school level is a real concern," said Grasmick, who has had a task force working to find ways to improve middle schools. "The small number of middle schools here should serve as a wake-up call that we need to improve middle school achievement."

Suspense

None of the principals arriving at yesterday's ceremony knew whether their schools were selected for certificates or monetary awards.

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