Middle school reform is off to bumpy start

Overhaul planned at 2 city schools, but program not in place

September 11, 2001|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

Baltimore education officials have targeted two low-performing middle schools for overhauls this year as part of a systemwide push to raise achievement in sixth through eighth grades, but, a week after school began, the new programs are not in place.

Hamilton and Highlandtown middle schools are supposed to be using a reform model developed by the Johns Hopkins University that provides teacher "coaches," professional development and a focus on improved school climate.

But school system administrators did not contact the Talent Development Middle School program until just weeks before classes started - meaning program staff have yet to visit the schools, meet with the principals and arrange teacher training schedules and other details.

Normally, schools that apply to the Talent Development program need the approval of 80 percent of their teaching staffs, and a year is spent planning for the change.

"Ideally, we like to have a few months to work with the schools and the school district to get resources in place for a successful start to the implementation plan," said Kathy Nelson, program manager.

"But, on the other hand, we're excited to be working with Baltimore middle schools."

She said next year will be the first year of full implementation at the two schools.

This year, she said, she and her staff will try to "get our feet wet, start providing professional development and doing what we can with a late start."

"I'm waiting anxiously," said Robert Hopkins, Hamilton's principal. "I just need to find out what [the program] is and what they are requiring of us and how soon we can implement it."

Cassandra Jones, who is chief academic officer for the city's 96,000-student district, had said last week that program officials "are scheduled to be in those classrooms coaching in September."

"We have had the meetings, we definitely have the contract," she said, adding: "Talent Development is going to happen."

Hamilton and Highlandtown will be Baltimore's first Talent Development middle schools. The model is being used at 20 sites in five states.

Carmen V. Russo, the city schools' chief executive officer, has set middle school reform as one of her top priorities this year, saying it's time to shift the focus from the elementary grades, where pupils have made consistent gains on reading and math tests.

In May, school officials unveiled an ambitious middle school reform plan, which included creating 10 magnet, or citywide, schools for math, science and technology as well as the arts and humanities. Administrators said at the time that as many as four of those might open this fall.

But Jones said the city school board never approved doing so, and that no magnet schools will open this year. Instead, she said, officials will launch new ones next year, along with additional programs that serve students from kindergarten through the eighth grade, all in one facility.

Malcum L. Dates, who oversees the city's 23 middle schools, said the district is taking other steps to improve struggling ones this year, including adopting the literacy-rich Achievement First reform model in all of its middle schools.

Achievement First, developed by the Baltimore nonprofit Fund for Educational Excellence, has been used at many city elementaries with considerable success.

Achievement First Director Bernice Pinkney-Alston said four Baltimore middle schools - Arnett J. Brown, Diggs-Johnson, Lombard and West Baltimore - are using the program's "direct" model, which provides a "coach" for each principal as well as staff developers for teachers two days a week.

The rest will be using the "indirect" model, which includes less frequent sessions for principals and other administrators to train them in the program's core strategies.

Part of the challenge in reforming middle schools, said Pinkney-Alston, is getting teachers who are normally focused just on their content area to consider themselves as reading teachers as well.

"Middle schools are tough," she said. "Because there are so many children and so many teachers, it's quite a challenge. But we just look at it as an opportunity. It's very much needed."

The school system recently asked the governor for nearly $363 million in extra state aid to support a range of programs next year - $40 million of which was earmarked for middle schools.

The request included $763,700 to create Talent Development schools.

Dates said a key to the reforms will be a focus on literacy, which he called a "gateway subject area."

"If a student can read well, then they can perform well in social studies and they can perform well in science," he said.

They also will do better on the Maryland State Performance Assessment Program exams, he said.

Hamilton and Highlandtown - where 6.5 percent and 2.4 percent of eighth-graders scored satisfactorily on the most recent MSPAP reading test - were chosen as the first schools to receive extensive reform because they have large, diverse populations, Dates said, and because some academic gains have been made there.

"We just want to continue that improvement," he said.

Veronica B. Dixon, Highlandtown's principal, said administrators have been talking to her since June about adopting the Talent Development model, but details are still being worked out.

"We're just trying to get everything in place so everybody will be on the same page," she said.

She called the district's middle school reform effort an "encouraging sign," especially because elementary pupils are now arriving more skilled.

"You don't want your elementary people to get lost," she said. "What I'm happy about is, with the new program and many of the other things we're doing here, it's a continuum."

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