Successful school fighting to survive

New Song Academy is left behind while city funds go to failing facilities

March 26, 2006|By SARA NEUFELD | SARA NEUFELD,SUN REPORTER

About two years ago, a boy enrolled in third grade at New Song Academy unable to recognize all the letters of the alphabet. In less than a year working with Robin Shay, he was reading nearly on grade level.

Shay is a reading teacher at New Song, an independently run public school in West Baltimore's Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood, one of the city's poorest. She has taught many children to read simply by giving them individual attention.

But the Baltimore school system is not willing to fund Shay's position at New Song. Nor is it willing to pay for the school social worker's salary. Or the eighth-grade teacher's. Meanwhile, the system is sending extra money to failing schools.

New Song, which serves 132 pupils in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, is one of the islands of success in a city grappling with how to successfully educate its impoverished children. Ninety-two percent of the school's fifth-graders passed last year's state reading test, in a neighborhood where about half of the 10- to 17-year-olds have been arrested on drug-related charges.

Although Sandtown's median household income is $15,000 annually, 40 percent of school staff members live alongside the families they serve.

But the school's existence is in jeopardy.

For the past nine years, Principal Susan Tibbels has supplemented the budget she gets from the city school system with private donations of about $500,000 a year to pay for extra teachers and staff - a pace she's finding impossible to sustain. She is appealing to the school board for more money, but city school system administrators say that would be unfair.

David Stone, the system administrator who oversees independently run schools, said the system can't take away from other schools to give more to New Song, but his office is committed to working with the school to help it find more outside funding.

Aiding failing schools

Because of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which requires all children to show proficiency on state exams by 2014, school systems around the country are pouring resources into failing schools, often at the expense of successful ones. Stone said the situation at New Song epitomizes a national "conundrum": "Once you become successful, you lose a lot of resources."

In a recent letter to New Song's board of directors, the system's chief executive officer, Bonnie S. Copeland, said most city schools have class sizes that are "nearly double" those at New Song, which limits them to 15 students. She wrote that if the school system gave New Song additional staff, it would have to do the same for every other school.

Counters Tibbels: "If we won't fund a school like New Song, there's no hope for change in Baltimore City."

New Song's plight comes amid growing concerns about the system's efforts to satisfy the wishes of parents and students who are seeking quality education. Last week, a public outcry erupted with the disclosure that admissions standards had been lowered at Western High School and a substantial number of highly qualified applicants had been turned away from Polytechnic Institute. Both are elite schools that have long served as models of academic success.

Public schools in Baltimore are funded according to a complex formula designating a certain number of staff members for a given number of students. Tibbels says the formula does not give New Song enough money for the small class sizes and academic and emotional support its children need. She has been relying on foundations to make up the difference.

Now, nine years after New Song's opening, the school needs a more reliable source of income, Tibbels said. Foundations are all too happy to fund something tangible such as a new playground, she said, but they don't feel it's their role to pay a teacher's salary, year after year.

"When you're starting out as a new school, there's a lot of public support because it's new and innovative and hopeful," she said. "But when you're nine years into it, people say it's time to stand on your own."

Dreams deferred

This school year, New Song received $4,876 per pupil from the school system, according to budget information that Tibbels provided. That compares with $11,944 spent per pupil citywide, though much of that latter amount goes toward central administrative costs and initiatives.

While New Song needs money for 23 staff salaries, this year the system paid for 16 positions. Copeland announced late Friday that next year the system would cover 17.5 positions, which would add one full-time and one part-time salary.

To keep New Song operating, Tibbels says she needs a funding increase amounting to $355,740 over this year's budget. That budget, which amounts to $7,571 per pupil, would pay for only staff salaries, not the computer lab and library that Tibbels would like to have. Not the high school she dreams of opening nearby.

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