Few deny schools need change

11 in city targeted for takeover have low test scores

April 03, 2006|By SARA NEUFELD | SARA NEUFELD,SUN REPORTER

La'Chelle Alston, 14, stood before the Baltimore school board in late February and asked for help at her school, Chinquapin Middle.

"During this present school year," the eighth-grader said, "there have been numerous incidents occurring involved in all three grade levels. For example, food fights, fistfights, setting fires, pulling the fire alarm, smoking in the hallways and stairwells, group fights, robberies and parents attacking teachers, just to name a few."

Chinquapin is one of 11 Baltimore schools with failing test scores that are being targeted by the State Board of Education for an outside takeover. Mayor Martin O'Malley says the 10,000 students at those schools are being used as "political pawns" and has vowed to do whatever is necessary to prevent the takeovers. In Annapolis, lawmakers rushed through legislation to stop the action.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. supports the state board, insisting the takeovers are not politically motivated and are "about a system that continues to receive more dollars and becomes more dysfunctional."

Despite all the political sparring, one thing is clear: Many Baltimore schools are in chaos. And though the public is divided over how to fix the schools and who should fix them, there's little doubt that a major fix is needed.

La'Chelle told the school board about Chinquapin administrators not evacuating during fires. She told of the elimination of many extracurricular activities and said that as a result, "all of the energy is being used in negative ways. The pupils are being influenced by gangs, and are selling drugs and engaging in other violent activities."

Of the seven middle schools targeted by the state, the best pass rate on last year's eighth-grade state math test was at William H. Lemmel, where 25 percent of pupils demonstrated proficiency. Of the four high schools, Patterson had the highest pass rate on last year's state algebra test, which students will soon need to pass to get a high school diploma. That pass rate was 10 percent.

"The facts are the facts," said education activist Tyrone Powers. "The schools' test scores are abysmal. ... Clearly, these children are not being prepared for any kind of future."

Powers said he is troubled by the high graduation rates at some schools despite low academic performance, indicating that "we may be graduating students who aren't prepared." For example, Northwestern High had a 2005 graduation rate of 78 percent, despite an 8.8 percent pass rate on the state algebra exam.

Unless she is stopped by legislative or judicial action, state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick is planning to take control of four high schools - Patterson, Northwestern, Frederick Douglass and Southwestern No. 412 - and contract with companies or nonprofits to run them. She is leaving seven middle schools under the jurisdiction of the city school system but requiring that the system contract out to manage them. All 11 schools have been on a state watch list for low test scores since at least 1997.

The city schools' chief executive, Bonnie S. Copeland, said she's not trying to excuse the schools' weak performance but that her administration has been planning significant changes in all 11 schools. Plans are under way, she said, to break up Patterson, Northwestern and Douglass into smaller, more personalized environments. Southwestern No. 412 is slated to close in 2009. All seven middle schools got new principals at the start of this school year, she said.

At three of the schools, however, the new principals came from other failing city middle schools. Last year's Chinquapin principal went to Dr. Roland N. Patterson Sr. Academy. The Roland Patterson principal went to Diggs-Johnson Middle. The Pimlico Middle principal went to Chinquapin. All schools involved in the shuffle - except Pimlico, where test scores last year were equally low - are on the takeover list.

"They don't have quality principals at the middle schools, so they just shuffle them around," said James Williams, president of the PTO at Roland Patterson, which is also scheduled to be closed, either this summer or in 2008.

Copeland acknowledged that the system has trouble attracting principals, as well as teachers, to work in middle schools, a problem faced by school systems around the country. She said it is easier to recruit for elementary and high schools, but the system is hoping that its partnership with New Leaders for New Schools will result in more principals for middle schools. The national nonprofit has set out to train 40 principals for all types of Baltimore schools over three years.

"I have to tell you," Copeland said, "we are struggling to identify people who want to be middle school principals."

The principals of Chinquapin, Roland Patterson and Diggs-Johnson did not return calls Friday.

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