Models of middle school success

2 charters flourish, but city rarely seeks their input


Educators came to Baltimore last week from Massachusetts, New York, Washington and Virginia to study the success of the Crossroads School.

They talked to pupils who, despite impoverished backgrounds, have published a book, made a model of the solar system and outscored their peers, not only around the city but in some cases statewide as well.

Yet few in the Baltimore school system were paying attention. Of 70 conference participants, two came from other city schools - both of them teachers hungry for ideas.

Crossroads is one of two charter middle schools in the city receiving national recognition for their work educating vulnerable children at a particularly vulnerable age. The other, KIPP Ujima Village Academy, is part of a network of schools held up by Oprah Winfrey last month as an urban education model the same week she lashed out at the Baltimore school system for its poor track record.

Meanwhile, city school system officials are grappling with how to reform their 23 traditional middle schools, all of which are failing. They have said that middle schools nationwide have the same problems, and that few models to emulate exist. But staff at Crossroads and KIPP say the system has generally not turned for guidance to the schools, which are producing high student achievement with the same population as ordinary city schools.

"There hasn't really been a concerted effort for a dialogue," said Jason Botel, principal of KIPP, where 90 percent of sixth-graders passed last year's state test in math, compared with 28 percent citywide. "We'd love for that to happen."

Mark Conrad, director of Crossroads, said system officials are "very supportive" of his school, but "they don't seem to be ready to say, `let's learn'" from it.

As charter schools, public schools that operate independently, Crossroads and KIPP have some luxuries that traditional schools don't, including private foundations giving them resources. Crossroads has a state-of-the-art building along the waterfront. For the city school system to replicate some of the schools' features - such as small class sizes, teacher freedom and extended school days - it would require rethinking the educational bureaucracy and providing more money.

System officials say they have been trying to learn from their successful charter schools, and they hope to communicate more. "In the coming weeks, we are going to be engaging all portions of the Baltimore community, including charter school operators, ... around the issue of how to reform not only our middle schools but all of our low-performing schools," said Alexandra Hughes, assistant to schools Chief Executive Officer Bonnie S. Copeland. "We're going to be using some of the things that are working for the charters."

The system plans to close several middle schools in the coming years, diverting thousands of children to schools serving pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. Officials have pledged to reform the remaining middle schools, particularly seven targeted in March by the State Department of Education for outside takeovers. The General Assembly has delayed the takeovers for a year.

Crossroads, in Fells Point, is run by the Living Classrooms Foundation, a nonprofit group providing education and work force training. It serves 150 pupils in sixth through eighth grades. KIPP, in Northwest Baltimore, is one of 46 schools in the Knowledge Is Power Program, a national network of college preparatory schools in struggling communities. It serves 250 pupils in grades five through eight.

Both schools opened in 2002. Both see their pupils enter an average of at least two years below grade level. And at both schools, more than 90 percent of current eighth-graders have been accepted either to private high schools on scholarships or to the city's elite magnet high schools.

Last week, KIPP executives and board members, including Gap co-founders Doris and Donald Fisher and Netflix founder Reed Hastings, talked to KIPP's first graduating class of eighth-graders. Cherelle Briggs, 14, who is headed to the Baltimore School for the Arts, told them that if she hadn't come to KIPP, "I think I would've been running crazy, not caring about education."

At the same time, Crossroads was hosting a two-day seminar about its project-based teaching. Pupils complete four major projects a year relating both to their lives and the material they must know for state tests.

Two fifth-grade teachers came from Baltimore's Tench Tilghman Elementary, which will begin adding the middle grades next school year. One of them, Anthony Heron, said he was inspired to try to replicate the positive school culture at Crossroads.

But "I have to follow the Baltimore City public schools model," he said. "By having a charter, they can choose a way to do it that benefits them."

A key feature at Crossroads and KIPP is an environment where teachers feel supported and respected.

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