Pupils' futures show disparity in city

Level of education varies across charter, public middle schools


Malcolm Lawson, a 14-year-old Baltimore boy with a head full of rap songs and a knack for solving math equations, will go to a rigorous college preparatory school this fall.

Tynesha McGougan, whose reserved exterior belies the playful 13-year-old she is at home, heads to a city vocational high school where most years only a third of graduates plan to attend a four-year college.

Both will graduate from city middle schools on Tuesday, but the education they received was fundamentally different. Malcolm has spent fifth through eighth grades at KIPP Ujima Village Academy, a charter school that strives to put every one of its mostly poor and minority pupils on a college track by teaching self-discipline and hard work. Tynesha has gone to Calverton, a public middle school that sends a few pupils to elite high schools but has a long history of low achievement and behavior problems.

This year, while Malcolm's class was reading Shakespeare, John Steinbeck and Harper Lee, Tynesha and her classmates were studying books for younger readers.

Malcolm and Tynesha's contrasting experiences offer lessons for city school officials as they examine ways to make middle schools more than a way station on the road to high school. Among them: Discipline, structure and high expectations produce better pupils.

There's enormous pressure to improve the schools, especially after the state declared this year that seven of the 53 middle schools - including Calverton - were performing so poorly they should be placed under the control of outside operators.

KIPP is one of a handful of successful models city educators may draw upon.

"Obviously, the board wants a full review ... of what are the differences and what are the lessons learned. We should be open to employing what we can. The question is: What does KIPP do differently?" said school board member Kalman R. Hettleman.

KIPP, which opened its doors four years ago near Sinai Hospital, is a third the size of Calverton, which has about 750 sixth- through eighth-graders in its three-story brick building in West Baltimore. The KIPP school, which has 275 pupils in fifth through eighth grades, is one of 46 such schools across the nation started by two idealistic teachers a decade ago in Houston. KIPP stands for Knowledge is Power Program.

The two schools confront the same challenges. Their pupil populations have equivalent percentages of poor and minority pupils. Their average class size is about the same. KIPP pupils, chosen by lottery from parents' applications, came into fifth grade with the same test scores as those in surrounding elementary schools.

But today, as test scores show, one school drastically outperforms the other.

KIPP does have advantages over most public schools. As a charter school, it operates with more independence. While most of its budget comes from the school system, it can also raise private funds. Unlike other schools that must take any applicant from the neighborhood, KIPP doesn't accept new students after sixth grade.

Yet what many people say distinguishes KIPP from other schools is its culture, which was clearly visible during repeated visits over two weeks this spring.

Strict codes of conduct shaped each step Malcolm took nine hours every day. Tynesha had to negotiate her way through a school where teachers often compete with noise and chaos.

An engaged class

Michael Lucas' English class began at 2:50 p.m., a time when most middle-schoolers in Baltimore were out for the day or soon would be. After a spelling bee, the class turned to Macbeth. Lucas knew this would be a bit of a stretch for his eighth-graders, but he wanted to challenge them. So the class listened to a tape of the Shakespeare play read by Scottish actors and followed along in their books. If they were frustrated, they could go to the other side of the page for the version in modern English. But they grasped the plot.

"How does Macbeth react to the news that his wife is dead?" Lucas asked.

"He doesn't care," a boy answered. "He said she was going to die sometime anyway."

Then Lucas turned to Malcolm: "What happened?"

"She committed suicide," he said.

Macbeth was the last of a list of classics chosen by Lucas. They included To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, as well as poetry and short stories. It is the same literature that students at suburban schools are reading in eighth and ninth grade.

These pupils were reading on average two years below grade level when they entered KIPP in fifth grade. Last year, when they were in seventh grade, 73.4 percent passed the Maryland State Assessment test in reading, placing them more than 30 points above the city average and beating the state average. Still Lucas isn't satisfied. He worries that some students are reading haltingly. He blames himself.

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