The challenge is being met at Morrell Park

November 23, 2006|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,Sun reporter

On a recent morning at Morrell Park Elementary/Middle School, a mother screaming and hitting her child in the lobby had to be escorted out of the building. Fourth-graders worked in the hallway because the heat in the old building was malfunctioning, raising the temperature in their classroom to 98 degrees.

When it comes to challenges, the Southwest Baltimore school has plenty. But parents and staff members say it has begun making a significant turnaround under a new structure replicating a charter school. Kids are behaving better, and teachers have more of a say over how they do their jobs.

"You can definitely see the change," said Marie Greenfield, whose two sons are in second and sixth grades at the school. "The children are happier, the parents are happier and the teachers are happier."

Under the oversight of Towson University's College of Education, Morrell Park has gained the autonomy to change everything from the curriculum to the length of the school day. It is being funded as a regular city school, but it is running like a charter school, a public school that operates independently.

Morrell Park is one of about 70 schools in the state that have such chronically low standardized test scores that they were required to restructure under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. But parents of Morrell Park pupils rejected the previously used methods of restructuring and turned to a provision in state law that allows a failing school to become a full-fledged charter or to take on the characteristics of one.

Many failing schools in Baltimore have complied with No Child Left Behind by turning to veteran administrators, called "turnaround specialists," to work alongside their principals. Others have taken more drastic action, requiring all staff members to reapply for their jobs. Morrell Park considered that option, but the school is beset by high administrative turnover, and parents wanted a middle ground.

Under the new model, a nine-member board governs the school. It is chaired by Jeffery N. Grotsky, a senior researcher at Towson who previously served as chief of staff and a regional superintendent in the city schools. Most of the board is made up of teachers and parents, including Greenfield.

The arrangement did not come together until July, leaving the board little time to plan an overhaul of the school for this academic year. But small changes are adding up.

Single-gender classes, an experiment in previous years, were abolished.

The school started "student of the day" and other programs to reward children for positive behavior. It held its first school dance and started a football club and basketball tournaments. For bad behavior, it implemented a "zero-tolerance" policy.

Some of the biggest reforms came for the sixth- through eighth-graders, who traditionally have had the most discipline problems. Middle school classrooms were moved from the basement to a wing next to administrative offices, where the principal and assistant principal can keep an eye on them.

And in the most controversial move, aimed at reducing disruptions and lost learning time, middle school pupils stopped going to different rooms for different subjects. They now stay in the same classroom, with the same teacher, almost all day.

Pupils are spending three hours a day on language arts and 90 minutes a day on math. Officials said teachers are weaving science and social studies into their language arts lessons.

"Our first responsibility is to teach these kids how to read, how to compute and how to write," Grotsky said. "Call us crazy, but that's what we believe."

Morrell Park spent $150,000 to contract with the nonprofit Fund for Educational Excellence for a literacy coach, a principal's coach and a "professional developer," who works individually with teachers to help them formulate lesson plans to meet their pupils' needs. The University of Maryland also funded a math coach two days a week.

Grotsky joins the professional development staff each week for classroom observations. Afterward, the observed teachers come into the office for a "debriefing" on their lessons. Principal Vickie M. Lawson said she is spending more time in classrooms, too.

In exchange for the increased training and feedback, teachers have been granted more freedom. In reading, for example, Morrell Park is using the same Open Court textbook series as other city schools, but teachers no longer have to stick to the prescribed curriculum religiously.

"We all feel like we have more influence over what we're teaching and how we're teaching this year," said Lauren Sherman, a third-grade teacher in her second year at the school.

Lee Rutledge, a fifth-grade teacher, said the professional developer has helped him get the classroom materials he needs, especially books.

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