The Eager Street Academy is a Baltimore public school behind bars, with the most troubled student body in the city. Nonetheless, its staff has the impossible job of complying with the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
Located in the Baltimore City Detention Center, the school's approximately 130 students - ages 14 to 17 - are charged as adults in some of the city's most notorious killings and other crimes.
Many of them had dropped out of school before landing in prison, and about a quarter come in reading at a second-grade level.
No Child Left Behind requires schools to give annual standardized tests to all their students, and all students must demonstrate proficiency in reading and math by 2014.
Schools such as Eager Street that repeatedly don't make "adequate yearly progress" toward that goal face the public embarrassment of being put on a state failure list, with sanctions that can ultimately be as severe as staff replacement. That leads to demoralized teachers and difficulty recruiting.
"It's not that we want to get out of anything, but no other schools I know of have this to contend with," said Eager Street Principal James Scofield. "To look at the data and assess the school, it's just not fair."
Teachers at many other troubled schools also feel that No Child Left Behind holds them to an unrealistic standard, punishing them if they don't make years of progress with ill-prepared students in a matter of months. But Eager Street is in a particular predicament, because most of the student body turns over from one year to the next.
The state uses the scores of a handful of kids to calculate whether Eager Street has made adequate yearly progress. The calculation can be made using the scores of as few as five students, those who were enrolled early in the school year and are still around on testing day. Generally, that means they are the students facing the most severe criminal charges.
100 percent failure
The test results for all students are posted online and printed in the newspaper: a failure rate of 100 percent this year in seventh- and eighth-grade math and high school algebra and government.
"It shows us at zero," said Scofield, a veteran city schools administrator. "It looks as if we're doing nothing."
Eager Street students, all but a handful of them boys, have had extraordinarily difficult lives, Scofield said: A "huge" number have been abandoned by parents. A 16-year-old who recently enrolled hadn't been to school since fourth grade, when his mother pulled him out to support the family by any means necessary, including selling drugs.
Students can leave Eager Street if a judge releases them or lessens the criminal charges and moves them to the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center. Otherwise, they stop school on the day they turn 18, when they are moved to the prison's adult wing.
"If I just got locked up, got my freedom taken away, if I'm facing 10 years and I'm 15 or 16 and I'm worried about turning 18 and going to the adult side and getting raped, I'm not thinking about a test," Scofield said.
No Child Left Behind requires schools to test all students in reading and math annually from third through eighth grades and once in high school. In addition, Maryland requires students to pass high school graduation exams in algebra, biology, English and government.
Eager Street is the only school of its kind in the state. Elsewhere in Maryland, the Department of Juvenile Services, not the public school system, educates incarcerated students. Most DJS facilities don't have enough students enrolled for multiple months to get an adequate yearly progress ranking.
State Education Department officials say the city school system can choose for Eager Street not to receive an annual ranking based on its test scores. Instead, it could count the scores of Eager Street students at the schools they attended before being locked up, something many of the DJS facilities do.
City schools interim Chief Executive Officer Charlene Cooper Boston, who was made aware of Eager Street's predicament by two staff members who spoke at a school board meeting last month, said she is examining that possibility.
But Scofield said it wouldn't be fair to hold neighborhood schools accountable for the scores of students who hadn't been there in months or years.
Instead, Scofield said, he and his staff would welcome the opportunity to see their school evaluated based on students' progress while they are there.
A national criticism of No Child Left Behind is that it discourages teachers from working with the most vulnerable students. For example, if a 17-year-old starts the school year reading on a second-grade level and progresses to a sixth-grade level in six months, a teacher has done significant work, but the student still won't pass the state test.
To judge schools based on progress, though, would require a change in federal law.