Hard times, new day

Much has changed at Douglass High and other city schools as they begin a year of transformation

August 25, 2008|By Andres Alonso

Today, the first day of the 2008-2009 school year, is the most important day of the year. And hands down, it is the most important first day in years for Baltimore City Public Schools. Our kids are making historic progress, and we as a school system are in the midst of unprecedented change. As never before, we have the opportunity, momentum and responsibility to turn the city schools into the system of great schools our 81,300 great kids who arrive at school today - with pencils, notebooks and new energy - deserve.

Over the summer, many people saw the HBO documentary Hard Times at Douglass High, a film that offers some context for this day. The film chronicles the 2004-2005 school year at Baltimore's Frederick Douglass High School. That was four years ago, and many who saw the film, myself included, point out that those were different times. But the film is relevant in that it points up the enormous potential of our kids and the huge challenges we face in ensuring their success in school. Mostly, it shows why we are working to transform our schools with such urgency and speed.

The film depicts a school where it was so clear what students needed - and yet weren't getting. They were surrounded by adults who cared about them but who lacked, among other things, the ability to deploy resources to do right by their students.

Starting this year, we are moving money from the central office to the schools, and giving the discretion to spend that money to school leaders and communities. And this year, Douglass' school leaders and families - not bureaucrats far removed from the school - will decide which positions to hire and which programs to fund.

In the film we meet Audie, who at the time was 17 and repeating the ninth grade. He refused to go to class; he was in remedial classes, and it was a self-esteem thing for him. He was one of many ninth-grade repeaters at Douglass. We learn that of Douglass' 500 ninth-graders, half would stop coming to school or drop out by year's end.

Our schools are full of Audies - over-age kids struggling to hang on. Starting today, many will attend one of eight new "transformation schools" and alternative options programs that eliminate the difficult middle-to-high-school transition, offer a college and/or career focus in a small, specialized setting, and put students on pace to graduate on time. In our traditional comprehensive, citywide or small schools, we are providing additional funding for interventions for these children's needs.

Amid the musical and athletic talent we see in the documentary at Douglass and the wonderful kids we meet through the film's lens are a number of negatives - a hallway fight, an unruly classroom, students who curse and cut class - that have defined many viewers' perception of the school and underscore how critical a strong, positive climate is to students' ability to learn. Bringing about that climate starts with every adult in our school communities having high expectations for every child.

These expectations for the district as a whole are clearly laid out in a revised code of conduct that all members of our school communities are receiving today, and our teachers report to duty with training in mediation, de-escalation and conflict resolution. And at Douglass last year, the community responded when a governance board made up of some of the school's distinguished alumni took over guidance of the school in partnership with the district and the Johns Hopkins University's Talent Development, a program that has worked effectively on a local and national level to change schools for the better.

In Hard Times, teachers seemed resigned to having one or two parents show up at back-to-school night. But then a parent talked about how the school repeatedly dismissed her questions and calls, highlighting the urgent need to meaningfully engage our families in our schools. Starting today, we are partnering with Baltimore's respected community organizations to build and support family and community involvement in our schools. And Douglass' tremendous alumni base will be helping to make decisions in support of this legendary Baltimore institution, whose graduates include former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

Hard Times is real. It's also old. It tells us that only one student broke 1,000 on the SAT in 2004-2005, while another scored 440, far below the 850 required to get into college. In 2004-2005, 77 of Douglass' 197 graduates (39 percent) applied to institutions of higher education. But three years later, in 2007-2008, 113 of Douglass' 162 graduates (69 percent) applied and were accepted. Since 2004-2005, the school has built up its college prep program, which as of today includes a pre-calculus SAT math course and Advanced Placement courses in five subjects. And it continues to build on its close partnership with Johns Hopkins to help develop and strengthen teachers' skills.

Douglass, like so many of our schools, has a very long way to go. But the film that recently thrust it into the national spotlight this summer underscores more than anything that for city schools, today is not just the start of a school year: It's a whole new day.

Andres Alonso is CEO of the Baltimore city schools. His e-mail is


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