2 Schools Show They Can Do It

Woodlawn, Arbutus Middle Used Similar Means To Move Themselves Off State Takeover List

July 23, 2009|By Arin Gencer | Arin Gencer,arin.gencer@baltsun.com

At Woodlawn Middle School, students work with a motto in mind: "Doing whatever it takes to achieve. ... Making the impossible ... possible."

The latest state test scores show they've lived up to those words, making it possible for the southwest Baltimore County school to exit a state school-improvement list after nearly eight years.

"So many people were saying that we weren't going to be able to make it," said Damien B. Ingram, who took over as principal this past year. "For so long, this school has not shown that we could make the necessary gains on the Maryland School Assessment tests. We had to show people that we're capable just like anybody else."

Woodlawn Middle was the first school in Baltimore County warned of a state takeover in 2001 because of poor student performance and attendance rates. In 2006, it was also the first to implement a restructuring plan, which is required of schools that have repeatedly failed to meet benchmarks known as adequate yearly progress. Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, states must annually identify schools and school systems that miss the benchmarks.

Also exiting the watch list this year is Arbutus Middle, another southwest-area school.

Woodlawn's progress "proves to everyone, once again, what is possible in public education," Superintendent Joe A. Hairston said. "You cannot give up on children ... and you have to have a fundamental belief in the potential of children."

School officials took a number of steps to boost achievement at Woodlawn. As part of the restructuring plan, all school staff, down to the custodians, had to reapply for their jobs in 2006 - a process led by then Principal Brian W. Scriven, who now heads Woodlawn High. Teachers and administrators pored over test scores, grouping students based on their performance on periodic county assessments and identifying their "deficit skills."

In class, teachers would pull students aside to review skills they had not grasped, while also still focusing on the learning for the day, Ingram said. Beyond regular hours, after-school sessions were held to further focus on those skills, as well as a Saturday "MSA prep academy" some weeks before the tests, he said.

"This year, it seemed like we were just working so hard," he said, adding that community involvement was also crucial.

The scores speak to their efforts: 94 percent of eighth-graders passed the reading test, up from 61.4 percent in 2008 and 44.4 percent in 2004, according to state data. In math, 77.5 percent of sixth-graders passed, a significant jump from only 23.3 percent five years earlier. Seventh-graders posted even greater gains in math over the same period, rising from 17.4 percent in 2004 to 75.2 percent this year.

More students have moved from scoring proficient to advanced: The number of sixth-graders who did so in reading more than doubled over last year, while the percentage of eighth-grade students scoring advanced in the same subject was more than five times that of 2008, according to state test data.

"They exceeded my expectations," Ingram said.

Those major strides reflect a "focused effort," Hairston said. "They did not allow themselves to be distracted. They didn't try to do a thousand different things. They were very strategic on addressing those areas of greatest need."

At Arbutus Middle, Principal Kendra Johnson and her staff employed similar strategies to work with students. Arbutus entered the state watch list in 2005 but never reached the point of having to develop a restructuring plan.

Besides monitoring what was being taught, educators regularly tracked students using "short-cycle assessments" and other county tests, reviewing skills that were lacking, Johnson said.

Woodlawn parents said they were thrilled with the school's progress.

"I'm ecstatic," said Veronica Magwood-Burton, president of Woodlawn's PTA. The teachers and staff "put their heart and soul into getting that done."

A product of Woodlawn herself, Magwood-Burton has two rising eighth-graders and an incoming sixth-grader there. For her, getting off the state list means improving the negative image some have of the school, she said.

"I believe that they will definitely continue in the same capacity that they've worked in all along," Magwood-Burton said.

For Miko Baldwin, whose daughter just graduated from Woodlawn High School, hearing about the middle school's accomplishment led her to believe "there is hope" for the region.

"It's pleasing because that would help out the high school, as they come into the high school," said Baldwin, who worked as a parent liaison at the high school this past year. "I look forward to working with the eighth-graders that will be coming."

Ingram and Johnson are already looking to the coming school year and what they'll need to do to keep moving forward.

A dozen or so staff members are at Arbutus this week for professional development, looking at best practices and developing plans to ensure more success, Johnson said.

"We're very, very pleased," Johnson said. "But we're not going to marvel over yesterday's success because we need to be looking forward to MSA 2010."

Ingram has his sights set on getting Woodlawn back to being known as a school for math, as it once was, and a good education in general, he said. "I want my kids to know that I think highly of them, that they can do it, too."

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