Solid Test Scores Offer Toehold On Stability

Progress On Statewide Exams Gives City Neighborhoods A 'Shot In The Arm'

August 02, 2009|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,liz.bowie@baltsun.com

In the poor neighborhood around Coppin State University, a little school called Rosemont has put a moratorium on taking new students from outside its West Baltimore neighborhood because it has no more space. Six or seven years ago, the elementary school was considered a failure.

In Waverly, where 15 years ago some residents moved out when their children got to school age, Abbottston Elementary Principal Angela Faltz is fielding phone calls from parents of students from private and county schools. "They are saying, 'Wow, we are very impressed with your school. We would like to come down and see.'... That was just so unbelievable," Faltz said.

And in Southeast Baltimore, Hampstead Hill Principal Matthew Hornbeck said he used to give nervous families several tours before they were willing to take the risk of sending their children there.

"Now because there is a wide acceptance that we are a good school and that families are satisfied, we have a hard time figuring out how many students are going to show up" in August, Hornbeck said.

For the first time in recent memory, Baltimore has dozens of elementary schools scattered around the city that are exceeding state standards, providing poor neighborhoods with a foothold of stability and middle-class families with confidence that there are options for their children that weren't available a decade ago.

The recently released statewide test scores proved the point. In about 20 elementary schools, 90 percent of the students have passed the Maryland State Assessment, nearly double the number of schools from last year. But principals said the results just provided further evidence of what parents and community members already know about their schools.

The latest test results "give Baltimore a shot in the arm and our communities and our leaders the confidence that our children are just as smart as anyone else and that they deserve the resources," said Bebe Verdery, education director at the Maryland ACLU.

The city schools, everyone agrees, have a long way to go. With 124 elementary schools, the city still has many with scores below the state average. But observers say the changes are beginning to take hold in a way that could transform the city.

"The city is experiencing a renaissance," said Judy O'Brien, president of the Downtown Baltimore Family Alliance. "It used to be the case that you got pregnant and you began looking for the house in Cockeysville ... the house in the 'burbs," she said. Today, "people are staying and sending their children to the downtown schools."

A testament to how well some schools are doing, said Anthony Japzon, principal of Medfield Heights Elementary in Northwest Baltimore, is that many principals have so many students passing the tests, the new benchmark for them is how many are scoring in the advanced category.

When the state's elementary schools are ranked by the percentage of advanced students, Roland Park remains the highest performing in the city and the 12th highest in the state. The city has 16 schools in the top one-third of the state's elementary schools, while Baltimore County has 39, Howard County has 30 and Anne Arundel County has 49.

Baltimore schools CEO Andr?s Alonso said he believes that the city is at "a tipping point." Once a critical mass of schools are no longer struggling, he said, the school system will be able to move on to giving students a richer curriculum with more arts.

Then, parents will stay and invest in their communities and "consider schools as places where good things are going to happen with their kids," he said.

Tiombae James, the mother of three students, is more than satisfied with her choices. "I love Abbottston," she said. She added that the school has committed teachers, discipline and "a bunch of fathers involved."

It is the same feeling expressed by Gwendolyn Kearney, whose daughter goes to Rosemont, which recently added a middle school. "I like the staff because they make you feel like family. ... The parents in the community feel like this is home," she said. Rosemont, a charter school that has a partnership with Coppin, just posted the best scores in its history, principal Dwayne Wheeler said.

The transformation of the city's elementary schools have been aided by the plethora of charter schools that have opened recently around the city. The charter schools, which are open to families living anywhere in the city, give families an option beyond their neighborhood school.

Unsolo Holley, the father of a 6-year-old, said he tried two city schools, but wasn't happy with the traditional educational approach. He has enrolled his child in City Neighbors, a school that will open up in a closed school in Hamilton next month.

"She was getting bored easily and I wanted her to be as creative as possible," he said. "If there hadn't been a City Neighbors, I would have looked at the private schools."

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