Seven of the worst-performing schools in Baltimore City and Baltimore County face overhauls in the next few months. But the two districts have chosen different strategies as they attack the perplexing problem of turning around schools that have failed for many years.
The county is trying the more traditional approach of sweeping away most of the staff at two of its middle schools.
The city will bring in outside partners, including universities and nonprofits, to help restart four middle schools and a high school.
The different approaches underscore the difficulties that educators face around the country: There is no best solution when attempting to turn around underperforming schools under the federal No Child Left Behind law.
"There is no one way that proves to be better than another," said Jack Jennings of the Center on Education Policy, a nonpartisan organization that has tracked the success and failures of No Child Left Behind.
Removing a school's principal and teachers or turning it into a charter school are approaches that work sometimes, but not consistently enough for a school system to make one choice over another, Jennings said.
Jennings said the center has seen schools that were in adjoining areas try the same approach, with one school succeeding and the other failing.
In Baltimore County, Old Court and Deer Park middle schools will go through restructuring that is necessary under state law. For five years in a row, these two schools have failed to make the gains in test scores that are required by No Child Left Behind.
Now it is time to try something drastic. Kendra Johnson, the assistant area superintendent for the northwest region, where both schools are located, said the system decided to replace the principal and require all teachers to reapply for their jobs.
"We have demonstrated success in turning around a school," she said, adding that the district has a prototype that has worked at other schools.
In the past, the county has been forced to make changes at other troubled schools and has replaced staff at Woodlawn and Dundalk highs, Woodlawn and Lansdowne middle schools and Southwest Academy. Woodlawn Middle is the only one that has been removed from failing status; the others have not had enough time to do so yet. Dundalk and Woodlawn highs could come off the failing status next year if they make enough progress.
The county is transferring administrators from Woodlawn Middle, who have had success in a turnaround, to be the principals at Deer Park and Old Court.
Johnson, who was the principal of Arbutus Middle School and enacted some of the same changes there, said students will not just see new faces next fall.
"I think philosophically we have to rethink how we use the school hours," Johnson said.
The schools will rework their schedules so that struggling students have a period a day dedicated to shoring up their skills without sacrificing the regular curriculum.
In addition, they hope to provide teachers with common planning times so they can collaborate on lesson plans and analyze data. The schools will each receive about $200,000 for teacher training and new technology as well as additional staff.
And Johnson said she is meeting with community groups and leaders to try to convince them that the culture of the schools will change next year.
But, Jennings said, changing staff has not always been successful.
"Large-scale staff changes can be more trouble than they are worth at least in the short term," he said. If a new principal spends all summer picking staff rather than concentrating on planning for the new school year, little is likely to change.
But Jennings said sometimes those issues can be overcome if the district has a large supply of qualified teachers ready to take those jobs, a supportive central staff and the cooperation of the teachers union.
The city has tried staff changes alone and found that they haven't always worked, said Laura Weeldreyer, city schools deputy chief of staff. The system has closed 13 schools in the past two years, created new ones and nurtured charters.
Now the administration will try a new approach that would keep open four middle schools and one high school that have track records of years, and sometimes decades, of failure.
The district's attempt comes at a time when national education leaders have set as a priority the turnaround of the bottom 5 percent of low-performing schools and are offering significant funds to the districts that have plans for improvement. The U.S. Department of Education announced Friday that Maryland will receive $47 million in stimulus funds to turn around low-performing schools. The state will decide this spring which school districts will receive money. Baltimore hopes to get at least $500,000 for each of the five schools, funds that the two Baltimore County schools are currently not eligible to receive.