Themed curriculums are top choices for middle-school students

Bluford Drew Jemison STEM top choice for students

Poly remains the popular choice for high schoolers

August 29, 2010|By Erica L. Green, The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore City schools that offer themed curriculums were the top choices of middle school students and their parents this year, the first time they were allowed to select alternatives to their neighborhood schools.

According to city school officials, Bluford Drew Jemison STEM Academy West attracted the most students who identified the science, technology, engineering and mathematics academy as their No. 1 choice.

"It seemed that the thing that was attractive is whether or not the school offers something that captures the interests and excitement of students," said Jonathan Brice, executive director for student support services. "Some schools are really articulating their themes, and parents are buying into it."

This was the first year for the "middle school choice" program, which allows some sixth-graders to choose their school — similar to what is offered to rising ninth-graders in the city. The program was approved by the school board in the spring after a request was made by Baltimore schools CEO Andrés Alonso.

Alonso made the proposal in January to expand the options of middle-schoolers, citing the need to create competition among schools and because "poor, urban parents should not be imprisoned by their geography."

"It's a principle we have embraced, because we believe every child has a right to a good school, and parents should have choices, irrespective of their means," Alonso said last week.

Brice said more than 2,300 students participated in the middle school choice program. Priority was given to about 2,000 fifth-grade students who did not attend an elementary school that includes up to eighth grade and would have attended a traditional middle school next year. Roughly 300 other students, including some who wanted to transfer from their current schools, also participated. Ninety percent of students were granted their first choice, Brice said.

The second-most-popular choice was the Stadium School, which has a project-driven curriculum. Ranking third was the Friendship Academy of Science and Technology, followed by Booker T. Washington Middle School, which has a fine arts focus. The Friendship Academy of Engineering and Technology rounded out the top five.

Over the past decade, the city has moved to give all eighth-graders a choice of high schools in an effort to break up many of the city's large neighborhood high schools.

This year, Polytechnic Institute received the most first-choice votes from high school students. The second-most-popular high school was Digital Harbor High School, followed by City College, Coppin Academy, and Merganthaler Vocational-Technical High School.

"It doesn't surprise me," said Matthew Woolston, who will lead Polytechnic Institute this year while a nationwide search gets under way for a permanent principal. The school's longtime principal, Barney Wilson, was reassigned to Reginald F. Lewis High School for the coming school year.

"The school provides an excellent education," Woolston said, "and I believe that most parents want that for their children."

While the top choices of high school students reflect the reputations of some of the premier high schools in the city, the middle school choices show that, in addition to a nontraditional curriculum, parents also want to keep their students closer to home, Brice said. Sixty-seven percent of students chose to stay within their geographic quadrants of the city.

While the top-choice middle schools weren't among the highest performing — the schools' proficiency numbers on the Maryland School Assessments range from 7 percent in eighth-grade math to 79 percent proficiency in seventh-grade reading — they are at the center of grassroots efforts to engage students and provide an alternative to failing neighborhood schools.

Ron Shelley, principal of Stadium School, said he was humbled that his school was among the most popular. The school started in 1994 with 80 students and performed poorly for years. Shelley said that many thought it was an alternative school, "so it was really hard to get students to come." Stadium is now at 100 percent capacity for sixth grade.

The school, which pairs classroom instruction with projects for students to apply their knowledge, now has a student body of 340 and a waiting list of 100. In the past 10 years, Shelley said, 75 percent to 80 percent of its students have gone on to enroll in the city's premier high schools, including Dunbar, Western and City College.

"It's really a long time coming," he said. "We never really advertised our school; it was an evolution of word of mouth. It was really just building a consistent history of success in our academics, and developing students as a whole."

Brice said foreseeable glitches with the first year of the middle school choice process included higher demand for certain schools. He said certain schools may have to begin holding lotteries.

"We think it's a great problem to have," he said. "It will make our schools really focus on teaching and learning, and the level of teacher quality and engagement, so that they can be a drawing card."

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