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Overhauling a troubled school

Hope and frustration as new year starts at Dundalk High School

August 27, 2011|By Liz Bowie, The Baltimore Sun

"People who live in Dundalk are fiercely proud of who they are," Hohner said. "They love each other, love America, and love their kids. And they want us to help give their kids the best chance at being successful in life."

More work to do

Shouldice could barely be heard over the drone of one of the school's few air-conditioning units. With only a few weeks left in the 2010-2011 school year, he told the teaching staff he understood they were tired. But he had gathered them late one afternoon to plant seeds, questions he wanted them to be working over in their minds for the next couple of months so they could find solutions by the time they met again during the summer.

Attendance was still a major issue. Even though it had improved from 87 percent to 89 percent, it fell short of the 94 percent state and federal standard.

He handed out papers with an analysis of PSAT scores and graduation rates. He pointed out that the brightest students weren't always in the highest-level classes and that some students with below-average PSAT scores had done high-level work. He asked what that said about the students' needs. He gave no orders, no instructions. The details would be left to the teachers to work out.

At the end of a long year like this, the faculty could lose sight of how far the school had come since the summer of 2008.

No gold medals are handed out to turnaround schools when they meet a certain mark. The successes come out in dribs and drabs, and so the depth of the changes was easy for people from the outside to miss and for those enmeshed in the work to forget.

In these first three years, the graduation rate had soared from 62 percent in 2008 to 78 percent in 2010. (The turnaround of a Memphis school that took its graduation rate from 60 percent to 80 percent during the same period was deemed significant enough to earn a visit from President Barack Obama.)

The college acceptance rate jumped from 42 percent in 2009 to 70 percent in 2011. And the dropout rate, which had been in the 30 percent range, dropped to 21 percent this year.

In addition, more students were passing the HSAs. In 2010, 79 percent of seniors had passed the English test, compared with 56 percent in 2008, before Shouldice took over. Similar jumps have been seen in algebra and biology. The achievement gap between African-American students and white students who had remained at Dundalk for several years was shrinking. And the school had met the annual progress goals for No Child Left Behind for two years. This past school year, Shouldice believed the school may have just missed the goals, although the final state calculations are not yet out.

Statistically, researchers say, Dundalk is one of those rare success stories that the Obama administration is so desperate to find — a turnaround attempt that has worked.

Many teachers say good mentoring and teams of teachers working together have been the reason the school has improved. "You can see some of the change in the teachers is dramatic. Some of those teachers are rocking," Cline said.

It is an observation that brings a sly smile to the principal's face. Indeed, that is just what Shouldice wants the staff to think, that they are at the center of the work.

But the intangible changes that Shouldice witnessed also made him proud of the progress. Only four teachers retired or left the school by choice at the end of this year, perhaps one of the greatest testaments to the change in culture.

The proof also lay in students like Didi and Shain, who walked across the stage at graduation June 7 on their way to community college. "It was a huge relief. I have come so far ... and it felt like a big accomplishment," said Shain.

But everyone knows there are still great issues to wrestle with. Every year, 50 percent of the school's student body turns over. Of the 260 rising seniors, only 63 had been at the school in ninth grade. Overall, the economy has taken a toll on families, who are falling out of the middle class.

The school is facing more changes. Class sizes will increase because the school has lost 14 teaching positions as part of a reduction in high school staff countywide. A $60 million facility, which will combine Sollers Point High with Dundalk, is rising just feet away from the old building and is expected to open in the fall of 2013.

But as the school year begins, Shouldice believes his young faculty is beyond their first- and second-year difficulties and are now beginning to feel comfortable in their teaching skins. "I have great confidence in them," he said.

Personally, though, he knows that they must get much better. He needs 90 percent of the staff to be outstanding, not just 20 percent, as it is at some schools. And in his reflective moments he does have doubts.

"There is no formula for this. How do you lead a group of teachers to be remarkable teachers?" he asks.

He wonders how he will sustain the progress and keep the faculty creative, energized, proud of the school and fulfilled professionally. "I want them to feel valued by what we are doing and the community," he says.

Shouldice hopes by the time he is moving students into the new building in two years, principals from around the region will be coming to look at Dundalk to ask how it managed to achieve what many schools haven't.

In the meantime, he knows he has a lot of work to do.

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

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