City schools with federal turnaround grants have mixed results

Some have gotten worse academically; others are slowly making progress

  • One of the first things that Lionel F. Jackson Jr., principal of Augusta Fells Savage Institute of Visual Arts, did was to display student artwork in the hallways and in a dedicated gallery at the school. The high school is one of seven Baltimore City schools undergoing turnaround efforts under the federal School Improvement Grant program.
One of the first things that Lionel F. Jackson Jr., principal… (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore…)
April 16, 2012|By Liz Bowie and Erica L. Green, The Baltimore Sun

Once students hurled computers out the windows at Calverton Middle School, but today they are learning on state-of-the-art technology that has flooded into the West Baltimore school. Once teachers couldn't wait to transfer out of a place where students ruled the classrooms, but now faculty turnover has slowed.

Calverton is among seven Baltimore schools benefiting from a $3 billion federal program that is focused on the worst of the nation's schools. And though it is far too early to declare the effort a success — at Calverton or the other city schools — some improvements are clear.

"I feel more safe and I feel like I am learning a lot more. They are starting to have challenges for us," said Jasmine Dukes, a seventh-grader at the newly revamped Friendship Preparatory Academy at Calverton.

The seven Baltimore schools were chosen to receive $25 million over three years in the School Improvement Grant program, with much going to technology and teacher training. In the program's second year, the schools have showed varied results: Some have gotten worse, and others are slowly showing progress.

Because national experts say there is no proven model for turning a school around, the city is using different approaches, from turning schools over to outside operators or charters to firing staff and starting over. Schools don't get fixed quickly, and state and city officials said it will take several years to understand what has worked.

"There is no silver bullet. The work is messy. It is not linear," said Tina McKnight, who has helped to monitor the schools for the Maryland Department of Education.

Overall, though, Maryland educators say they are pleased at the early results. "The success we have been seeing at these schools has not been seen for a long time," said Ann Chafin, an assistant state superintendent, although she acknowledged that "every school is moving at its own pace."

Commodore John Rodgers Elementary has exceeded the expectations, improving by all measures, including test scores. It was taken over by the Living Classrooms Foundation, a Baltimore based nonprofit that already runs Crossroads, one of the city's most successful middle schools.

"We've had great pockets of success," said Maria Navarro, special assistant to the city's chief academic officer.

Under the nonprofit Friendship Public Charter, Calverton has spent more than a million dollars in federal money on mentoring new teachers, new science labs, two new computer labs, a laptop for every teacher and a white board in every classroom.

The climate of the school is far better, according to school system surveys. Attendance is up and truancy down. Test scores in the first year, however, dropped.

The city turned over the reins of five of seven of the SIG schools in 2010 to outside operators, who were as varied as the Johns Hopkins University and Global Partnership Schools, a national for-profit company.

At three of the schools, the first-year results were so disappointing that city school leaders decided to put them in "corrective action" and considered taking operations of one of the schools back. Principal turnover has been high in those schools: Two each had three principals in the first year.

"We haven't seen the improvement that we expected to see in some schools around rigor and culture and in some cases they are really struggling," Navarro said.

Of greatest concern was Garrison Middle School, where nearly every sign — from attendance to test scores — has gotten worse since it was taken over in 2010 by Global Partnership. The attendance rate at a school with 313 students went from 93 percent to 87 percent in 2011 and still worse, the percentage of students who were absent for more than 20 days that school year rose from 18 to 44.

Chafin said the state and city school leaders considered finding a new operator for Garrison, but ended up keeping Global Partnership because it is willing to make changes.

"We have not hesitated to say that this operator in this school isn't working," Chafin said.

Anna Tilton, chief program officer for Global Partnership, said she believes the school is now on the right track.

"I think the biggest issue in Garrison had to do with turning around the environment. You first have to make sure that students feel safe," she said. "That took a lot of time. ... We have a long way to go. This is a school with years of being chronically underperforming."

Global Partnership replaced the two top leaders at the school in August. Test scores had declined the year before in every subject and grade with the exception of sixth-grade math, but Kevin Woolridge, a new leader working for Global Partnership, said there wasn't time to replace any staff or make major changes in his first few weeks, so they have concentrated on teacher training and support.

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