Turning it around

Innovative partnership at once-troubled city school could serve as a model

August 26, 2012|By Tanya Green

As a new school year begins, my preparation as a principal has been punctuated by an unusual and unexpected invitation to Washington D.C. This month, I was named a Champion of Change at the White House by a program run by the Office of the President.

While I am honored to be recognized in this way, and to have been thanked for my work in public education by President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, I was thrilled to learn that my hardworking teachers and staff also will be recognized. Using funds from Maryland's federal Race to the Top grant, each teacher will receive between $2,500 and $10,000.

Not long ago, our school received much less desirable attention. Sadly, Calverton Elementary and Middle School was classified as "persistently dangerous" by the state — thanks to the high incidence of violent offenses committed there involving weapons, drugs, fires, physical assaults and other attacks.

I vividly recall my first visit, thinking how amazingly clean and clear the windows looked before discovering there were no windows there. The school's bathrooms had been condemned. In a dysfunctional attempt to deal with persistent graffiti, the walls were painted black. The building violated several health codes. There was no air conditioning.

Educational attainment at Calverton matched its unpromising environment. There were no student-centered programs in a school that featured 200 over-aged students, more than 70 special education violations, low attendance, poor academic performance, and low levels of school climate and culture satisfaction rates reported by staff, students and parents.

I arrived in 2005 and became principal in 2008. That year, the school was removed from Maryland's list of persistently dangerous schools; there were zero special education violations; and climate survey satisfaction rates improved. Calverton was designated a model PBIS (Positive Behavioral Intervention and Support) school; attendance and state assessment scores increased; and suspensions were halved.

In 2010, our efforts to improve Calverton were enhanced when we became one of seven Baltimore schools selected to receive federal school improvement grants. As part of this process, Baltimore City Public Schools selected Friendship Public Charter School as the lead turnaround partner.

The result has been a shining example of how a traditional school district and a public charter school can work together to educate children. Under the leadership of schools CEO Andrés Alonso, City Schools has reached out to educational partners to help turn around failing schools. Friendship operates six public charter schools in Washington, D.C. and has been a public education provider for 15 years. Friendship now operates four turnaround traditional public schools in Baltimore and one in Washington.

From the beginning, the success of this partnership has been built on investment. School Improvement Grants were used to install new science labs and two new computer labs. Classrooms received the latest SMART boards. Our technology-rich SMART labs, which allow students to learn 21st century skills, have allowed us to focus more on STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and math.

There also has been heavy investment in professional development. The leadership team at Calverton received training at Harvard University. Additional training was provided for every staff member.

The many investments of City Schools and Friendship have begun to bear fruit. For the first time since 1995, the newly named Friendship Preparatory Academy at Calverton met state standards for reading, math and student attendance. The chronic absentee rate fell by one third. Nonviolent behavioral suspensions also fell by a third, as has the habitual truant rate.

Our school currently enjoys a 93 percent staff retention rate, indicating high levels of satisfaction among teachers and support staff.

Turning around failing schools is perhaps the hardest task in public education. However, the partnership at Calverton is an example for other cities of how collaboration can bring hard-earned results. Baltimore's district network support team and executive directors ensure that all initiatives and strategies are fully supported, supplemented and established. Friendship took the time to listen and then applied what it had found worked educating urban youth in charter schools.

The concerted efforts of City Schools and Friendship have propelled the school in the right direction. By working together, we have made important progress.

Of course, we need to improve further. Our children deserve the high-quality public education that is routinely available to their peers in suburban public and private schools. But I am confident that, working as partners, we have made a strong start. Perhaps other cities could learn from our traditional school district-charter school partnership.

Tanya Green is the principal at Friendship Preparatory Academy at Calverton.

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