BALTIMORE – It’s late spring in East Baltimore Community School’s inaugural year, the pupils have just taken their state assessment tests, and the teachers could pass a test of their own based on what they’ve learned since August:
The fifth-graders needed classes in respect. Many pupils were working below grade level. And even a new school with an enthusiastic new staff could not immediately fix all the problems that arise in a troubled city neighborhood.
The school is part of East Baltimore Development Inc., an 88-acre renewal project just north of the Johns Hopkins medical campus. EBDI officials say it is a cornerstone of the new community they are striving to build there. Already, it’s “the best damn school in Baltimore,” said Christopher Shea, EBDI’s chief executive officer.
But the teachers acknowledge the school has a long way to go.
With an innovative curriculum endorsed by the community, the school is a study in contradictions: Young, inexperienced teachers work in an old, tired neighborhood; the principal pitches in to serve lunch; many pupils enter below grade level, while the principal wants to push them beyond; attendance at optional Saturday sessions is high, but weekday behavior is poor.
The goals are lofty, but the staff has found that reality intervenes.
Shea said the school has “a brilliant principal” and “the best cadre of young teachers on the planet,” whose goal was to “establish a middle-school culture, a positive culture that would grow over time” in the neighborhood. But the school’s untested teachers had no way of knowing how tough that would be.
Andres Alonso, the chief executive officer of Baltimore City Public Schools, knew.
Developing a culture and a management system that works for a particular school is a learning process, Alonso said, and it takes longer in some schools than in others.
“Part of what a school is supposed to do is engender certain norms that the kids buy into, that parents then support,” he said. “At the beginning of the year, I think that the school had to teach those norms until the kids, in some level, accepted them, and the school became a place where just learning was taking place.”
The principal, Cathy Miles, said the fall was characterized by much more than just learning. Some pupils were belligerent, impulsive, rude, lacking in self-control. Many children had transferred in the middle of elementary school, and some pupils had little academic motivation — neither of which is uncommon in an inner-city school.
“Fifth-grade is not a natural transition year,” Miles said. And for many families in the area, “school has not been a successful place for their child. If you haven’t been successful at school, your interest may be lacking.”
And the pupils at East Baltimore Community School are up against long odds. According to an analysis of 2000 census data by the school’s fifth-graders, who made graphs and charts to illustrate the statistics: 37 percent of neighborhood residents make less than $10,000. A third of residents make between $10,000 and $25,000. Almost 24 percent of residents are unemployed.
The school’s most experienced faculty member, who taught fifth-grade language arts and social studies at the East Baltimore School after 19 years as a private-school teacher, has already left. Rosalind Fleming, a first-year teacher, replaced her.
But before Fleming could begin teaching lessons, she had to curb her pupils’ bullying behavior and outbursts by clearly defining and illustrating the concept of respect.
“They don’t know what it means,” said the North Carolina native. “They don’t know what it looks like.
“They need to learn those social skills of respect, responsibility, accountability, tolerance and resolving conflicts.”
Until that happened, academic instruction was a struggle.
“In the beginning, I couldn’t teach because I was managing,” said Cynite Cooke, who also is a first-year, fifth-grade teacher. “Now they’re focused on learning.”
The younger children weren’t immune to behavior problems either, Jamila Siddiqui, a first-grade teacher, said.
All teachers were trained in “responsive classroom management” — which is characterized by the expectation that pupils will take full responsibility for their actions and responses to others, Miles said. But that was abandoned after the first day of school, replaced by a more traditional style of management.
“It was so chaotic, that was not possible,” Siddiqui said. “Maybe in a few years.”
Siddiqui, who is from Indiana, decided instead to use behavior charts and allow her students to work as a class to earn recess time. School-wide, pupils can earn “Create Cards” for good behavior and hard work. Pupils who have a certain number of cards by Friday then might be rewarded with a pizza party, karaoke or a movie, Miles said.
Nicole Johnson, the director of ELEV8 Baltimore, a program that helps pupils make the transition from middle grades to high school, said poor behavior can affect academic achievement.
“It’s disrupting classroom instruction and after-school activities,” she said. “Their behavior gets in the way” of school and activities.
But teachers and staff persisted, building strong relationships with each pupil. Miles, who occasionally dons a hairnet and joins the cafeteria crew to serve lunch, can name all of the 130 or so students at the school.
“We know every child,” she said. “There’s no child who’s not known well by at least one adult in this building.”
Miles cites these relationships and teachers’ encouragement of positive behavior as possible reasons for the sharp decrease in the number of children sent to her office for discipline reasons in December and January.
“The environment in the school is dramatically less volatile and chaotic and much more under control…today than it ever has been,” Shea said. “There’s something in the school that has become valuable to these kids.”
As the pupils’ behavior began to settle down, Miles and her staff continued to press for more than a year’s worth of academic growth from a student body that includes many who enter below grade level.
“That’s the only way you can get children to catch up,” Miles said.
Understandably, then, Cooke was a little nervous about her pupils’ scores on the Maryland State Assessments, annual tests pupils take in third-through-eighth grades that measure both their progress and the schools’.
She and other teachers have organized after-school tutoring, Saturday school, take-home review packets and other initiatives designed to boost student learning and test scores.
“We have prepared them for the test,” she said, “but because they came in on varying levels, to pass a fifth-grade MSA test is up in the air.”
Scores from the state assessments and data from the first grade’s Stanford Reading Assessment will be just one measure of success, Miles said in an e-mail. “What’s more important to us is the growth we are seeing in our students.
“If a fifth-grade student began the year reading at a kindergarten level but ended the year reading on a 1.9 (almost second grade) level, this is more than one year’s growth, and this growth is substantial. This type of growth may not pay off on a standardized test, but it pays millions toward teaching the child that he/she can learn to read and, with hard work and good teaching strategies, he/she will.”
Alonso also said he will look beyond test scores — “because you have to give people a chance to grow” — in gauging success.
“I’m going to have to go beyond the first layer of analysis and look at where were those kids the year before,” Alonso said.
“It might be that a student is not meeting standards in a particular test, but if you go back a year, there might have been great growth. … So in that case, the school might superficially seem to be not successful but in reality, people have been doing their job.”
When evaluating the school’s first year, Alonso said, he also will consider data gathered about the school through surveys of children, parents and teachers; the number of pupils transferring from the school; and the number who want to attend.
“If a school is a great school, there’s word of mouth and the parents flock there,” he said. “Is the school going to struggle to fill its classrooms next year, or is it going to be turning kids away? All those things become relevant in terms of an ongoing sort of sense of whether the school is succeeding or not.”
But Cooke has no doubt about the program. In a few years, she said, “It’s going to be the school on the hill.”