Troubled schools' progress debated
State school officials questioned yesterday the accuracy of data released by the Baltimore school system showing a significant drop in suspensions at several schools at risk for being labeled "persistently dangerous."
Fifteen city schools were at risk of the persistently dangerous designation. The federal No Child Left Behind Act requires a school district to offer parents the option of transferring their children from persistently dangerous schools. School system officials released figures yesterday showing that four schools would be named persistently dangerous.
State officials, however, said the number of persistently dangerous schools is at least six. And at some of the remaining nine schools that were on a probationary list, state officials said their auditors found far more suspension referrals than were reported to school district headquarters.
"We have noted a huge discrepancy for some of the remaining nine schools," said JoAnne Carter, assistant state superintendent for student and school services, vowing to investigate.
City school system spokeswoman Vanessa Pyatt said in a statement last night that the school district stands by its data. "We welcome the investigation," the statement said.
In an interview, Pyatt said that state auditors who reviewed suspension records at schools on the probationary list "found nothing."
The state school board is scheduled to vote tomorrow to designate Thurgood Marshall, Calverton, Canton, Highlandtown, Lombard and Harlem Park middle schools as persistently dangerous.
A school earns the label if, for three consecutive years, 2.5 percent or more of the student body is suspended for specific offenses such as arson, weapons possession and assault. The 15 schools on the probationary list had suspension rates of 2.5 percent or higher for two consecutive years.
Last school year, the teachers and principals unions contended that school officials were suspending fewer students to avoid the persistently dangerous label.
School district officials dismissed the criticism, but they acknowledged that the accountability system established under No Child Left Behind punishes schools for suspending children who misbehave.
No Child Left Behind requires school districts to make sure all students pass basic skills tests over the next decade. It also requires states to compile information on dangerous schools. Under the act, schools are not judged based on the number of incidents such as fires or assaults that occur within their buildings, only how many students are suspended for such offenses.
"It really sometimes works against us," said Gayle Amos, who oversees student support services for the system. "If you catch the perpetrator, you end up on a persistently dangerous list."
At Paul Laurence Dunbar Middle, one school where state officials questioned the data, city figures show that 8.75 percent of the student body was suspended in the 2003-2004 school year, while 1.05 percent was suspended in 2004-2005.
City school officials attributed the success there and elsewhere to a program that rewards students for good behavior, parent and community meetings, and comprehensive state-approved reform plans for each school on the probationary list.
Carter questioned whether such reforms were happening. "If these things were going on, we would question why they were not shared with our audit teams," she said, adding that state auditors found evidence that some schools were not implementing their reform plans.
Brian Morris, the city school board chairman, said the numbers are evidence that "the school system is moving in the right direction."
But he said he expected that critics would "find a way to look at this data and paint us in a less-than-flattering light."
City and state officials were at odds over whether four or six schools should be named persistently dangerous.
City numbers show that, at Lombard Middle School, 2.49 percent of the student body was suspended last school year for the designated offenses. At Harlem Park Middle, the figure is 2.45 percent. While city school officials maintain that those rates are low enough to keep the schools from being named persistently dangerous, state officials rounded both numbers to 2.5 percent, the threshold for the label.
"We have always used a rounding rule," Carter said. "Five and above, we round up."
None of Maryland's other 23 school systems had schools at risk for the persistently dangerous designation. In Baltimore, school district officials project that nine schools will be added to the state's probationary list, though state officials say the number could be as low as seven.
After the state board officially designates schools as persistently dangerous Wednesday, the school district will have 10 days to notify parents of their option to transfer their children for the coming academic year, Carter said. But at all six schools likely to be named persistently dangerous, parents already have the right to transfer their children because of repeated years of low test scores.
Parents must register their children to transfer by Aug. 15, Carter said. School begins Aug. 29.
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