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Schools Await Final Grade:

Ohanian Comment: Let's see, changing books and principals didn't work. A whizbang turnaround specialist didn't do the trick either. Why don't they try paying the families of the children in the school a living wage--and see how that affects test scores? Blaming the economy instead of school personnel is a strategy that's never been tried. All this talk of state academic standards but no talk of basic living standards: housing, health, food, and the basic premise of a family receiving just wages for their work.

I applaud the principal's installing light bulbs in the hallways and can understand the 'walk on the right side rule.' I taught in a middle school, and I appreciate the importance of calm in the hallways. I'll add one more good thing he's done: allowed the return of the Colours Performing Arts Troupe. The reporter didn't see fit to mention this but I predict that time spent on Colours is more beneficial than time spent on test prep.

This said, the math of the MSA is pathetic.

By Nick Anderson

It has been eight years since Maryland told the Prince George's County school to shape up, or else. It has been four years since the federal government raised the pressure with a law meant to force shake-ups through aid and sanctions.

Yet Charles Carroll Middle School has continued to fall short of state standards, even though the county has switched textbooks, changed principals three times and even assigned a "turnaround specialist."

So far, actions and threats have been fruitless. The school, for a second straight year, is at the final stage of a state "needs improvement" list. It will stay there at least one more year. State officials call this stage "the deep end."

Earlier than D.C., Virginia and most other states, Maryland faces a question posed by the No Child Left Behind law: What happens when a school reaches the end of the line?

Last week, the Bush administration offered one answer. It proposed $100 million to help parents with children in last-stage public schools move them to private schools or obtain tutoring. The proposal riled school-voucher opponents but underscored the issue's growing urgency.

Maryland Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick said she has asked her attorneys for guidance on the extent of the state's power to remake or take over 65 last-stage schools in Prince George's and Baltimore.

It was Grasmick, in January 1998, who targeted Charles Carroll Middle and eight other Prince George's schools. At the time, she spoke of a possible state takeover. Grasmick took a major step in Baltimore in 2000, hiring a private company to operate three lagging schools there. But she held back in Prince George's. Now, Grasmick said she is taking another look at schools such as Charles Carroll Middle.

"I think we cannot say with good conscience that we can allow a school that has been identified for this period of time to continue to be low performing," Grasmick said in a recent interview. She said she respects local authority over public schools. "But we also have to be respectful of opportunities for children," she said.

Eric Wood, the high-energy rookie principal of Charles Carroll Middle, isn't waiting for Maryland to bring down the hammer. He has restored hallway order in a school with a history of disciplinary trouble. He believes students should walk to the right, preferably with shirts tucked in. When he arrived at the New Carrollton campus last summer, Wood literally dispelled gloom. He put fluorescent bulbs in corridors where some light fixtures were empty.

Wood also tinkered with the school's name.

On his business cards, on the school Web site and on green and white uniforms that students began wearing in January, Wood inserted a word into the school name that he said signals a commitment. For him and 950 seventh- and eighth-graders, it's now "The New Charles Carroll Middle School."

"It's a renewal of the mind and a perception of what you think about Charles Carroll," Wood said. "It's like a covenant. I put it out there. So now you have to back it up."

The challenge is to succeed where the school missed last year: mathematics test scores for disabled students and reading test scores for black, Hispanic, low-income, limited-English and disabled students. Wood needs a solid performance from teachers and students across the board. Then he has to do it all over again next year to escape the list.

With time short before next month's crucial state achievement tests, the school is cramming in reading and math. Daily loudspeaker announcements segue to funk riffs from a song called "Word Up!" and then to a review of prefixes, suffixes and other vocabulary builders.

"L-E-S-S: less," said an all-school intercom voice one recent morning. "Added to the end of 'home' means what? Without a home." A few students in one classroom listened or took notes. Others laughed or chatted, their attention elsewhere.

Schools like Charles Carroll are at the last stage of enforcement because Maryland took a more aggressive approach than many states in implementing the federal law enacted in January 2002. Essentially, Maryland merged its state accountability rules with the No Child Left Behind system. Elsewhere, watch lists have evolved more slowly. Virginia and D.C. have no schools at the end stage.

The law requires reading and math tests for all students in grades three through eight and once in high school. States must track progress toward closing achievement gaps. The goal is near-universal academic proficiency by 2014.

Schools must be tagged for improvement if they miss academic targets two years in a row. High-poverty schools that receive federal Title I funds are pushed down a five-year pathway of consequences for repeated failure. (Maryland also imposes some sanctions on schools that don't qualify for the funds; Charles Carroll Middle is one.) In the fifth year, these schools must be "restructured." That means they can be converted to public charter schools, run by a private contractor or run by the state. Or their staff can be jettisoned. Or they can undergo "any other major restructuring of the school's governance arrangement that makes fundamental reforms."

The Center on Education Policy, a Washington think tank, is studying a handful of states with schools at the last stage. California, for example, has 249. The analysts found that local officials generally shy away from the strongest sanctions, charter conversions or takeovers. Frequently, they replace staff. Many choose the most open-ended option: "other."

"All the Draconian measures don't make sense to educators when they have to deal with these problems," said Jack Jennings, president of the policy center and a former Democratic congressional aide. "They opt for what they think will work rather than something showy."

U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings predicted that many more schools nationwide will face mandatory restructuring in coming years. "Having schools called out, spotlighted, attended to when they're not working, is what this law is about," she said.

In Baltimore, three struggling schools drew heightened scrutiny after Grasmick's 2000 decision to run them in a public-private partnership with Edison Schools Inc. A year ago, all three were at the last stage of the watch list. But two moved off the list with solid and sustained achievement gains. The third positioned itself to leave the list this year.

Leaders of the Edison schools, which have nonunionized teachers, said they have longer instructional days and more management flexibility than at a typical public school. But they also cite factors common to many public school reform plans.

"It takes hard work," said Edison's Zelda Holcomb. "It's focused instruction, strong principal leadership. We're always analyzing data. It's consistent and ongoing."

Two last-stage schools in Prince George's met state standards last year and can leave the watch list with a repeat performance: Stephen Decatur Middle in Clinton and Thurgood G. Marshall Middle in Temple Hills. Three fell just short: Bladensburg Elementary, Gaywood Elementary in Seabrook and Overlook Elementary in Temple Hills.

The county's other three last-stage schools face a steeper climb: Nicholas Orem Middle in Hyattsville, G. Gardner Shugart Middle in Temple Hills and Charles Carroll Middle.

The typical Prince George's plan calls for a turnaround specialist from a regional office to work with a principal. Wood, 32, whose mother is also a Prince George's principal, consults with his specialist about 10 hours a week. He has after-school and Saturday enrichment programs for several dozen targeted students. And he has goodwill from teachers and parents who want him to succeed. They credit him for bringing calm to a chaotic campus.

Last school year, teacher Ricardo Navas recalled, "you'd have stampedes, running in the hallway, fights breaking out. Sometimes there'd be waves of stampedes."

Jesse Sharpe, father of an eighth-grader and leader of a parent-teacher organization, said: "We were about to send our daughter somewhere else. But on day one, Principal Wood said, 'Give me a chance.' I can tell you, my daughter feels so much better now coming to this school than last year."

Turning goodwill into adequate yearly progress -- the currency of public education these days -- is another matter. Wood is drilling his students on the stakes of the coming Maryland School Assessments in reading and math. He recently ventured into a seventh-grade math class and asked, "Who knows how many days there are until the MSA?"

"Twenty-nine!" the students sang out in unison.

In a seventh-grade morning homeroom, others echoed the school line.

"We need to get our grades up and be ready for the MSA," said LaShawnda Walker, 12, "because in the past, the test scores were low."

DeAngelo Belton, 12, said: "They always say it's so important that we need to study. It's the biggest test."

— Nick Anderson
Washington Post


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