Baltimore experiment curbs dropout rate
Susan Notes: Not knowing enough about this school, I was going to post this item in 'news.' Then I got to Mary Robinson's porcelain figurines. Too often, high schools are stripped of any personality, never mind beauty. I figure Mary Robinson could raise a son to be a pretty good principal.
Kudos to Toppo for seeing these little figurines as significant.
Note that this school doesn't have entrance requirements or longer hours. One could wish it had a gym and a band. Even so, I say this is a hopeful story and one without gimmicks.
By Greg Toppo
BALTIMORE — Public School 428 looks out, in all four directions, onto streets of unoccupied, abandoned and burned-out row houses, their window casings charred, their roofs collapsed.
From the outside the school, circa 1961, is nothing but grim brick and steel windows, a city cop patrolling in front. Inside it's another world: The halls are neat and bright, the walls clean, the lockers freshly painted. Freshmen sit in class dressed neatly in yellow polo shirts and black pants.
Their bright shirts aside, these students from neighborhoods all over Baltimore stand out in another way: Living here makes them among the most likely to be taught by poorly prepared teachers, then drop out of high school and face a lifetime of low-wage, subsistence jobs. But on a recent warm September morning, they sit reading, raising hands, concentrating, in utter silence.
The school, better known as Baltimore Talent Development High School, is on the cutting edge of a decade-long experiment to stem the nation's dropout crisis. In a city where an estimated four in 10 students graduate, principal Jeffrey Robinson counts just half a dozen students who have dropped out in the school's first two years.
STAYING IN SCHOOL: Teachers use tough love | Are there any schools that 'work' in your area? Tell us
This fall, his students, virtually all of whom are black and many of whom are low-income, have shown up nearly 93% of the time.
In a nation where urban high school students are more likely to drop out the older they get, his 11th-graders actually have better attendance than the freshmen.
Dropout rates are alarmingly high in the nation's urban schools. A recent study sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation concluded that half of students in many cities don't graduate on time.
The problem is especially acute in a few cities, such as Baltimore, New York and Detroit, the study found. Detroit's dropout rate is the nation's worst. Baltimore is nearly as bad: only 39% graduate within four years. The city disputes the figure, saying it's closer to 60%. Still, Baltimore schools this fall have the dubious honor of being featured on HBO's gritty crime drama The Wire.
Reformers tout dozens of ideas, all of which have their appeal: schools within schools, charter schools, magnet schools, arts-focused schools, high-tech schools, service-oriented schools, schools that train kids to be teachers, builders, entrepreneurs, hoteliers or chefs, and schools that have extended days, weeks or years.
Talent Development High School is none of these. It isn't particularly high-tech or arts-focused. It has no admissions requirements. Students are admitted by lottery. The school day is no longer than most: Students arrive at 9 a.m. and leave at 3:50 p.m. It doesn't have a football team or marching band. It doesn't even have gym class.
Yet it's working, on a simple, common-sense principle: Find a dynamic principal with high expectations, give him what he needs, and let him hire the teachers he wants. Provide a rigorous curriculum and massive intervention for freshmen who read and do math at elementary school levels. And then get out of the way.
Robinson shrugs when asked about the school's secret formula: "It's just an ordinary school that has expectations."
It also may be the next big thing in public education. One of five "innovation high schools" in Baltimore, Talent Development operates through a cooperative agreement with Johns Hopkins University's Center for Social Organization of Schools. It's the first that Hopkins has helped develop from the ground up, the first to give a principal full control over staffing.
Students need bring no special gifts or talents. They simply check off the school's name on an enrollment form; they're treated preferentially only if they list it as their first choice. About 20% qualify for special-education services because of learning disabilities or other needs, higher than the citywide average of 15%. These days, they face a waiting list — as do teachers, who apply to transfer here in spite of the uninviting neighborhood.
"A lot of my friends wanted to come here — and still want to come," says veteran Baltimore math teacher Mary Robinson, who arrived this fall after two years of pestering by the principal, who happens to be her son.
Several teachers say they were attracted by Talent Development's supportive administration and hard-working staff. "I don't think there's a slacker on board," says English teacher Jenni Williams.
They praise the orderly atmosphere, the respectful student body. Many came after years of working in chaotic schools.
Baltimore allows Jeffrey Robinson freedom in hiring, though he has restraints on firing. This is a city school, after all, with a union contract. He still keeps control. Last year, a problematic English teacher lasted only one semester. He couldn't fire her but says he "kind of talked her out of the school."
'Positive peer pressure'
It's tempting to daydream about a place such as Talent Development saving the American urban high school, and when you meet the kids, it's especially tempting. The school receives students from 41 Baltimore middle schools — one of which, Harlem Park Middle School, shares its vast brick building.
Sophomore Vic Fenner, 16, praises what everyone here calls "positive peer pressure."
"The students are keeping on top of you, make sure you do the best you can," he says.
Vic dropped out in sixth grade and spent 1½ years at a community college program downtown until it lost funding. He ended up here as a freshman. "I was seeing what path I was going on," he says.
Robinson says that as a freshman, Vic drank more most nights than two adults. He often showed up in the morning hung over, his clothes a mess. This year, Vic says, he's more focused, more serious. "My common sense came back," he says with a smile.
Like many students here, he lives with a shifting constellation of family. In his household: his maternal grandmother, an aunt, her three kids, an 18-year-old brother and a 2-month-old sister.
As he sits working a wad of green bubble gum, freshman Aaron Mack, 15, says the school's calm climate is a huge change from his old middle school with its fires in the bathroom and daily food fights. Here, he says, the code is clear: "Do the right thing, you get rewarded."
A few aren't so sure. Fellow freshman Mariya Tarrant is the kind of student this school was made for — smart but an underachiever at risk of dropping out. She flunked ninth grade last year because of too many missed days.
She doesn't like being a freshman again, so she's hoping to work hard enough to be promoted by the second semester — a special incentive that Talent Development holds out to struggling students. Research suggests that students who repeat an entire grade are much more likely than others to drop out, so the school provides a chance to catch up quickly.
Mariya shows flashes of brilliance, as when Mary Robinson asks her to play the part of a defense attorney in a classroom mock trial, and she cuts her adversaries down to size. So far this fall, though, her teachers are frustrated. She understands the work but has missed too many school days. Then again, says Jerrell Baker, her history teacher, she walked into class the other day, after three days away, and took just moments to pick up a lesson on outlining. "She caught on very quickly," he says.
A template for change?
The back-to-basics approach is decidedly unglamorous, but it could lead the way to showing what cities can do to improve high-school graduation rates.
One of about 50 schools nationwide trying out Hopkins' model, Talent Development opened in 2004 with 137 freshmen and has added another class each year; it now has 401 students. The original freshmen will graduate in the spring of 2008, and like all Baltimore public school students, they have a gold-plated incentive to graduate: If accepted at Hopkins, about 2½ miles away, they have a free, four-year ride.
The Talent Development model maintains a laserlike focus on ninth grade where many students drop out, says Robert Balfanz, a Hopkins researcher. "The ninth grade is where everything falls off."
Borderline students who got by on B's and C's in middle school find themselves overwhelmed by more challenging courses. "The kids suddenly get a bunch of F's they weren't expecting," he says.
At Talent Development, fewer than one-third of freshmen enter reading at or above grade level. Students get extra help from the start. For some, it can amount to a triple dose of reading or math daily, stretching to nearly three hours. All students attend class with the same group of 75 or so classmates.
The school requires uniforms. All freshmen wear bright yellow polo shirts. Balfanz jokes, "They have to get out of ninth grade to get a better shirt." Sophomores wear black polo shirts, juniors wear blue button-down oxford shirts embroidered with the school's logo.
Each grade consists of two teams of three teachers. Because classes are rarely more than a few doors apart, students get only three minutes to switch. Robinson and his two assistants patrol the halls, walkie-talkies in hand.
The trio, each responsible for a single grade and corridor, constantly rib each other about whose group is best-behaved.
After one class transition, Robinson reports by walkie-talkie that the 11th-grade corridor looks pretty good. But vice principal Tracye Carter chimes in that her freshmen are quieter, her hallway tidier, and she's already back in her office.
Robinson's voice crackles over the radio: "Give me time. I'll win."
It soon becomes apparent that an ever-evolving mix of tough love, vigilance and spur-of-the-moment nurturing drives events at Talent Development. Carter, 36, a Baltimore native, recalls that on the first day, she turned away students who weren't wearing their standard-issue shirts. Yet she quietly buys a few freshmen their supply of shirts if they can't afford them.
Only one in five students lives in a two-parent family. Many kids come to school angry, ill-fed, sleep-deprived, lonely. If they act out, says assistant principal Saeed Hill, he doesn't take it personally. "They're not angry with me."
A 33-year-old Baltimore native who played defensive tackle in high school and still looks like he could take down a running back, Hill met Jeffrey Robinson when the two worked at one of the city's technical high schools. Like many teachers here, he says most kids simply need a place to vent about their lives. He also admits that his job never ends: "Robinson and I talk every night, about 10 o'clock, seven days a week."
Mary Robinson, 62, who has taught in Baltimore for 38 years, took a job here this fall. She's an ordained African Methodist Episcopal preacher, and it shows. Her voice is two notches more powerful than you'd expect from her tiny frame.
"We think that high school children are not children. But you know what? They are," she says.
Yet she makes her high expectations clear in subtle ways: The grille of her classroom radiator is full of dozens of delicate porcelain figurines: a shimmering dolphin, two pink-and-blue lovebirds, an orange cat with a big red bow. It's the sort of thing you'd imagine locked behind glass in your grandmother's dining room, but here it is, laid out inches from students' desks.
The collection is safe, she says. "They look at it, but not one of them would break it."
A crime-ridden area
The school sits in the Harlem Park neighborhood, minutes from Baltimore's tourist-friendly Inner Harbor, famous aquarium and world-class concert halls. But if tourists or concert-goers ever found themselves lost here at noon, much less after sunset, they'd lock their doors and pray out loud for their GPS to get them home.
Crime is ever-present. On a recent afternoon, a pair of neighborhood thugs held up a couple of yellow-shirted freshmen at the bus stop across from the school, stealing the contents of their pockets. Jeffrey Robinson is reluctant to ask parents to come here at night; he holds back-to-school night from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.
Yet some students take three city buses to get here in the morning. Students who once routinely skipped school don't here. For one, when they don't show up on time, a computer text-messages the cellphones of parents, guardians and students themselves.
Teacher teams meet daily with one weekly meeting devoted to attendance issues: who's not coming to school and why.
The minimum: 90% attendance. That means a student can miss only eight days this quarter — five if he or she wants to meet the schoolwide goal of 94%. Miss it? You're ineligible for trips to Kings Dominion amusement park and the like.
The school's first year, 2004-2005, students attended a healthy 90.3% of the time. Last year that improved to 91%. They've had 92.8% attendance this fall with the 11th-graders leading the way.
The reward for perfect attendance in August? A party with a box of doughnuts.
"We've found that resonates with the kids because what they're craving is social interaction," says Balfanz, who leaves the choice of rewards up to Robinson.
The school isn't perfect. There's nothing dazzling about the curriculum, and teachers sometimes struggle to keep a lid on classes. A few teachers often seem less than inspiring; many are still learning what a good lesson looks like. But you can't argue with what, so far, seems an amazing retention rate: Of 137 freshmen who entered in 2004, 113 remain as juniors. Most of the 24 who left transferred to other schools; Robinson says the district's database shows only five have quit school altogether — a 3.6% dropout rate, small even for a comfortable suburban high school.
Citywide, the four-year college-going rate for recent high-school graduates was 44.5%. Another 10.7% said they'll attend two-year colleges. Counselor John Snoddy estimates that, two years from now, 60% of Talent Development's current junior class will attend a four-year college. Another 30% will attend a two-year school.
Jeffrey Robinson, 40, grew up in Maryland's rural Harford County and entered education after seeing how lower-achieving black students in his own high school spent class time "playing Monopoly instead of taking trig."
Now that he runs his own school, he often turns the simplest encounters with kids into opportunities to get their head in life's game, to remind them to keep working and graduate.
As a tangle of freshmen return to class after an assembly one recent afternoon, a boy trips over a classmate's outstretched foot, right in front of Robinson.
"Bitch!" the boy says.
Robinson casually pulls him out of the fray and gives him detention. He has stronger words for the alleged tripper, who blusters and denies everything.
"I just let you in this school," Robinson says. "All I have to do is sign the papers, and you're out."
The kid, his back to the wall, keeps protesting. Robinson points his walkie-talkie at him.
"You got a high school diploma in your pocket?"
The kid looks puzzled. "No."
"(When) you get a high school diploma you can get loud all you want. You can yell all you want."
INDEX OF YAHOO, GOOD NEWS!