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Values set Baltimore school apart

Susan Notes: This article gives one hope: It stands as a promising model of urban school reform, based on a simple idea: Poor, urban teenagers don't need high schools with bells and whistles, as many reformers have suggested. They don't need vouchers or boarding schools, military-style discipline, 12-hour school days, laptop computers or personalized online coursework. They don't need magnet schools, and they don't need to rub elbows with high-achieving suburban kids.

But note how the board is subverting this by pushing hundreds more students into the school.

By Greg Toppo

BALTIMORE — This is the fourth and final story in a series on Baltimore Talent Development High School, an experimental school that specializes in keeping at-risk students from dropping out.

It was an odd little idea that stuck in assistant principal Saeed Hill's head and wouldn't die: Two years after his tiny high school's founding, it needed something — he wasn't sure exactly what — to set it apart from the dozens of others in the city, even the small core of "innovation" schools to which Baltimore Talent Development High School belonged.

"I realized the school needed some kind of tradition," Hill says.

Before students arrive at Talent Development, many are on the path to dropping out. In a city where only one in three students are likely to earn a high school diploma, the school offers a gold-plated second chance. But that wasn't enough.

He began asking people: What does it mean to be a student here? Soon he had an idea.
FIND MORE STORIES IN: Baltimore | High School | Hill | Talent | Baltimore Talent Development High School | Jeffrey Robinson

He envisioned a sort of honor society whose members would wear enamel lapel pins painted with "words that meant something to me."

So Hill created five pins, each showing a star and a positive trait: respect, dedication, integrity, perseverance and leadership.

"Education should be more than just math, science and English," Hill says. "You have to build character."

Any student who earned all five pins also would get a big certificate — a really big certificate, twice the size of the standard Maryland high school diploma.

He sketched out a series of lessons that would take place in a twice-weekly, optional class. Hill imagined the idea might attract a fraction of the student body — half at best.

By the time he finished handing out pins in the school auditorium three weeks ago to a thunderous standing ovation, more than 80% of students had walked across the stage. The other 20% looked on in a kind of quiet, repentant shock that even they didn't see coming.

It has been a tough year at Talent Development.

An open-admissions public high school that enjoys a cooperative relationship with Johns Hopkins University's Center for the Social Organization of Schools, it has been in business since 2004, occupying half of a sprawling brick building in the city's Harlem Park neighborhood. A short drive from the thriving downtown, the neighborhood is bleak with blocks of burnt-out row houses and abandoned storefronts.

The neighborhood notwithstanding, Talent Development quietly has built a loyal following. USA TODAY has visited throughout the year to see what makes it unique.

Stick to the basics

Based on a model developed by Hopkins researchers in 1994, the Baltimore high school is the first in the nation run from Day 1 as a Talent Development school.

It stands as a promising model of urban school reform, based on a simple idea: Poor, urban teenagers don't need high schools with bells and whistles, as many reformers have suggested. They don't need vouchers or boarding schools, military-style discipline, 12-hour school days, laptop computers or personalized online coursework. They don't need magnet schools, and they don't need to rub elbows with high-achieving suburban kids.

Mostly they just need positive relationships with tough, reliable, trustworthy adults who are focused on their basic skills and their futures.

While Baltimore boasts several celebrated selective-admissions high schools, Talent Development is decidedly unselective. The first 150 eighth-graders who check a "Talent Development" box on a citywide application constitute the incoming freshman class each fall.

The school is not for everyone; 75 students transferred out this year. But only three left without enrolling in another school, and another three stayed on class lists but stopped coming to school. They include one freshman, Mariya Tarrant, profiled last December in USA TODAY. She gave birth to a girl in March.

But any way you look at it, Talent Development boasts a staggeringly low dropout rate, one of the lowest in the city. If anything, being a student here simply means you'll likely graduate in four years.

As in any big city, students' lives are perilous, and the fate of their school always hangs in the balance. Last February, an anonymous gunman killed one of its most popular students less than 2 miles away.

A few days later, the city school board voted to close a nearby high school and move as many as 700 students into the Harlem Park building. Principal Jeffrey Robinson threatened to quit, saying the move would ruin his school's carefully cultivated climate and prompt turf wars between the two groups of students. He eventually backed down, saying he'd stay until spring 2008, the school's first graduation.

Robinson remains skeptical the district will make millions of dollars in promised upgrades, repairs and safety improvements, or come through on a promise of more buses — the combined schools could enroll as many as 1,200 students. But he says he'll hope for the best. A few weeks ago, he hosted an informal meet-and-greet summit with students from both schools.

Attendance matters

In the meantime, though, he and his staff have struggled to keep students coming to school day after day. Research shows that regular attendance increases the odds kids will graduate, so the staff badgers families to get them fed, dressed and, in most cases, on a city bus to school. But despite their efforts to achieve perfect attendance — the school gave away a TV and cash last winter — they have fallen short.

Robinson was pushing for 90% or even 95% attendance, but as the school year ended last week, it stood at 87.6%. If that seems impressive, consider this: It's as if every child skipped every other Friday all year long.

So the staff is dragging a bit, even as students study for finals. On top of that, state graduation exams loom days before finals, and for the first time, students must pass all four — biology, English, government and algebra — to get a diploma.

Getting just one-sixth of his freshmen to pass the algebra test requires "a huge push," says first-year math teacher Kyle Siler-Evans. "That's been my whole focus the second semester."

Down the hall, math teacher Mary Robinson walks around checking papers as volunteer Lucy Nagy pushes students through a mock exam a day before the big test. A retired teacher in schoolmarmish oval glasses, a khaki skirt and black cardigan sweater, Nagy uses her last class before the exam like a personal trainer, prodding students to solve problem after problem.

"We are only giving you 21/2 minutes —go! Not one second more!"

Though many freshmen get double doses of math, even the most advanced often perform on only a seventh-grade level when they arrive in the fall; others arrive with fifth-grade-level skills. In a state where about two-thirds of students take — and pass — the algebra test by freshman year, only one-third of Talent Development freshmen are ready to tackle it by the spring, and fewer than half of those generally pass it.

They have until senior year, but so far, the effort seems to have taken its toll on freshmen: Imagine preparing all spring for a test you have only a 50% chance of passing. They get their scores in August.

As they leave the final review class, Robinson's students try to be optimistic, but they're clearly exhausted. Packing up her books, Keyshell Glascoe, 15, says, "I'm not nervous, but I'm kinda" — she tips her outstretched hand back and forth — "shaky about it."

As if in reply, Nagy tells the group: "You're going to be wonderful tomorrow. You're going to be wonderful."

All tucked in

After three years, Talent Development has developed a kind of quiet rhythm, but as with any public school, things aren't perfect. Robinson hires a lot of young teachers — a few fresh out of college — and occasionally, they're not up to the challenge. One day, he switches on the public-address system — the halls are quiet and students seem to be working, but he needs to get something off his chest. These may be the last days of the school year, but he has had it with teachers showing movies in class. Class time, he says, is still for instruction.

Then he delivers what by now has become the school's default message: Tuck in your shirt.

If being a student here means anything, it's this: "I want all the teachers to tell the kids to tuck their shirts in," he says. "I'm going to walk around, and I'm going to view this for myself."

It's a little thing but an important one: It means respect, for yourself and others.

The endless reminders seem to be paying off. Even though the temperature inside most classrooms is about 10 degrees too hot, he's fussing at fewer kids than he'd expected. As they spot him walking the halls, students dutifully smooth their uniform shirts — some faded from dozens of washings — inside their slacks.

"I finally got them broke," he says with a smile. "It's a beautiful thing after nine months."

Growing interest

Hill floated the idea for the pins around Christmas break. Though a few kids "started taking it seriously out of the gate," it wasn't until this spring, when he got a $1,360 gift from Hopkins, ordered 1,000 pins and asked teachers to wear them, that most students realized they were interested. "That's when it really started taking off," he says.

Junior Shanay Clark took one look and said, "It kind of got me afraid, like, 'I really want one of those.' " She wondered if her work in the class measured up. (It did.)

Soon students were writing essays and plays that hashed out the ideas. For many, it was an eye-opener. For instance, to most kids, "respect" had always been synonymous with power, as in, "He disrespected me." Soon, though, they developed a deeper understanding.

Suddenly, Robinson says, students who had received detention would walk into his office and say, "I don't think it's fair. I would like to discuss it first."

Before they came to Talent Development, many had never shook the hand of an administrator. Now was their chance.

"Despite what people say about inner-city kids, they value being recognized for positive things," Hill says.

For now, at least, the school's future seems secure. The awkward arrangement with the new high school notwithstanding, the city is committed to the school's vision. The school board last March even voted to let Johns Hopkins take over a much larger high school elsewhere in Baltimore.

At the awards ceremony, Robinson steps to a microphone and thanks parents for coming. About 50 family members are scattered around the big, dimly lit auditorium. In many suburban schools, this would be a poor showing, but as Robinson looks out at the crowd, it's a revelation. He rarely has seen this many parents at a school function.

He acknowledges that many "told a story or two to get here, but we're glad you're here." Then he hands off to Hill.

All year, the assistant principal has been prodding students, sophomores especially, about their behavior, their attitude, their grades. Walkie-talkie perpetually in hand, Hill doesn't back down, doesn't flinch and hasn't missed a day in three years.

Though Robinson has suggested that the students who didn't earn pins this year get a second chance in the fall, Hill says no. He doesn't believe in extra credit or makeup work. Why take it seriously when you can do it another time?

"We're going to argue about this all summer," he says.

As Hill moves to hand out awards, the sophomores leap from their seats and give him a deafening ovation. The applause doesn't end until the awards are gone.

Once the pins are handed out, Robinson says, "We are truly a unique school. There's nobody like us in the country. Give yourselves a round of applause."

— Greg Toppo
USA Today


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