A Baltimore School Seeks to Avoid Failure

Thousands of schools around the country are labeled as "needing improvement" under the terms of the No Child Left Behind Act. One Baltimore school is struggling against poverty, absenteeism, and years of academic decay to try and turn itself around.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

For school principals across the country, the arrival of Christmas break means they're running out of time. Thousands of schools are facing state or federal mandates to improve student achievement before testing later this year. If they fail, schools could face dire consequences - the designation as a failing school or even the firing of the entire staff.

NPR's Larry Abramson has been keeping track of the efforts of one Baltimore high school where achievement has lagged for years. He'll have several reports in the coming months through graduation day. Here's his first story from Northwestern High School.

LARRY ABRAMSON: Tajag Rose(ph) has to fight the noise of an air conditioner as she reads the riot act to her department heads. Most rooms in this overheated, 40-year-old building are like an oven in winter, but the real heat is coming from Principal Rose herself because she's worried that her teachers are not following the plan for boosting student achievement.

Ms. TAJAG ROSE (Northwestern High School): And you may want to start putting out reminders starting tomorrow about what you're expecting to see in place in the classroom.

ABRAMSON: Tajag Rose has been brought in to turn around achievement here. She is also fighting for her own survival. The state of Maryland has been threatening to take over this and other failing schools in Baltimore, so her job could be on the line. Rose pounds her points home. Teachers must march through the curriculum together. No deviations.

Ms. ROSE: Okay, nobody should be any where in the curriculum other than where they're supposed to be unless they've discussed it with you and you've said to them what type of a range that you'd like for them to make the catch up or to get kids on track, okay. But you shouldn't have anybody that's in unit one and you've said to them that unit three is where you want them to be, okay.

ABRAMSON: Called hands-on management or micromanagement, this is what life is like for modern school principals. They do a lot of bean counting and data analysis. Is any group of kids being left behind? Can teachers document why kids are failing? And at this school, one question makes all the others irrelevant. Are kids coming to school in the first place?

Mr. MARK RAPPAPORT (Northwestern High School): I think we have 57 days of school, I think. He's missed 41. She's missed 40. She's missed 39.

ABRAMSON: In his office, Assistant Principal Mark Rappaport points to a list of chronically absent students.

Mr. RAPPAPORT: Thirty-four, 38, 46, 45. These kids are never coming.

ABRAMSON: It's his job to ensure kids don't ruin the school's numbers.

Mr. RAPPAPORT: Okay, the kid that misses 47 days is not going to - is most likely not going to pass the test. Also, he's bringing down the entire school's attendance. Tremendously. So this school, for example, that you have great attendance, 10 kids that miss every day destroy the attendance, the school ends up looking horrible.

ABRAMSON: Rappaport talks tough, but he cares about these kids and gives many another chance.

Mr. RAPPAPORT: Stand up. Last name.

Mr. DOMINIQUE BOANE (Student): Boane.

Mr. RAPPAPORT: B-O-A?

Mr. BOANE: Yeah.

Mr. RAPPAPORT: What's your first name?

Mr. BOANE: Dominique.

ABRAMSON: Enter Dominique Boane, a 15 year old who is already repeating his freshman year.

Mr. RAPPAPORT: How many days were you absent last year? Do you know?

Mr. BOANE: Probably everyday. Everyday.

ABRAMSON: Dominique is accompanied to Rappaport's office by his great-grandmother, Viola Hawkins, his current guardian. She looks more worried than Dominique does. She's stunned to learn that when her great grandson does come to school, he is always late and then takes off at around 2:00 PM.

Ms. VIOLA HAWKINS: And you know what is the hurting part of it all, Dominique's an A or B student but he won't apply himself. All his teachers tell me that he's very highly intelligent in his academics, but he won't perform in his class.

Mr. RAPPAPORT: Okay, you're doing a little contract today.

ABRAMSON: The contract is basically a second chance, a promise by Dominique to try harder. Dominique doesn't appear too enthusiastic, but he signs the contract and heads off to class.

Freshmen are a constant problem in high school. At Northwestern, three out of 10 are absent on any given day and attendance used to be much worse. Northwestern is a neighborhood school, taking all comers from a large piece of Baltimore.

Staffers here complain that the so-called citywide or magnet schools get the cream of the crop, leaving Northwestern to work with kids who are furthest behind. Every year, the state expects Northwestern to meet ever-expanding goals for having a certain number of kids proficient in key subjects.

For Francine McCray, the dean of instruction at Northwestern, these goals are completely unrealistic.

Ms. FRANCINE MCCRAY (Northwestern High School): The state target in English is around 53 percent. We're around, what, 20 percent, 17 percent right now.

ABRAMSON: Proponents of tougher standards and the No Child Left Behind law say kids like these fell behind in the first place because of low expectations. Francine McCray agrees. These students do have the right to high expectations.

Ms. MCCRAY: Absolutely. They absolutely do. But let's look at where they are and where you want them to be. I think you look at the progress that is being made.

ABRAMSON: And progress is being made in some key areas.

Ms. ELLEN LOGAN (Teacher): A-N.

CLASS: An.

Ms. LOGAN: A-M.

CLASS: Am.

Ms. LOGAN: A-L-L.

CLASS: All.

ABRAMSON: The ninth graders in Ellen Logan's remedial reading class are learning basic sounds and single syllable words, stuff they were supposed to learn by third grade. Finally, they are truly learning to read, Logan says, thanks to a rigorous curriculum. A kitchen timer keeps the class on track.

(Soundbite of buzzer)

Ms. LOGAN: A-N-D.

CLASS: And.

ABRAMSON: I ask Logan how these students can get anywhere in their other classes.

Ms. LOGAN: It has to be almost impossible. They're depending on a lot of repetition from the teacher repeating the information from the text. And they're relying on students, other students who are reading.

ABRAMSON: Some of these kids have certified learning disabilities, but many do not. Either way, their scores on state tests later this year will help determine whether Northwestern is judged to be successful or whether it will face sanctions.

Ms. ELIZABETH SEMROSE(ph) (Northwestern High School): What qualifications mark the success to be a president of the United States, both informal and formal? Excuse me? No, thank you.

ABRAMSON: Elizabeth Semrose's government class is learning about the American electoral system. They face a key statewide test on this subject in just a few weeks, and they're basically pretty interested.

Ms. SEMROSE: When they first decided we were going to be a democratic nation and they first decided who had the right to vote - do you remember who was given the right to vote? Ashley.

ASHLEY: White men.

Ms. SEMROSE: White men who did what?

CLASS: Worked.

Ms. SEMROSE: Not worked. They had to own something. What did they have to own?

CLASS: Slaves? Own land?

Ms. SEMROSE: Own land. Own property.

ABRAMSON: But as with many classes here, Semrose spends much of her time not on the fine points of American government but on discipline.

Ms. SEMROSE: If you are talking, I will not repeat it again, it means you are rude. To review our schedule, this class ends at 2:00, not quarter of. That is 15 minutes of valuable instruction time that you just tuned out and lost.

ABRAMSON: Sound familiar? Teachers have been using that admonition for decades. It's not clear whether these students hear the clock ticking but in the era of standards and high stakes tests, the teachers, principals and staff at schools at Northwestern are under the gun, and for them, every minute counts.

Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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