A New Semester at Northwestern High

At a high school in Baltimore, two teachers take very different approaches to the start of a new semester. It's a chance to make a fresh start for some teachers, but also a confusing time, as new schedules upend their routines.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It is the beginning of a new semester at Northwestern High School in Baltimore. That often means confusion as students adapt to new schedules, new classes, new teachers. At the same time, the pressure is on. Northwestern has only a few months left to improve the school's test scores. They've been well below state standards for years. And we care about this because NPR's Larry Abramson is charting Northwestern's efforts to boost student achievement.

Here's his latest report.

LARRY ABRAMSON: On this snowy, icy morning at Northwestern, many forces aside from the weather are conspiring against teachers who want to start teaching.

Many teachers, including this new substitute, have not received their class schedules. That throws the man off his game. Kids take advantage of the situation, leading to an altercation in the hallway.

(Soundbite of banging)

ABRAMSON: A student bangs a locker in frustration. The substitute demands the kid be taken to the main office. At that moment, biology teacher Sandra Herrera(ph) comes by with the missing schedules. She takes one student aside.

Ms. SANDRA HERRERA (Teacher): Is there anything you can do to maybe smooth it over a little bit? Do you think?

Unidentified Male (Student): I just won't want to say nothing to him.

Ms. HERRERA: You think?

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

Ms. HERRERA: So you just gotta go with the flow.

Unidentified Man: All right.

Ms. HERRERA: If you get a chance, if you think about it, just run by and say, you know, I'm sorry. I appreciate it.

Unidentified Man: Okay.

ABRAMSON: Herrera herself is new to Northwestern. She came here by choice from Texas because she was certain that kids at this underperforming school could do better at biology, her favorite subject.

(Soundbite of scraping)

ABRAMSON: Herrera rearranges the desks in her classroom before the kids arrive. On her bright, argyle sweater she wears a pin a friend gave her. There's a frog reading a book with the word biology written on it.

(Soundbite P.A. system)

Ms. HERRERA: Hi. How are you doing?

Unidentified Female #1 (Student): Fine.

ABRAMSON: When the kids enter, Herrera looks at them with a kind of Mona Lisa smile and she throws out this challenge.

Ms. HERRERA: Okay, anyway, do you know how many students passed the test last year in biology? Does anybody know? Twelve percent of the people who took the biology test last year passed it. Twelve percent.

ABRAMSON: Many kids know they can graduate without passing the biology portion of the HSA, Maryland's High School Assessment test. So Herrera appeals to group pride. If they blow off the test, she says, the school will look bad.

Ms. HERRERA: So with that kind of score, I mean it's normal, people are going to think Northwestern kids are not very smart. Not true. Cause we're going to change the reputation of Northwestern.

(Soundbite of pencil sharpener)

ABRAMSON: Sandra Herrera sharpens her pencil and sets to work. But for her, the first order of business is to put the kids in charge of themselves.

Ms. HERRERA: I think it's very important for you folks as basically young adults to determine what rules govern your behavior in this class.

ABRAMSON: As a way of empowering students, Herrera expects them to lay down rules for their class. This seems like an invitation to bedlam.

Ms. HERRERA: How about no electronic devices?

STUDENTS: No, no…

Ms. HERRERA: You can't say no. We're brainstorming. I didn't say don't write the ones you don't like. All right? No homework on Fridays, that's a good one.

ABRAMSON: The students can't resist the temptation to game the system, but Herrera does get them to propose their own punishment.

Ms. HERRERA: If you're late, what happens?

ABRAMSON: One student says kids who arrive late should not be able to use CD players in class. Another girl wants blood from latecomers, twenty percent off their final grade.

(Soundbite of classroom)

ABRAMSON: In another classroom one floor down, math teacher Rita Jones(ph) approaches the first day of the semester with a style that is completely different.

Ms. RITA JONES (Teacher): Move now, because I will be taking attendance from your seat.

ABRAMSON: Jones is a no-nonsense teacher with an affinity for rules and order. Like Sandra Herrera, she's been teaching for more than two decades, but the desks in this room are numbered, lined up in rigid rows, and students must move to their assigned seats before class can begin.

Ms. JONES: Six, Monique King(ph); seven, Shayla Witt(ph); eight, Travis Thomas; nine…

ABRAMSON: Rita Jones spells out the rules. No discussion here. Respect each other. No trash on the floor. And if you forgot your pencil, she'll sell you one for 25 cents. On the board Jones writes, Measures of central tendency, the lesson for the day.

Ms. JONES: Add them all up, divide by four.

ABRAMSON: Jones dives right into the material. She heads off errant behavior, and there's a good reason for that. Classes at this school regularly erupt into chaos. In Rita Jones's class, kids don't even think about it.

Ms. JONES: I don't care what you have there, you can (unintelligible), but you work when you come in my room. You don't sit here and socialize.

ABRAMSON: If this approach seems harsh, it's worth remembering that math performance is particularly dismal at Northwestern. Jones clearly feels she has no time to waste.

Jones is highly regarded for her ability to improve student performance on the critical tests at the end of the semester. In fact, she's regarded so highly, she's slated to receive 38 kids in this class.

Ms. JONES: Thirty-eight kids in a class is not realistic to me, not if they expect you to work individually with kids that need that extra help. Some kids really do need a one on one, you know. And it's hard to do that with 38 children in the classroom.

ABRAMSON: One reason for the big enrollment? For months the school has been unable to find a permanent teacher for another math class. Meanwhile, Sandra Herrera is wrapping up her biology class. When she mentions they'll be starting out with evolution, there's a pause. One girl says she learned God created man.

Unidentified Female #2 (Student): I was told that God made man.

Ms. HERRERA: Right. You've got your area of faith. You've got the things your parents have taught you, your church has taught you. And all those things are good. But because we're in a science class, science is not based on faith. Science is based on fact. But I'm not saying this is right or wrong. All I'm telling you is this is on your HSA. They ask a lot of questions about evolution and about DNA and how it is people came to be evolved enough to be able to talk and chew gum. So…

Unidentified Male #2: At the same time.

Ms. HERRERA: At the same time, no less.

ABRAMSON: The HSA, the big test, is important enough, it appears, to sweep aside any huge ethical debate about evolution. And that's as far as Sandra Herrera gets today. Evolution will have to wait till tomorrow.

Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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