Dundalk High

Student Shain Palmer gives a thumbs up in English class at Dundalk High School. (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore Sun / August 27, 2011)

By the time most other high schools began their ritual end-of-summer awakening, the teachers at Dundalk were already a week on the job, clustered in the stuffy classrooms of a tired school that so many others had written off as a lost cause.

As the English department chair started up a flight of stairs, clutching a stack of results that revealed signs of progress, she stopped to share her frustration: How, after all the changes that had been made, did only about half the 10th-graders pass the state test on the first try?

So much has changed at the school in the three years since the federal government ordered the place to be closed down or torn apart and radically restructured. There are new teachers, a new principal, and a new attitude that says the place should have a future.

Yet so much has been left undone: Attendance is still too low, academic success is still uneven, and progress is still hampered by a student body that turns over as quickly as families in the neighborhood.

And so as Dundalk gets ready to open its doors Monday, the teachers inside are preparing not just for yet another new year, but for their next act in a performance whose ending is still being written — a story about how to save a failing school.

The questions that teachers have are the same ones as always, librarian Pamela Cline said: "How are the kids going to be? Will they respond?"

The answers, though, have never mattered more.

Unlikely reformer

Nothing in Tom Shouldice's friendly, unassuming manner suggests him for the work of salvaging a troubled high school. Those jobs seem to go to hard-charging, charismatic leaders who arrive with a prescription for change. Shouldice is more the quiet consensus builder — a wallflower who barely gets a nod from the kids when the halls fill between classes.

So in the summer of 2008, he might not have been the obvious choice to become principal of Dundalk, a school in such a deep malaise that rules required an overhaul the next year. But his boss saw something in him. And no one else wanted the job anyway.

The challenge was this: sweep away the majority of the teaching staff, convince the community that their failing high school in a dying industrial center could be a source of pride, reduce the dropout rate and ramp up the expectations for students.

On his first visit to the school, Shouldice was astounded and depressed by what he found. Not only was it worn and tired-looking, but piles of old papers and stacks of books lay around, and teachers peered out of their classrooms at him rather than being engrossed in lessons.

And as he pored over the data in his back office that first year, the numbers shocked him. Thirty percent of the students in each grade were dropping out between freshman and senior year, and the sentiment among the staff seemed to be that they were "glad they are gone; they are difficult and we don't want to deal with them," he said. The students seemed to run the school, he said. There were some good teachers, but many more were uninspired and resistant to attempts to improve their teaching.

Such problems are common in failing schools, but no one has been able to provide a road map for leaders like Shouldice. Education researchers can't point to many high schools that failed, were turned around and sustained that improvement.

So it was up to Shouldice to fashion a workable solution. As principal of Dundalk Middle down the street, he had made improvements. He knew the community and they trusted him. He was analytical and good at delegating, teachers would say. Although he had to take the drastic step of replacing most of the staff, Baltimore County had given him a whole year to develop a plan. And perhaps ironically, with failure came money — enough to add new technology and hire five extra teachers to bring down class sizes.

New teachers are hardly a foolproof solution. Most new hires have to be newly minted college graduates or career-changers, who, even if destined to become stars, are not typically effective in their first year.

So how was he going to improve student test scores and the graduation rate with a crew of newbies?

He figured he would hire energetic teachers, who were highly committed and weren't afraid of change. What they might lack in teaching experience, he hoped would be made up for with attitude. He wanted teachers who would coach sports teams, lead clubs, tutor after school and be mentors for students who didn't get all they needed at home.

Under his approach, the next three years would be a story of looking for the right people, finding great mentors to guide them and making the faculty responsible for changes. From the vantage point of those who took part, the task was filled with personal and professional risks. Despite a national education agenda that has made a priority of turning schools like Dundalk around, the odds are against it. Nearly all attempts fail or stall.