"Those are things that people have to look at: How did we do that?" Emery said, adding that she is prepared to fight for the school. "The report that was put out there, it just didn't reflect the school I've grown to know and love."

Two-sided struggle

Hopkins' Talent Development High School uses a nationally acclaimed model designed to ensure that the most at-risk students at neighborhood high schools graduate.

"We feel like we've stayed true to that mission," said Robert Balfanz, the school's operator and a research scientist at Hopkins' Center for Social Organization of Schools. "That was our goal, and that's the outcome that matters the most. Because that's the difference between a shot at life or not in Baltimore City."

Balfanz said the school has experienced leadership instability in the past three years and acknowledged unacceptably low test scores — 25 percent and 16 percent of students passed the state English and math assessments, respectively, in the 2010-2011 school year.

But Balfanz said the scores do not negate the fact that Talent Development's four- and five-year graduation rates rank among the highest for neighborhood high schools without selective admissions in Baltimore City. Those rates mirror the statewide average for students of the same demographic, and both rates exceed the district's overall averages.

Educators sent by the system to observe the school's classrooms noted that "there is not yet a learning-focused classroom culture" and that teachers had not "established rigorous goals for student learning."

Balfanz said the observation was ill-timed: It was scheduled the week after Memorial Day, when seniors were gone, students were reviewing content for final exams and the principal was out of the building.

"That's correctable," he said of the observations. "That's not absolute."

Baltimore Civitas, the other Hopkins-run institution, is a combined middle-high school with a mission to "to graduate students ready for college and careers in public service."

But in the school system's report, educators in interviews with district officials described it as a place where "children prevail over adults," and the school's only plan of action is "to keep students in the classroom." Parent focus groups called the school's classroom atmosphere "pandemonium."

Balfanz said that student poverty, coupled with the recession and limited resources the school received from the system, took more of a toll on Civitas than anticipated. He also noted that the school's leadership team had turned over in recent years, making it more difficult to execute a vision.

"It was an attempt to try a new model, and we found that under the current conditions, it wasn't really sustainable," he said. "You learn from that, too."

The operators of Baltimore Freedom Academy said they took in teachers with unsatisfactory job performances and low-performing middle-school students at the school system's request. And they pointed to several ways they said the report on their school was unfair.

For example, district observers said the school did not stay true to its social justice theme, though the school is known nationally for its activism. Observers also justified unfavorable ratings in part by noting that the school did not post Maryland standards in classrooms, which isn't a requirement of any school.

The school district had to retract a conclusion that the school had not fulfilled 1,000 hours of services for special education students — after the report already had been made public.

Khalilah Harris, the school's executive director, said the staff members "reflect until we're blue in the face" about how to raise their achievement levels.

At the time of its review, the school noted that 15 percent of its students passed the English high school assessment and 11 percent passed math in the 2010-2011 school year. The same year, 46 percent of the middle school students they took in passed reading tests, and 10 percent passed math.

"We know the games we could play to make our numbers look good, but we will not conform to shenanigans," Harris said.

"We know we have kids who are never going to pass those tests. But if you ask them the difference between right and wrong, they can tell you with certainty," she added. "We're committed to creating 21st-century thinkers who can advocate for themselves and others. Where does that show up?"