City's low-income students among highest achievers

Most education research suggests that students at Hamilton Elementary and Thomas Johnson Middle would be handicapped by their low-income backgrounds.

But students at those schools and six others in the city are beating the odds of poverty, according to the state education policy group Maryland Campaign for Achievement Now (MarylandCAN). The schools, which have some of the highest percentages of poor students in the city and state, have consistently outperformed their peers around Maryland.

"We should celebrate that there are schools that are proving that children from low-income backgrounds can learn," said Jason Botel, executive director of MarylandCAN. "A lot of education reform is focused on what's not working, but I really feel strongly that the best way to build is to build on strength."

MarylandCAN chose to focus on Baltimore, a district that arguably faces the biggest hurdles in the state: high concentrations of low-income students and a history of poor academic performance.

Pointing to research that shows students are often put at a disadvantage by poverty, particularly on standardized tests, Botel said the organization set out to see if Baltimore's two issues went hand-in-hand.

"There are folks who think they've made a ton of progress, and there are other people who think the school system was bad, is bad, and will always be bad," Botel said. "I thought: 'Let's find out.'"

At the eight schools, where 80 percent to 95 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price meals, most students in almost every grade topped the statewide proficiency rates in both reading and math on the 2012 and 2013 Maryland School Assessments.

In addition to Hamilton and Thomas Johnson, the others named "opportunity schools" were Cecil Elementary, Tunbridge Public Charter School, Liberty Elementary, the Empowerment Academy, the Mount Washington School and Medfield Heights Elementary.

Fifteen others were found to be "on-the cusp" of being named opportunity schools. The district has about 200 schools.

At Hamilton Elementary/Middle in Northeast Baltimore, 87 percent of elementary school students qualify for subsidized meals. The school's elementary program was recognized for scoring above the state's average in several areas, such as fourth-grade math, where 96 percent scored proficient, compared with the state's average of 89 percent.

Principal Patricia Otway-Drummond said that the key to the school's success is not setting different standards for different students.

"Everyone takes responsibility for every child," Otway-Drummond said. "We don't separate our students in that way, and we don't address the need in that way. We set a standard for our students for where we think they should be."

Otway-Drummond also said students need to have to have a well-rounded education.

An assembly to celebrate the school's success showcased the school's many talents: A choir sang Pharrell's "Happy" and the cast of "Little Shop of Horrors" performed several numbers from the play. The school has an award-winning choir, band and chess programs. In the summer, the school offers programs like gardening.

"Students are not cars," Otway-Drummond said. "They don't come on a conveyor belt. Every student is individual and unique. And so we make sure that everyone experiences what we have to offer."

At Hamilton, students say they are taught to persevere.

Amani Walton, an eighth-grader, said she has been "pushed" since fifth grade to overcome her stutter, make the honor roll and achieve perfect attendance. She credits the school's rigor with helping her win admittance to Polytechnic Institute next year.

"They pushed me to work hard, every day," said Amani. "I never thought I would make it to Poly."

Students said they also value being encouraged to enjoy their school experience.

"They want you to be a part of things you want to do, to make you happy in school," said Jahkeem Whitley, an eighth-grader. "The arts is something I definitely fall back on to relax."

At Thomas Johnson Elementary/Middle in South Baltimore, the only middle school program to meet all of the opportunity school criteria, parents and students say that a strong commitment from teachers, parents and students provides the foundation they need to succeed.

A neighborhood school, Thomas Johnson has an active parent group and many students have attended the school for most, if not all, of their academic careers.

"We're consistent," Principal James A. Dendinger said of the school's success. "We continue to have success because everybody's buying into the vision of the school, and that creates a school community committed to learning."

Its middle-schoolers — 88 percent of whom qualify for subsidized meals — made their strongest showing in sixth-grade math last year, with 94 percent scoring proficient, compared with the state's average of 77 percent. Its seventh-grade reading scores bested the state's average by 10 percentage points.

For seventh-grade language arts teacher Brenda Olszewski, Thomas Johnson's recognition shows that everyone "is on equal ground" — a philosophy she puts into practice in her classroom every day.

"I try to create a safe space," she explained. "For example, nobody in my room is wrong. I always try to find a way to make their response work. No one wants to feel invalidated. The kids trust me not to make them feel less than they are."

Parents and students said that teachers are what make the school successful.

"They treat each student as an individual, not categorize them as high-achievers or low-achievers, and put them in a little box," said Joan Goad, whose son has attended the school since pre-kindergarten. "That's what I really love about this school."

Emily Nolan, a seventh-grader, said her teachers helped her get straight A's.

"They try different strategies, they stick to it," she said. "It's not like a few get it, we can move on. Everyone needs to get it."

Botel said that the report is as much a celebration of schools as it is a call to action.

He said that MarylandCAN hopes the report will spark a conversation about best practices and how the city can improve. About 85 percent of the district's students qualify for free and reduced-price meals, but only 7 percent of the district's student population attend the opportunity schools or schools with entrance criteria.

He also noted that no high school made the cut this year, which is cause for concern.

To raise achievement levels among poor students on a grander scale, the report recommends allowing principals at opportunity schools to train other school leaders and increasing the number of social workers and reading interventionists in schools.

Principals at the recognized schools suggested a number of ways to improve teacher support when asked about best practices.

"We really have an imperative moral obligation to learn from the schools that are doing it right," Botel said. The biggest challenge for the city school district "is providing a high-quality education to all children and giving them the opportunity to overcome poverty."

Opportunity schools

The following schools in Baltimore have been labeled "opportunity schools" by the state education policy group Maryland Campaign for Achievement Now (MarylandCAN). The schools, which have some the highest percentages of poor students in the city and state, have consistently outperformed their peers around Maryland.

Cecil Elementary

The Empowerment Academy

Hamilton Elementary/Middle

Liberty Elementary

Medfield Heights Elementary

The Mount Washington School

Thomas Johnson Elementary/Middle

Tunbridge Public Charter School

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