Bridging the Divide:

Struggles of new East Baltimore school show challenges of integration

Liz Bowie
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

On the day that the Henderson-Hopkins school opened its doors to let children in, Crystal Jordan marveled at its light-filled rooms, curving stairs and interior play areas.

She couldn't believe her family's good fortune. In a city with so many struggling schools, her fifth-grade daughter was entering a new public school backed by some of the city's most powerful institutions, and driven by a vision in which students of all socioeconomic backgrounds would learn together, and be held to high standards.

"I thought it was an amazing opportunity for so many of our kids," Jordan said.

Three years later, the dream is yet to be realized. And the school has just begun a rebuild — of both its physical space and its learning environment.

When Henderson-Hopkins opened in January 2014, Johns Hopkins University President Ronald J. Daniels was as enthusiastic as the parents and children. He described the program in East Baltimore as "a poignant, vivid and galvanizing place for us to demonstrate our core belief in the community and its future."

Hopkins and several nonprofit and government partners built the $54 million school as the centerpiece of a massive 88-acre redevelopment north of Johns Hopkins Hospital.

To create space, Hopkins and its partners in the East Baltimore Development Inc. initiative bought out hundreds of families, moved 1,000 people, and bulldozed scores of deteriorating rowhouses. Now on one block stood a gleaming school for children from kindergarten through eighth grade with vaulted open spaces for collaborative work.

Administrators, drawing on years of research that shows children learn better in racially and socioeconomically diverse classrooms, planned to enroll a mix of students. Children from the neighborhood would study alongside the children of Hopkins doctors, researchers and staff.

Hopkins would run the charter-like school under a contract with the city school system. The city would pay a set amount per student. The School of Education at Morgan State University would provide expertise.

It would become a national model for urban education.

"It was an attempt to achieve the economic and racial diversity that research describes produces better outcomes for kids," said Andrew Frank, a special adviser on economic development to Hopkins' president.

But soon after the school's opening, there were signs the vision would be tough to achieve. About 90 percent of students were African-American and came from low-income families. Test scores lagged behind even those of the city's large group of underachieving schools.

Parents said they noticed teachers were expecting less, and student behavior was becoming a problem. They felt their fortunes start to fade. Jordan, a middle-class mom who works on child welfare for the Annie E. Casey Foundation — one of the partners in the school — considered pulling her daughter and younger sons out.

Hopkins officials say they are overhauling the school, with a new principal, new curriculum and even planned architectural fixes.

"We know this is hard, but we know it is important to do," said Mariale Hardiman, interim dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Education. "It is not going to happen overnight. It is not going to happen without a lot of starts and stops."

As Maryland has grown more diverse, its schools have grown more segregated. By 2014, more than one in four public schools was highly segregated, meaning the student body was 90 percent or more students of color, according to the Maryland Equity Project at the University of Maryland.

Maryland was the third-most-segregated state in the nation for black students in 2014, the Civil Rights Project at the University of California at Los Angeles reported last year.

In those segregated schools, researchers say, students often find themselves with less-experienced teachers in less-rigorous classes — and more likely to lag behind their peers.

Research going back decades shows that all students — white, black, affluent and disadvantaged — do better when they learn in integrated classrooms. But according to the Century Foundation, a progressive think-tank based in New York, only 8 percent of students nationwide, or roughly 4 million students, are in integrated classes.

That a new school with the ambitious backing of two universities, the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the city government has been unable to reach its goals is a testament to the difficulty of making it happen.

The outcome might have been predicted. Fewer than a dozen schools in the majority-black city have a balanced racial and socioeconomic population — one that is about 50 percent minority or poor — and many of them are charters and some of the highest performing in the city.

That precious balance, researchers say, is the best-known antidote to the academic struggles of students from low-income families.

At Henderson-Hopkins, the good intentions of Hopkins, Morgan and the other partners were no match for the astute low-income parents from just outside the neighborhood who battled to get more seats at the new school. And then the middle-class children never showed up, in part because the recession delayed construction of the new housing planned in the redevelopment.

Jordan sees another reason why.

"If I was a doctor would I send my child to Henderson-Hopkins?" she said. "Absolutely not. ... The academics are not there."

An architectural star

The new school — officially Elmer A. Henderson: A Johns Hopkins Partnership School — replaced an old neighborhood institution that had been named for the city's first African-American assistant schools superintendent.

In the city's old numbering system, schools for black children were labeled 100 or higher, and this school was No. 101. Henderson-Hopkins, with its dreams of integration, was symbolically taking the place of a once-segregated school.

The East Baltimore community is also being overhauled. More than 740 families, including more than 300 homeowners, were relocated with financial help from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The city government, Hopkins and nonprofit groups are managing the transformation of the once-deteriorating neighborhood into new homes, offices and retail spaces as partners in the nonprofit East Baltimore Development Inc.

The idea was that those who lived and worked in the EBDI footprint — nicknamed the Piano, for its shape — would attend Henderson-Hopkins. The families who had been moved out were given top priority.

The school had an auspicious start, hailed as a design masterpiece by architecture critics. The building was divided into five areas, or "houses," each with its own cafeteria and flexible open spaces that would allow for small groups of students to learn together doing projects, art, theater and other activities.

Connected to the school is the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Early Childhood Center, which shares the same board but is not part of the school. It accepts children from ages 6 weeks through prekindergarten.

Together, the Weinberg center and the school are roughly the footprint of a large Walmart, with concrete courtyards, small green spaces and trees.

School leaders said they didn't anticipate the overwhelming demand from the community for what was the first school built in East Baltimore in 20 years. The first year, there were four applicants for every one place.

Parents were attracted to the beautiful new building — and the brand.

"We knew if Hopkins came in, they would bring the best of the best," Nia Redmond, a neighborhood activist, told The Baltimore Sun in 2011, when the school was being planned.

Officials described the school as a place that would give students a world-class education, and at the same time serve as a laboratory for the next generation of urban educators. Morgan State University would bring expertise on how to teach kids, particularly in science, math and engineering. Students from both universities would intern at the school and mentor children.

As a "contract school," Henderson-Hopkins operates with relative freedom within the city school system. Families are allowed to apply for a spot each spring, and originally, those living in the immediate neighborhood got priority, followed by employees at Hopkins and nearby workplaces.

Suspicion and revolt

But for months prior to the opening, as neighbors watched the project being built, the community grew upset.

Patricia Welch, the dean of the School of Education and Urban Studies at Morgan, helped lead the effort to build the school and now heads the board that oversees it.

She says there was a perception among residents that Hopkins was creating a top-notch school for the children of professionals. The neighbors felt they would be left out.

"Then it was like, 'Oh, no. You will not,'" Welch said. "The community spoke up and said, 'That is not going to happen. Stop.'"

The news that families living in the area wouldn't automatically be allowed to enroll their children in the school — instead, they'd go through a lottery — made residents even more skeptical.

"A lottery? What the heck are you talking about?" asked longtime community activist Shrene Burnett, 81. "There wasn't supposed to be a pick and choose. If you qualify, you qualify."

The low-income families who live around Johns Hopkins Hospital in East Baltimore have long had an uneasy relationship with the powerful, world-famous institution.

There's the case of Henrietta Lacks. The Turner's Station woman's cells, removed during a cancer operation at Hopkins in 1951, were used without her knowledge to create a cell line that's still used for research.

African-American neighbors used to warn their children not to walk near the hospital at night, for fear they'd be kidnapped and taken inside for experiments.

For years Hopkins has run programs to engage the community on violence, sickle cell anemia, diabetes and other challenges. But some neighbors still say that they don't want to go to the hospital, afraid they would become part of research.

More recently, their concerns have focused on EBDI. Some residents always feared Hopkins was going to make a land grab for their neighborhood, and some feel that's what happened.

It didn't help that the recession hit, slowing progress on EBDI. Many of the homes from which families had been moved stood vacant for years, creating a nuisance and an eyesore.

As the new school building took shape, parents from all over the city put their children's names in the school's lottery.

Meanwhile, the economic downturn had slowed construction of middle-income housing, and developers wanted to know: If they built houses, would they be able to tell prospective buyers they had a spot guaranteed in the new school?

It was an awkward and untenable position: to hold seats open in a new school for middle-class families who weren't yet there, while poor families from the city were clamoring for a spot.

"Politically, we didn't have the appetite to do that," said David Andrews, then the dean of Johns Hopkins' School of Education.

State Sen. Nathaniel McFadden, who represents the neighborhood in the General Assembly, said leaders tried to convince residents that they wouldn't be pushed out, and that the area would be mixed-income, with middle-class blacks and whites living alongside low-income families.

"We had many focus groups. Honestly, we tried to do that," McFadden said. "But because of things that had happened years ago, they believed that was another trick by Hopkins."

The situation was made worse by the number of dilapidated city schools that were failing to provide an adequate education for children. Too many city parents were too desperate for a good school to give every child a place.

Their anxiety was in front of Andrews every day. He and his wife had renovated and moved into a house just blocks from the where the school was rising. Mothers and fathers were knocking on his door.

"I heard you are the guy who is building the school," he recalled parents saying. He always talked with them, hoping they would understand they had the greatest chance of getting in.

It became clear, he said, that Hopkins couldn't protect the seats for middle-income kids.

So in a step that they knew would make their goal of integration much more difficult, Hopkins officials opened all the spots, not only to neighborhood families, but also to those who lived just outside of the neighborhood. And instead of having classes of 20 students, as first designed, they increased class sizes, then added more classes per grade to handle even more children.

"The demand was so great so fast from the surrounding neighborhood," Andrews said, "that it dominated the applicant pool."

By the fall of 2014, the student body at the school was 90 percent low-income and black. The Hopkins workforce was moved down from second to third priority, after neighborhood children and siblings of children in the school. In 2015, 110 children whose parents worked at Hopkins and adjacent institutions, such as Kennedy-Krieger Institute, applied. Only 15 got in.

More students, more problems

For three years before the new building opened, neighborhood children attended school in trailers near the old Henderson school. Though the school was in the middle of the massive EBDI demolition efforts, parent Crystal Jordan had savored the tight-knit feeling there.

But after the move to the new campus — just south of the Amtrak line, bordered by Chester Street, Ashland and Patterson Park avenues — everything changed. In the fall of 2014, the small group of about 280 kids who'd been going to school together in the trailers were joined by about 100 newcomers from all over the city.

Not only was the school not integrated, but the building's open spaces, meant to spark creativity, proved more distracting than helpful for teaching.

Most importantly, academic performance on the state tests was far below the state average, and the suspension rate was high.

In the three years between the 2012-2013 school year and the current school year, Henderson-Hopkins' enrollment more than doubled to 567 students, while the number of out-of-school suspensions — most of them for attacks and fighting — tripled.

Jordan said the new atmosphere was tough. Her oldest daughter, now in eighth grade, started to get bullied, and she worried about whether to take her out of the school.

Jordan worked with teachers and administrators to try to stop the bullying and enrolled her two younger children in the elementary grades.

She stayed, she said, because she knew that her voice as a parent would matter not just for her child but for other children. Yet she knows the academics are not up to par.

Other parents say they can't hold out any longer. Glenda Curtis, who enrolled her now-fourth-grade son as a kindergartner, was originally attracted by the pledge of a diverse school.

"That was one of the things that drew me in ... and talking about how the children of doctors from Johns Hopkins would be attending," Curtis said.

But now she is considering pulling her son out.

"It has taken too long for them to deliver on the promises," she said. "My child is suffering as they work out the kinks. I just don't think the education is there."

Only 8 percent of Henderson-Hopkins' elementary students are passing the state tests in reading and math, compared to 11 percent citywide, according to a Baltimore Sun analysis. The middle school is performing slightly better: 10 percent passing, just above the citywide average of 7 percent.

Segregated, still unequal

Those scores may not be surprising. Schools filled with students living in high concentrations of poverty are like boats going against a strong tide. Student achievement has always been closely linked with a family's income.

While there are examples of schools where low-income students have great success, researchers say, they are the exceptions. No school system has been able to translate that success across a district.

In the past two decades, as states and the federal government tried to put more money and pressure on poorly performing schools to succeed, student achievement rose very little. The Obama administration, for instance, spent $7 billion on a variety of strategies to turn around the worst-performing schools in the nation. Just a few months ago, the administration declared those efforts largely a failure.

Some education reformers say school systems should now focus efforts on socioeconomic integration, which is often intertwined with racial integration. Middle-class peers matter for students from low-income families, they say, because wealthier families are better able to advocate for their kids at all levels, from the teachers to the school board.

Sean Reardon, a Stanford University academic whose formal title is professor of poverty and inequality in education, has scrutinized test data from across the country and concluded America's schools are becoming more segregated by class.

"Poor schools have a harder time attracting the best teachers. They have parents who have less political and social capital," Reardon said. "They don't have the social networks ... the economic resources to advocate on behalf of their children."

Another significant point, Reardon says, is that students who are from low-income families and high-performing are less likely to get exposed to the same academic rigor.

Jordan, the parent at Henderson-Hopkins, believes conditions would be different if the school were in another part of town. She wishes Hopkins and Morgan, who seemed so excited about the project, would bring more resources.

"Resources are limited because of the area the school is in ... because of predominantly black students. If [the school] was lifted up and put in Roland Park," she said, "it would be run the way it needs to be. You would have the resources and the teachers."

Hopkins and Morgan officials say the socioeconomic mix of their students isn't an excuse for the poor academic performance. Hopkins has been paying for an additional nine staff members, including a music teacher, to supplement the public funding.

Restart

Henderson-Hopkins leadership is now fully engaged in changing the school's culture. Last summer, Hopkins replaced three of the four key administrators. Ten first-year teachers were hired, replacing teachers who left the school.

The new principal, Deborah Ptak, has years of experience leading schools in the city and in Madison, Wis. She called this year a "restart," and believes it will take three to five years to turn the school around.

She has switched to a curriculum aligned to the Common Core standards — the one that is standard across Maryland — and has focused on providing support and professional training to her new teachers.

She is also grappling with the much-vaunted architectural design, which hasn't worked well. The school doesn't have the money to staff four small cafeteria spaces, so three have been closed. The interior walls are a polished, gray concrete, so some brightly colored paintings and signs have been put up.

Because teachers have found the school's open spaces difficult to teach in, Ptak purchased six-foot-high partitions. This summer, the school will replace those partitions with solid walls.

A brand-new library, funded by the Weinberg Foundation, is just now getting filled with books.

While parents say the elementary school is functioning better than the middle school, they point to problems with discipline and teacher competence. They say the staff needs to be more aware of the culture that most of the students come from.

Jordan said the rookie teachers don't have enough knowledge to discipline students and aren't invested enough in their students' success.

Ptak acknowledged her concern.

"I have a building full of teachers who have the will to bring quality education to the students of East Baltimore," Ptak said. "We are working to hone their skill."

Fewer than half the teachers who started in 2014 remain on the job today, according to Baltimore City school statistics.

Jordan's eighth-grade daughter has done well and is qualified to go to top city high schools next year. Jordan says that's only because she pushed her hard.

"It starts with the teachers who said to students that a 60 is OK, where me as a mom, 60 isn't passing in my house," Jordan said. "That bar needs to be raised."

Jordan volunteers with the parents' advisory council. She's working with the new administrators, and she believes the changes are starting to pay off.

Hope in the toddlers

If there is a bright spot for integration in the future, administrators and parents believe it lies in part in the Weinberg Early Childhood Center. The center, which serves children aged 6 weeks to 4 years, is much more diverse than Henderson-Hopkins.

Of the 170 children it can take, about 80 fill publicly funded Head Start seats for low-income children. The other spots are marketed to higher-income families who can pay the $19,000-a-year price tag. Nearly half the class of 1-year-olds is white.

Valerie Tisdale, whose 20-month-old son has taken one of the Head Start seats, is ecstatic about the quality of care. She said he is meeting all his developmental benchmarks and is being exposed to great teachers.

"It is like real school for a baby," Tisdale said. She said her son has become more social since starting at the preschool. His teachers noticed he needed speech therapy, which he now gets. She's also grateful for a family support worker and monthly classes that have helped her set priorities and begin working toward a GED.

The hope is that the middle-class parents of preschoolers in the early-education center will enroll their children at Henderson-Hopkins for kindergarten — helping the school to become more integrated.

The problem is that those families are not guaranteed a spot — they must enter the lottery like any other family. If they were given special consideration, it would help create a better student mix, but it would also reduce spots for families who live in the neighborhood.

Fifty new houses in a few hours

One thing is clear: the redevelopment is gaining momentum.

On a Saturday morning in September, 50 new houses within a few blocks of the school were auctioned off for prices ranging from $235,000 to $300,000. Many of the new owners are Hopkins employees. The university gave them financial incentives of $36,000 to buy the houses.

Other housing developments are being planned or built. A six-acre park is set to open this spring just a block south of the school. Developers, betting that the area is set to boom, are buying up properties just outside the EBDI boundaries to rehab.

Henderson-Hopkins officials say about two dozen new residents in the neighborhood entered the lottery this year. Six got spaces.

But Ptak and others are not under the illusion that middle-class parents will immediately sign up for the school. She and the team must build a successful program to draw those families in.

Longtime residents are still distrustful. Some believe that most of the students in the school are wealthy. They see cars pulling up to drop off students.

For them, integration is an abstract idea, not even on their radar or their conversations. Instead, they yearn to protect a scarce resource in the city: spots at what they hope will become a good neighborhood school. Despite its struggles, for many kids, Henderson-Hopkins may be their best shot. And their parents are afraid they'll eventually be displaced by children from the middle-income families.

The march of middle-class families into the area has been slowly increasing. On one dreary February day, Ptak gave a tour of the school to a young white couple moving to the area from California.

In her small, modern office, Ptak didn't shy away from addressing the obvious fact that their child would be in the minority.

"We want a diverse school, and that is not what you are going to see when you go on your tour," Ptak told them.

After the tour, the family said they were excited, and they were hoping for a place.

They entered the lottery as Hopkins employees. Just a few weeks ago, the couple won a spot for their little girl.

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

twitter.com/lizbowie

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