The first public vetting of the recommendations to renew and close schools next school year will take place Thursday night, when the school board will hear from schools run by external operators.
On Tuesday, Interim schools CEO Tisha Edwards recommended to close a total of seven schools, including four contracted schools the district found were not living up to their promise.
The recommendations spurred debate among Edwards and city school board members amid questions about whether or not the district's proposals were fair and consistent. The recommendations also pointed to some themes that are worth keeping an eye on as the school board begins its series of discussions about the proposed changes.
1. The Fate of the Blufords
Once again, the all-male, Bluford Drew Jemison schools are on the chopping block and some school board members take issue with that.
In February, former schools CEO Andres Alonso revoked the charter of Bluford Drew Jemison STEM Academy-East, and ultimately it was converted to a district-run school. This year, not only is the East campus proposed for closure again, but so is the school's other campus on the west side.
Some board members believe that the school system should wait to see how the district-run Bluford fares this year before closing out the popular programs altogether.
While two other all-male programs are slated to open in the next few years, board members pointed out that Bluford students could have four different school operators in four years if they are dispersed next year.
The Bluford schools are popular with parents because of their single-sex theme and structured environment. The boys who attend the school, which has performed poorly on state tests for years, are distinguishable in the city by their blue blazers and ties, and respectful demeanor.
In response to board members' questions about the recommendation to close the schools, Edwards said: "Just having them in a school with a suit and a tie is not good enough."
2. Talent Development Deadlock Part II?
Baltimore Talent Development High School, run by Johns Hopkins University's Center for Social Organization of Schools, is also a school that may reopen wounds.
Talent Development was another that Alonso sought to close last year, but the recommendation met resistance from the school board.
After two board meetings where the board deadlocked in its vote, the district extended the school's contract for another year to monitor the school's progress.
The district is recommending again to not renew Hopkins' contract at the end of the school year, citing a lack of college and career readiness in its program.
Like Bluford, board members questioned why this recommendation is coming forward when the school year has just begun.
3. What does college and career readiness mean anyway?
That's what one commissioner, David Stone, would like to know.
It's a new criteria added to the district's rubric for scoring schools run by outside operators -- and it's been the savior for some schools, and the nail in the coffin for others.
According to district officials, they began using measures like enrollment in Advanced Placement courses, and pass rates on the AP exams to determine a school's commitment to college and career readiness. The number of students who took SATs is also part of the new measure. The state's High School Assessment scores are a standard part of the rubric for high schools.
Alison Perkins-Cohen, who heads the district's renewal process, said the criteria was added because, "we need to know whether or not they're just graduating students, or graduating students that are prepared." (i.e. Talent Development has a very high graduation rate, but low HSA rates. Howvever, some schools that were recommended for renewal had significantly low AP pass rates).
Stone raised the issue that the new college and career readiness measure hasn't been used before, and it could have factored into decisions in the past.
He also raised the issue of whether or not things like AP enrollment were objective enough. What if, for instance, a principal decided that enrolling a bunch of students in AP courses wasn't something that was best for their students? (Read my colleague Liz Bowie's story about how students are being pushed into the courses, but ultimately can't pass the tests.)
Stone said he believed that the district needed to be careful in creating new measures in such critical decisions.
"This is a very disruptive process," he said. "Basically, you're telling a student that the learning that they did was at a school that wasn't worth going to. So, we have to be careful about these pieces of data. I know it's not arbitrary, but it sounds a little arbitrary to me."
4. Shrinking alternative option programs
The district is proposing to close three programs created about four years ago to give over-age, under-credited students alternative paths to a high-school diploma.
Baltimore Antioch Diploma Plus, Baltimore Liberation Diploma Plus High School, and Baltimore Community High School are all recommended to close.
The Diploma Plus schools opened under Alonso to put hundreds of students on the fast-track to graduation (see this story by Liz Bowie in 2009).
When he contracted to bring the schools here, Alonso said: "We have brought models that have worked in other districts. We expect them to help us succeed with our students where previous efforts have failed. They need flexibility and intense individualization that these schools should provide."
5. Scores and Rubrics
School board members are questioning how the district's charter advisory board -- which reviews the performance of operator-run schools and scores them on an extensive rubric -- comes to some of their decisions about who should stay open and who shouldn't.
The short version of the rubric is that schools can earn a "Developing" "Effective" or "Not Effective" rating in three categories: academic performance, climate, and financial management and governance.
What's throwing the board for a loop is how these scores add up to a closure.
There are schools that earned "developing" in all three categories (NACA Freedom and Democracy Academy II and New Era Academy) and recommended for three-year contracts.
But, for example, Baltimore Liberation Diploma Plus High School, which earned an "effective" in two of the three categories, was recommended to close.
Then, there's Friendship Academy of Science and Technology and Friendship Academy of Engineering and Technology, both of which were recommended for three-year contracts. They both were assigned a "developing" in academic performance.
Yet, the Friendship schools -- both of which serve grades 6-12 and have a curriculum rooted in mathematics -- were described as "not effective" in their academic growth on the Maryland School Assessments. For instance, at FAST, school officials said that 36 percent maintained or improved their math scores, and 34 percent did at FAET.
"For STEM schools to be so low-performing on math, that's really a red flag for me," said Commissioner Cheryl Casciani.
FAST was also deemed not effective in its graduation rate, which was 67 percent, while FAET was deemed effective at 78.4 percent.
Meanwhile Bluford, also a STEM school rooted in math and sciences, performed on par with FAST and better than FAET in its math growth; and Talent Development boasted a 76 percent graduation rate. Both were recommended to close.