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Experiment seeks to transform troubled Baltimore schools as federal grants end

Mary E. Rodman Elementary School in Southwest Baltimore had troubles long before the incident this spring. Misbehavior, meager test scores and absenteeism were persistent before the day some fourth-graders cut their arms in a gang initiation.

Such troubles led school district administrators to take drastic action after the school year ended in June. They made all the teachers reapply for their jobs — then transferred almost everyone out. They also enrolled Mary E. Rodman in an experiment to transform Baltimore's worst-performing schools.

City schools chief Sonja Santelises and her staff decided to pair Rodman and two other troubled schools with Commodore John Rodgers Elementary/Middle in East Baltimore, regarded as one of the system's best. The teachers will share lessons, visit each others' classrooms and collaborate with their counterparts across the city.

"This has such powerful potential," Santelises said. The three schools getting the help from Commodore John Rodgers are among five in the city targeted for overhaul this year through an expiring federal grant program.

Educators across the country have struggled to revamp failing schools, spending billions of dollars for lackluster results. Success stories remain elusive under the federal School Improvement Grants program. Dating to the 1960s, the SIG program was redesigned under President Barack Obama and bolstered with $3.5 billion. Then Education Secretary Arne Duncan said: "The path to success has never been clearer."

But the Obama administration's signature education program never met expectations. More than 1,000 schools across the country received SIG grants and researchers found mediocre results. A report released in January by the U.S. Department of Education concluded that $7 billion in spending was mostly ineffective.

"Overall, across all grades, we found ... no significant impacts on math or reading test scores, high school graduation, or college enrollment," researchers said in the 419-page report.

The next month new Education Secretary Betsy DeVos panned the grants during a conference of conservative political groups at National Harbor.

"The previous administration spent $7 billion of your dollars on School Improvement Grants, thinking they could demonstrate that money alone would solve the problem. Yet their own report, issued as they walked out the door, showed that it had zero impact on student outcomes and performance," DeVos said. "It failed miserably."

Maryland doled out more than $26 million in federal SIG funding to 22 schools over the past four years, state education officials said. Mary E. Rodman and four other city schools, along with a Prince George's County middle school, will receive nearly $6.6 million as the final grantees. Congress passed education reform in December 2015, ending the grants for additional schools after this year.

The five Baltimore schools have languished in the bottom 5 percent of all Maryland schools. Troubles were so entrenched at Mary E. Rodman that officials transferred all but two members of the teachers union, which represents mostly teachers but also secretaries and guidance counselors. On June 13, an emotional last day of school, most of the school's teachers walked out for good.

The new staff at Mary E. Rodman will learn from mentors at Commodore John Rodgers. Once ranked 872nd out of 875 Maryland schools, it suffered years of declining enrollment before it reversed course, beginning in 2010, thanks in part to SIG money.

The new principal, Marc Martin, enrolled his own two children as a gesture of commitment. Soon his teachers followed suit. They tore down a tall counter in the front office that stood like a barrier to visiting parents. They welcomed families, telling everyone their new slogan, writing it on classroom walls, pencils, even student uniforms: "Commodore to College." Every student would have a path to college, they pledged. In seven years, test scores rebounded; enrollment quadrupled.

"We actually look at this now as one of the best schools in the district," said Sean Conley, chief academic officer for city schools. "It's the only school that I know of in the State of Maryland that was able to use those SIG dollars and truly turn their school around."

Administrators plan to match Commodore John Rodgers teachers with the staff at Mary E. Rodman and two other SIG schools, Harford Heights Elementary and James McHenry Elementary/Middle. Officials hope for improved math and reading scores, increased enrollment and safer schools in five years.

"This sounds like it could work, as long as there are no systemic issues that are causing these schools to be low-performing in the first place," said Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative nonprofit dedicated to education reform.

Efforts to turn around Mary E. Rodman began last month when students' parents shared a Chick-fil-A dinner with their new principal. A stack of fliers with data about the Allendale neighborhood revealed the challenges these parents and teachers face.

The neighborhood unemployment rate exceeds the city average by nearly 7 percent. Half of the working families earn less than $35,500 a year. More than 85 percent of students qualify for free and reduced meals. More than three-fourths of the children live in single-parent homes. More than a quarter of the 262 students routinely miss school four weeks a year.

The life expectancy in Allendale is five years less than the city average of 73. It's hard to find a bank or buy fresh vegetables.

At least three murders, one arson and 17 assaults happened within a half mile of the school since January. Death rates from homicide are double the city average.

Mary E. Rodman stands in gang territory, and the children mimic the sights around them. At least six children decided to form a gang in March. They broke apart a pencil sharpener and used the small blade to cut their arms for the initiation.

"If they did not do it, they would be beaten up in the bathroom," a school police officer reported.

Kiara Norris' daughter came home with the cuts.

"There was blood on her shirt," said Norris, who blamed the teacher and principal for her daughter's injuries. "I don't think they had to let the whole school go for two bad apples."

Some parents said their children adored the staff. Now those teachers are looking for jobs at other city schools.

"I hope there's not a stigma attached," said Naela El-Hinnawy, who taught for one year at Mary E. Rodman. She held mock elections in her kindergarten class; they role-played a presidential impeachment and a Supreme Court ruling.

Monica Thomas' daughter, Dylan Thomas, wants to be a musician, but the school has no instruments. Thomas planned to transfer her daughter out and submitted applications to two charter schools across the city.

"With the changes coming, I'm going to stick around," she said.

The principal who wants to bring those changes is no stranger to urban obstacles.

"Regardless of the neighborhood, regardless of the challenge, we all want more for our babies," David Guzman told the parents in his thick New York accent in the school library.

The 41-year-old said robbers once mistook him for a drug dealer when he was growing up near Harlem. He said he knows how it feels to look down a gun barrel, to have a childhood friend locked up, to have parents who used cocaine.

Guzman worked the past four years as principal of Matthew A. Henson Elementary in West Baltimore's Easterwood neighborhood. About 16 percent of the students were reading at grade level or beyond when he arrived. He found children playing the card game UNO in math class and watching movies in language arts. He ended both practices; today reading scores have improved.

"This is not really about me. This is about you and your children," he told the parents.

Guzman told them he would knock on doors this summer to meet families. He would throw an ice cream party. Come out, he urged them.

Later a custodian unlocked the door to the principal's new office. Beyond the windows the alley was strewn with trash. Guzman glanced around; here begins the experiment.

Guzman said he wants to paint the halls and lockers.

"I'm thinking of some bright colors," he said. "Something to make it pop."

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