Alexis Juergens walked out of her interview at Magnolia Middle School this summer and told her mom that if she was offered a job there, she would take it — no questions asked.
“I didn’t have to think about it, this is the school,” Juergens, a first-year teacher who will be teaching sixth-grade English and language arts, said Thursday. “It felt like a community and I really like that.”
First-year Harford County Public Schools teachers like Juergens started the 2019-2020 school year on Tuesday, while returning teachers and staff were back in school Thursday. Today, they will kick off the year at one of two welcome back sessions hosted by Superintendent Sean Bulson at the APGFCU Arena at Harford Community College.
New principal Laurie Namey gathered everyone together to welcome them back with breakfast and inspiration and to share the school’s focus — love and literacy — and its new theme this year: Magnolia Middle School — where the heart is.
“I want students to feel a sense of love and belonging, safety when they walk in through our doors. I want staff to feel the same way,” Namey, the school system’s former supervisor of equity and diversity, said, “and I want to inject love into the craft of teaching for them.”
Teachers are returning with larger classes than last year and fewer teachers, following a significant elimination of positions to meet a $35 million budget shortfall. The net loss in unrestricted operating budget positions for FY20 was 109.3 positions — 22 were central office and 87.3 were school based, Jillian Lader, manager of communications for Harford County Public Schools, said.
Of the positions that were eliminated, three central office employees could not be placed in another position and one non-certificated teacher could not be placed. The remaining 105.3 found places elsewhere in the school system.
The school system also hired 158 new teachers for the upcoming school year, Lader said.
Magnolia Middle School lost four teachers as part of the positions cuts, but gained a school safety liaison and a school social worker. Magnolia has 16 new staff members in total, including teachers, and Namey said she sees it as a school poised for transformation.
“We get to rewrite the story of Magnolia Middle School, that book opens right now,” she said. “No one is going to tell our story. We must tell it and we get to be the ones holding the pen and the ones that are making sure the narrative honors the kids and the families and the hard-working people they are.”
Magnolia Middle students struggled on state exams in both math and English language arts, with 21% and 23.2% of students proficient in those subjects, respectively, according to Maryland school report card data for 2017-18 year, the latest available.
The state’s new star ratings system gave Magnolia Middle three stars, “determined by a combination of academic and school quality indicators,” according to 2018 Maryland School Report Card.
Three stars indicates the school has a score of 45% to 59%; Magnolia’s score was 45% — second-lowest of Harford’s nine middle schools and just one percentage point higher than Aberdeen Middle. Harford middle schools overall earned a score of just over 57%.
A momentum change
In her classroom, Room 205, Juergens was trying to get herself set up. She has lots of ideas and is eager to put them into practice.
During a meeting this week when the sixth-grade curriculum was being reviewed, she thought of ways she could teach it.
“Then I thought, ‘I can’t believe I’m getting excited about this stuff,'” Juergens said.
She has rearranged desks into groups of four — better for discussion purposes in small groups, she said. And she’s creating a reading corner with bean bag chairs and a palm tree with books. It will be a place for students who finish their work early or as a reward — a place to relax.
Juergens, who graduated in May from Frostburg State University, wants to take a reading interest inventory of her students, what they like to ready, what they want to read.
“Most will tell you they don’t read at all,” she said. “I never liked to read until I was older, in middle school, until the teacher showed me something I liked to read. When they show me and put it in your hand, that makes all the difference.”
She wants to find out how to connect with her students, to make learning exciting and fun, because that’s what will make it memorable, she said.
Juergens did her student teaching with a fifth-grade class in the spring, so she feels comfortable rolling into sixth grade this year.
“I have an idea of what I’m coming into,” she said. “I’m new, they’re new, it’s a learning process for all of us.”
Science teacher Tom Smith is back at Magnolia Middle for his third year, in a new classroom this year. He teaches seventh- and eighth-grade science. He taught in Baltimore City for two years through the Teach for America program, which places highly qualified people who want to get into teaching into high-need districts.
The Manchester, England, native met his wife, Kristie Smith, a science teacher at Edgewood Middle who is from Harford County, at a summer camp in California.
When he walked into school for the first time Thursday, Smith said it was like walking into a new school.
“Although I’ve been here before, I know how it works, but in the school there’s a new school energy, a kind of fresh start attitude,” he said.
It’s a momentum change from last year.
“A lot of good things were happening last year, but at times it felt still a little bit of a struggle,” Smith said. “This year, what’s gone is gone. We have excellence in this building, let’s highlight that, let’s build on that and really get the ball rolling.”
The staff has gotten snippets from Namey of what’s coming this school year, and is excited to see how it will all come together, he said. It’s more than the usual back-to-school excitement.
“We’ve been told of the positive things happening, it’s built an excitement and bigger anticipation,” Smith said. “Every teacher is excited for the new year and new start; this year it’s been harnessed by fresh things happening, the excitement of the unknown.”
Diversity at Magnolia Middle
Magnolia Middle has a student body that is 62% non-white and 28% white, and the largest percentage of students living in poverty of any of the county’s middle schools, Namey said.
“The beauty of diversity is here and present in more of a way than anywhere else,” she said.
The school community honors diversity and honors each other, Namey said, and has a sense of pride.
“I’m not sure any area of the county is more prideful than Joppatowne,” she said.
“Once we elevate the staff, they will elevate our kids, and quite frankly, our students deserve every opportunity and every chance to be amazing,” Namey said.
She said she’s already broken two cardinal rules of a new principal — don’t move classrooms and don’t adjust the schedule.
Rather than co-mingle the grades, Namey has separated each grade into different areas of the building. She has also changed the master schedule to maximize each student’s ability to learn, she said.
“It’s a thing people take for granted, the importance of its impact,” Namey said. “It should reflect, it should mimic what the vision is of your school.”
She has hand-scheduled all 841 students at Magnolia Middle, making sure each is attending classes that meet their strengths and their needs, “because each student is unique.”
“It takes a tremendous amount of time, but it’s worth it,” she said. “Because we’re able to push students into their potential. I don’t want students to walk out those big purple doors and not feel confident in something they’re able to do."
Smith loved every minute of his time teaching in Baltimore City and said it set him up well to serve the students he teaches at Magnolia Middle.
“In understanding the unique needs, the unique approaches you have to take with our students,” Smith said. “You would do that in any community, but I liken the community we serve here to the community in Baltimore City. Kids bringing different issues into the school building than other schools in the county.”
Those students aren’t any less needy, they’re just different and it changes how a teacher teaches them and how do deal with their emotions.
He could get a smile and a fist bump from one student every day, then one day he gets neither.
“Straightaway I know something is different today. That’s where the nurturing aspect comes in,” Smith said.
He may not call on that student that particular day or press him to participate.