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Six city elementaries added to list of state's low-performing schools; All showed progress on prior MSPAP tests


Six Baltimore schools -- and three in Prince George's County -- were added to the state's list of failing schools yesterday, despite overall gains by both systems on statewide tests last year.

The city has 83 of its elementary and middle schools on the low-performing list; this year's additions -- all elementaries -- are far fewer than the 29 in the city and nine in Prince George's designated last year. All of this year's schools showed significant drops in performance on the 1998 Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests, after making progress the year before.

"These schools are very distant from the standards," said state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. "They must be given very special attention."

The six schools are: Alexander Hamilton, Federal Hill, Furley, Frankford Intermediate, Highlandtown No. 215 and North Bend. In Prince George's County, Bladensburg, Doswell E. Brooks and Thomas S. Stone elementaries were added.

"Having six additional schools identified is disappointing, but it's not discouraging," said Baltimore schools chief Robert Booker. "I have a personal commitment to seeing that we turn this school system around."

As part of MSPAP, the state must identify failing schools, based on annual test scores and other performance measures. The schools must then begin a process of improvement.

This is the sixth year that the State Department of Education has identified failing schools. Anne Arundel and Somerset counties each have one school and Prince George's has 12, bringing the statewide total to 97.

By contrast, only 80 schools in the state performed satisfactorily this year on all tests given to third-, fifth- and eighth-graders.

The city schools' dismal showing dwarfs that of others.

"The spirit of these regulations spoke to a few schools in a system not progressing. There was never a vision that this regulation would encompass in one system 77 schools," said Grasmick, referring to last year's numbers in the city. "You have a reconstitution-eligible system."

"Reconstitution-eligible" is the term the state uses for schools with low performance that are ripe for state takeover if they do not improve.

Grasmick was upbeat about the future of city schools, expressing confidence in Booker and the school system's master plan, put into effect July 1. "I am feeling more optimistic than I have in many years," she said.

Grasmick advised the board not to take stricter measures against Patterson and Douglass high schools -- the first two failing schools named in 1994 -- until they have had an opportunity to operate under Booker and the new plan. Because those schools have been designated as poor-performing for five years -- and have shown inadequate progress -- they could have been subject to takeover.

"I choose not to make that recommendation this year, but we cannot continue indefinitely," Grasmick said.

Booker said his first step will be to go "eyeball to eyeball" with principals and supervisors to find out why scores declined.

At Federal Hill Elementary, the composite index -- an average of all test scores -- dropped from 18 percent of the students performing satisfactorily in 1997 to 10 percent this year.

Ironically, Federal Hill was recognized in November for the great strides it had made in 1997 in improving test scores.

Principal Charlotte M. Williams attributed the decline in part to the introduction of Direct Instruction, which emphasizes teaching the basics of reading and writing in a highly structured way. She said other schools have seen a temporary dip in test scores when they introduced Direct Instruction, but she believes long-term scores will rise.

Charlene Cooper Boston, executive officer for the area that includes Furlong and Frankford, attributes their dips to staff changes.

"They had acquired some new teachers who didn't have the experience in MSPAP," she said. "It stresses higher-level thinking skills and writing for different purposes."

Finding qualified teachers is a critical problem for the city, Booker said. From July to December, city schools hired 1,000 new teachers, and "60 percent are not fully certified," meaning they have not completed their educations or have not taken or passed certification exams. "These are the kind of dilemmas we're facing," he said.

A child-advocacy group, which issued a report critical of the reform process for failing schools, says "staffing is the most critical issue in these schools."

Advocates for Children and Youth is proposing legislation that would provide technical assistance teams to work alongside school staffs to improve instruction, set limits on the number of noncertified teachers in a school, and give the state superintendent authority to approve the principal and assistant principals in such schools, said Matthew Joseph, the group's public policy director.

Sun staff writer Liz Bowie contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 1/27/99

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