Making plans for excellence


On Day One, when they first gathered in the cafeteria at Perry Hall High School, the teachers - about 900 of them from schools across Baltimore County - practically drooled in anticipation.

"Can we all go around the table and share where we are going so we can know what cool stuff we'll get?" asked Libby Herreid, a math teacher and department chairwoman from Lansdowne Middle School, referring to education tips and ideas participants would share later in the week.

Between caffeine hits and bites of bagel, Herreid and a team of educators from Lansdowne launched a three-day planning session last week that has become a summer ritual for many teachers.

It's the time of year when principals and teachers start work on school improvement plans - documents first written a decade ago to help principals and teachers set long-term goals for student achievement.

The school system holds a series of workshops at the start of the summer to help principals and their staffs prepare the plans, which will be distributed to parents and business partners when schools reopen in the fall.

The Lansdowne group went around the table - quizzing each other about the seminars they would attend and what they expected to learn - and pieced together a schedule.

Joell Honnick, a math teacher and professional development coordinator, would attend a class called "Dealing with Change." Jen Sciorilli, an English teacher and department chairwoman, would learn the whys and hows of the school improvement plan.

The plan is a school's road map to success, said Ronald S. Thomas, assistant to the superintendent for educational accountability.

"There is an accountability component to it, obviously, but it goes beyond that," he said. "This way, we can be sure that students are equipped with the knowledge and skills they need to be successful."

At Lansdowne, a school where teacher turnover is high and about 55 percent of pupils qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, the focus of last year's plan was daily instruction and the use of practice tests called "simulations" to ensure that pupils understand questions on standardized examinations such as the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests.

During the coming school year, the focus will shift to minority achievement. Teachers and administrators have noticed a widening gap between the MSPAP scores of black and white pupils, a situation mirrored in schools across the county. "Another new addition is a focus on grammar," said Shelly Huggins, Lansdowne's achievement facilitator. "Our kids' grammar scores have been in decline for the past three years."

As a result, even math and science teachers will be held responsible for helping pupils improve their written grammar skills, she said.

To pinpoint such problems, Lansdowne mentors Sam Richman and Sue Domanico and social studies teacher and department head Amy Brown spent an afternoon last week poring over data from practice tests pupils completed last school year.

Crunching the data was a math-intensive experience for the group, one of about 100 that attended the three-day workshop at Perry Hall.

"It's so much fun," deadpanned Brown as she cranked out percentages of pupils who didn't complete answers on one section of a practice test - a problem that could cost the school funding should pupils repeat the error on the MSPAP tests.

Some speakers at the seminar explained how to break down data to pinpoint achievement failings.

"It can be mentally exhausting," said Katherine A. Corley, director of assessment of data research for the school system. "While you can feel energized and creative about crafting an improvement plan for your school, it's hard work to come up with the causes of things happening in your building."

The planning seminar provides county educators with opportunities to share ideas that work. Between group meetings and at lunch, teachers discussed solutions to discipline and homework problems.

As the Lansdowne teachers pieced together their improvement plan, they struggled to make sure it would be acceptable to all staff members. The teachers will present a draft to colleagues this summer. A final version will be adopted before school starts in September.

"We don't want to offend anyone or make them feel like they aren't doing their job, because that's not the case," said Erin Dorman, a science teacher and department chairman. "We don't want someone to say, 'Oh, I had a bad year; is that directed at me?'"

During the school year, teachers will be evaluated on how well their lessons reflect the plan's objectives, she said.

At a time when education is often driven by results, Baltimore County teachers, like others across the nation, need to be acutely aware of their schools' improvement plans, officials say. If they aren't, they might find themselves, and their pupils, falling behind.

"This is not a once-a-year process," said Corley. "Your teachers should be living and breathing this plan. I get real scared when I go into a school and a teacher says, 'What plan?'"

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