Before school lets out for the summer, Roger Proudfoot will have made good on a promise to sleep on the roof of his school.
As the principal of Mars Estates Elementary in Essex, Proudfoot vowed to brave the height and the elements if the PTA more than doubled its membership this school year, to 350 from fewer than 150. It did.
The membership challenge is one of many ways that Mars Estates is confronting the social factors that contribute to student achievement. Involved parents are better able to help their children succeed academically.
As a whole, the Baltimore County school district -- which has 108,000 students and is the nation's 23rd-largest -- posts test scores on a par with or higher than state averages. But within the county, great disparities in student performance exist. Scores are highest in the central, most affluent part of the county, but decline on the east and west sides.
The fortune of east-side neighborhoods, including those served by Mars Estates, declined steadily in recent decades as Bethlehem Steel and other industries downsized and closed and tens of thousands of blue-collar jobs were lost. Problems such as student mobility and aging facilities have beset the area's schools.
Located in one of the county's most challenging communities, facing poverty and crime, Mars Estates is one of the area's success stories.
Its student body is 49 percent black, 30 percent white, 4 percent Hispanic and 17 percent multiracial. Nearly three in four pupils receive free or reduced-price lunch. A new student-made mural of the community, on display in the school's library, shows black and white children and their single-family homes and apartments in the beleaguered Kingsley Park complex.
Like schools across the county and the nation, Mars Estates is working to raise the test scores of its minority pupils and pupils from poor families. Still, its test scores stack up well when compared with state averages. For example, 55 percent of black pupils passed the state's third-grade reading test last year, compared with 41 percent of black pupils statewide.
Many schools with high minority and low-income student populations -- including several in Baltimore County -- suffer from high teacher turnover and low parental involvement. Mars Estates has made strides in addressing these issues central to student achievement.
Teachers 'hang in'
"Finding teachers who have a commitment to the community is the most important factor," said Proudfoot, who has been principal for eight years. "I didn't want folks coming in for two to three years, being trained and leaving. ... The teachers have hung in there and stayed together."
The teaching force at Mars Estates is now so stable that Proudfoot recently was unable to offer a job to a student teacher he wanted to keep on staff because there are no openings for next school year.
Fourth-grade teacher Barbara Tyler, who has been at the school for 22 years, says faculty members haven't always worked as well together as they do now.
Parent Yvonne Bellamy appreciates that teachers stand outside to greet families in the mornings, and hold scavenger hunts to learn their way around their students' neighborhoods and understand what living in the community is like. The school is also planning a year-end teacher-parent dinner for June 15.
At Mars Estates, the focus extends beyond test scores. The school runs a wellness center in the building next door with a nurse and part-time nurse-practitioner. Proudfoot looks for outside money for extra programs, such as fourth-grade instrumental music.
The school will experiment this summer with a new summer school program stressing acceleration over remediation. It is working to make sure poor and minority children are adequately represented in its gifted and talented program.
Teachers say the school is an exciting place to work because they are constantly experimenting with new ideas.
"We're doing a good job," said Stephen Bender, the school's gifted-resource teacher, "but we know we're not finished."