Moving to turn around some of Baltimore's worst-performing schools, the state school board approved a plan yesterday to replace teachers and other staff at three schools with persistently low test scores.
In a related action, city school officials said they are planning to replace part of the staff at several other schools.
At Cherry Hill Elementary/Middle School, everyone from the principal down to the secretaries was required this spring to reapply for their jobs, said city schools Chief Academic Officer Linda Chinnia. Chinnia said much of the staff at Northeast and West Baltimore middle schools also had to reapply, but she could not provide specifics - except to say that West Baltimore will get a new principal and Northeast will not.
The three schools are among 24 in the state - 22 of them in Baltimore and two in Prince George's County - that have repeatedly failed to make adequate progress on the annual standardized tests mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind Act and are required by the state to restructure for the coming school year.
Mayor Martin O'Malley, who three weeks ago called the Baltimore school system "one of the biggest turnaround stories of any urban school system in the United States of America," issued a statement yesterday that said: "Some of our schools are making progress faster than others. We are glad the state accepted the city's plan for restructuring these schools, and we hope this will move these schools in the right direction."
The state approved restructuring plans for all 24 schools, despite concerns of Baltimore City Council President Sheila Dixon and others that parents were not involved in the implementation of the city's plans, as required by law, and that similar plans at other failing schools have been ineffective.
"I think it's a good point of beginning," state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said. "Time will tell if it's sufficient."
In most cases, the restructuring plans involve appointing an administrator to work with the principal and staff on reform. Dixon and Barbara R. Davidson, president of StandardsWork, a Washington education nonprofit, sent a letter to Grasmick expressing "our grave concern about the quality of those plans and the extent to which they represent any real chance for turning the schools around."
Requiring a school's staff to reapply is one of the most drastic reforms available to school districts. It was a tactic used in 2001 by former city schools chief Carmen V. Russo in 10 low-performing schools that she said she hoped to turn into an "educational paradise." One of the 10 was West Baltimore Middle, now undergoing the process again.
Around the country, the practice has taken on different names - "keystoning" in Philadelphia, "reconstitution" in California and, now in Baltimore, "zero-basing." Whatever the title, state officials said, it is reserved for dire situations:
Northeast Middle, which underwent an overhaul in 1998, has had four principals in five years, according to its restructuring plan. More than a third of teachers are conditionally certified. This spring, more than four in five seventh-graders failed the state math test.
At West Baltimore Middle, where a seventh-grader was stabbed last year, nearly half of teachers have conditional or provisional certification, the restructuring plan says. More than 80 percent of seventh- and eighth-graders failed their math tests this spring.
At Cherry Hill Elementary/Middle, 84 percent of teachers do not meet the definition of "highly qualified" as required under No Child Left Behind. Eighty-nine percent of eighth-graders failed their math test this year; 100 percent failed last year. More than 90 percent of seventh-graders failed in math.
Still, Cherry Hill Principal Sharlette Jones-Carnegie said her school was making progress.
"I'm just baffled by the decision," said Jones-Carnegie, who has led the school for four years. "I had a vision and the vision was to help Cherry Hill be a school any parent would be proud for their child to attend. Because of this decision, I haven't been able to fulfill that vision."
Baltimore City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. said making staffers at troubled schools reapply for their jobs might be unpopular, but it is necessary.
"Efforts like this are just what the doctor ordered to help cure the deficiencies in our ability to properly educate our children," said Harris, who chairs the City Council education committee. "Everyone has to be held accountable, from the principal to the janitor. The welfare of our children is at stake."
Though schools were not required to implement their restructuring plans unless they failed to make "adequate yearly progress" on the round of standardized tests given this spring, city school officials began planning for the overhauls at West Baltimore, Northeast and Cherry Hill this winter, Chinnia said. Staff was notified in April because the district could not wait any later to make staffing decisions for next school year.
"We weren't going to wait until June when the AYP data came out," Chinnia said. "We were certain that, no matter what, that was the best option, for these schools to restructure."
Chinnia said the school system is doing partial staff replacement and appointing new principals at "several" schools independent from the state-approved plans, but she did not know how many.
Teachers union president Marietta English said the union has been involved in interviewing teachers reapplying for their jobs and ensuring that those who are not hired back at their old schools or who wish to change schools are transferred to schools of their choice.
Teachers "in good standing" are guaranteed a job somewhere, Chinnia said: "We're not firing people."
At yesterday's state school board meeting, the controversy was not over whether zero-basing is needed, but whether the reforms planned for the other failing schools are enough.
The state board's vice president, Dunbar Brooks, voted against the restructuring plans for the city schools because they haven't proved to be effective. Most of the schools will hire administrators, or "turnaround specialists," to help raise test scores, as did 27 city schools last school year. Brooks said those 27 schools have shown "absolutely no evidence of success."
"In some schools ... instead of going up, they went down," he said.
Chinnia said the turnaround specialists have been in schools for as little as six months, too short a period to judge their effectiveness. And she said some of the schools did post impressive gains.
Chief Executive Officer Bonnie S. Copeland said her staff has given "blood, sweat and tears ... to put together the right intervention."
Grasmick challenged the district's efforts to engage parents in developing the reform plans, saying Dixon and Davidson - who were hosts of a forum this month to explain restructuring - were "able to capture the attention of parents in a way that many of the schools in the system have not been able to do."
She quoted Dixon and Davidson's letter, which read in part: "In one school alone we talked to over 150 parents and not a single one, including the head of the PTA, knew anything about school restructuring."
Copeland and Chinnia vigorously defended their efforts to reach out to parents.
"The thing that is not in our control is the desire, the motivation of the parents to get involved," Copeland said.
But at least one step mentioned by city officials - involvement of the Baltimore Council of PTAs - was disputed.
"There very well could have been some parents involved," said Michael Hamilton, president of the council. "As a body, we were not involved. ... You would think that we would be aware to help prepare our students for these dramatic changes."
Sun staff writers Doug Donovan, Liz F. Kay and Jill Rosen contributed to this article.
The state school board approved restructuring plans yesterday for 24 schools in Baltimore and Prince George's County. A plan was also approved for Anne Arundel County's Van Bokkelen Elementary School, but the plan will not be needed because state school officials later promoted Van Bokkelen off their list of struggling schools.
Alexander Hamilton Elementary
Booker T. Washington Middle
Cherry Hill Elementary/Middle
Dr. Carter G. Woodson Elementary/Middle
Fort Worthington Elementary
Harriet Tubman Elementary
High School No. 425 (Fairmount-Harford)
High School No. 426 (at Lake Clifton)
Robert Coleman Elementary
Rognel Heights Elementary/Middle
Thurgood Marshall High
Walter P. Carter Elementary
West Baltimore Middle
Source: Maryland State Department of Education