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After a year of work, pondering what went wrong


Sharlette Jones-Carnegie, principal of Cherry Hill Elementary/Middle, learned yesterday that she's got only a week left in her tidy office just across the hall from a bulletin board that spells out in red and yellow construction paper, "We Strive to Excel Every Day."

Jones-Carnegie has been demoted because of her school's declining test scores.

"I really tried to do my best here," she said yesterday at the South Baltimore school, wearing a billowy dress and pulled-back hair to suffer the lack of air conditioning. "I worked 16- and 17-hour days, seven days a week. I've spent the night here. It didn't pay off. ...

"I'm just having difficulty accepting that."

Cherry Hill is one of three Baltimore schools with habitually low test scores that state and city educators have taken a drastic step to improve. Officials have forced the entire staffs of those schools to reapply for their jobs.

This year, officials informed Cherry Hill that the school could go "zero-based," meaning that teachers, even longtime ones, essentially turned into candidates for their jobs.

Morale plummeted.

"It was devastating," Jones-Carnegie said. "We felt like we weren't good enough."

She and the staff knew the most recent scores weren't great but were happy that they showed improvement in a few areas.

So, it was particularly shocking when the board put the school on notice.

"We didn't feel as though we fit into that category," Jones-Carnegie said. "We felt as though it didn't apply to us."

Walking through the school's hallways, empty for summer break, the principal said she's racked her brain to figure out what went wrong, what she could have done differently.

Her best guess: The school's understaffing did it in. She started the school year down nine people.

"All I can say is, we tried to do the best we could with what we were given," Jones-Carnegie said. "How can you do what's expected and be effective when you don't have the teachers? I had a building filled with substitutes.

"I'm sure if all the vacancies were filled, we would have met with success," she added. "If Roland Park had nine vacancies, they wouldn't have had nine vacancies all year."

The staff, handicapped as it was by the incomplete roster, threw itself into raising the test scores.

To remedy sagging special education scores, Jones-Carnegie mixed students with disabilities into mainstream classes and supplemented those rooms with extra teachers. To get children to school on time she offered incentives such as cupcakes and movie tickets - some bought with teachers' money. And she instituted intense test-taking practice sessions so students could warm to the format while teachers became experts at delivering the instructions.

"We worked so very hard," she said.

Just last year, Cherry Hill was the backdrop for a news conference on school achievement, Jones-Carnegie pointed out, recalling how Mayor Martin O'Malley congratulated her on improved test scores.

"Last year they're all in our face with flashbulbs, and to turn around and see we were being taken over - it wasn't good."

After having to reapply for their jobs, only seven or eight of the school's 28 teachers weren't offered their positions back. "If we're doing that bad, you're returning the same people that were here before," she said. "It makes you wonder if they knew all the facts."

She's disheartened that at Cherry Hill, where the pupils come from a poverty-stricken part of town, and where many of them have enough upheaval in their lives, they will now have to get used to new faces at school, too. "The children," Jones-Carnegie said, "deserve more."

And so does the staff, she says.

"It just wasn't fair. I understand that life isn't fair, but if you want us to be successful, you have to afford us the same opportunities as successful schools."

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