The head of Baltimore County schools says students at nearly a third of the system's high schools are not receiving "the same level or quality of education" as others, and he says a lack of leadership at some schools is at least partly to blame for the disparity.
Other factors leading to an achievement gap include students transferring from some failing middle schools to better-performing ones and not returning to their community's high school, and teachers being overwhelmed trying to handle the remaining pool of struggling students, said county schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston.
All of these problems are fixable, Hairston maintained in a recent interview, discussing test results showing that less than half of the students at some largely minority schools had passed state exams required for graduation.
Even as he emphasized that most of the system's high schools are doing well, he said the overall success of the district depends upon ensuring that students across the county have similar opportunities to excel academically.
"We can't send a signal that something is better [at] one [school] than it is at another," said Hairston, who oversees the largest school system in the Baltimore area.
Hairston added that the system has several initiatives under way to ensure that as many students as possible, regardless of where they attend school, are prepared to pass the state's High School Assessment exams in algebra, English, government and biology - which are a state graduation requirement starting with this year's 11th-graders.
The county system has expanded a national college-preparatory program called Advancement Via Individual Determination and has introduced progress reporting that charts detailed objectives and skills for each student. Also, Advanced Placement course offerings are being increased.
Hairston points out that the lower-performing high schools have these programs, adding: "The issue is personnel. You need people who are compatible to the community and the population of students."
Statewide test results recently released showed that in Baltimore County, nearly a third of the system's two dozen high schools had pass rates of 60 percent or less.
Also, high schools with predominantly African-American populations, such as Randallstown and Woodlawn, had passing rates mostly below 50 percent.
The county's highest-performing schools - including Towson, Dulaney and Hereford high schools, and Carver Center for Arts and Technology, which are largely white and situated in the well-to-do northern corridor - have, along with the Eastern and Western technical magnet schools, long boosted the county's averages.
But at some schools, such as Woodlawn, where the student population is 90 percent black and only 32.3 percent of the Class of 2009 has passed the state's algebra exam, the results are not so impressive.
"These are isolated areas that we need to strategically target in regards to technical support, resource allocation and community engagement," Hairston said. "It comes down to the quality of people [principals and teachers] and the implementation of our plans. We need teachers who truly care about the kids who are in front of them."
Hairston said it is the principal's responsibility to set high standards, and some are doing the job more effectively than others. A strong principal, he said, sets the tone and leads by example. An effective principal might occasionally teach a class and by doing so, "everyone in the schoolhouse knows that principal is about academics," he added.
"You have to find a way to get more students to perform at a higher level," he said. "In some cases, some principals are stronger than others."
"I firmly believe that children want to do well," he said. "What we need to do now is balance that with adult support in the school and in the community."
Hairston, noting legal restrictions against discussing personnel matters, wouldn't elaborate on recent or planned staffed changes.
But at two of the county's lowest-performing high schools - Randallstown and Woodlawn - new leadership seems to signal a push to turn around lagging state test results and overall academics.
Don Weglein, who is beginning his second year as principal at Woodlawn, echoed Hairston's position on the influence of leadership.
But to make a difference, he said, a principal must have the right people in the right places - from administrators to teachers.
"The success is in the entire leadership team, not just the principal," said Weglein. "Each person has a responsibility."
Before joining Woodlawn, Weglein spent six years - three as principal and three as assistant principal - at Western School of Technology in the Catonsville area, one of the county's highest-performing schools. A graduate of Catonsville High, he began teaching in the county 37 years ago.
At Woodlawn, Weglein and the school's five assistant principals have shuffled staffing to ensure the strongest teachers are teaching the four subjects that are tested on the state exams. Part of that process, he said, included identifying teachers with the highest rate of students passing the tests.
Also, each assistant principal spends one day a week observing teachers in classrooms so they can provide feedback and fine-tune instructional methods.
Class on Saturday
This month, the staff plans to launch "Saturday School," a 10-week program to help students prepare for the state exams. Department heads and teachers will tutor students, who also will be taught test-taking strategies. "Saturday School," Weglein said, was a prime example of how parents can play a pivotal role.
"It's difficult for any youngster to give up a Saturday for school," he said. "This is an opportunity for parents to get involved because we're going to need them to get students to the school."
Noting that more than 900 parents attended this year's back-to-school night, Weglein said he is hopeful that parents will be supportive of "Saturday School."
"It's not just about the test, it's about improving your academic skills," he said.
Cheryl Pasteur, who is in her first year as principal at Randallstown High, said she plans to start Saturday sessions next month. She and the school's four assistant principals are spending more time in classrooms observing teachers.
And she has turned monthly staff meetings into professional development sessions.
"The HSA challenge goes hand-in-hand with the challenge of having rigorous instruction and a stable staff," said Pasteur, who has worked in the county school system for 20 years. She began teaching English in 1971 at Lake Clifton High School in Baltimore.
Hairston said staff stability is a perennial issue because experienced teachers can be more selective about the school at which they work, and many aim for the higher-performing schools.
Stability is critical at schools, Hairston said.
"Unfortunately, there is an unspoken stigma ... and some teachers choose not to teach in certain schools," he said.
But he and Weglein pointed to this year's lack of vacancies at Woodlawn - compared with about 20 openings last year - at the start of school as a hopeful sign.
An especially prickly issue is what Hairston refers to as the "erosion of the community school," which he said is the result of students leaving for countywide magnet programs and specialty schools, or transferring out of failing middle schools that lead to the community high school.
Having those options isn't a problem if the neighborhood schools are just as strong, he said.
"Choice options can only work if the comprehensive schools are performing at the same level," Hairston said. "You can't have a system of haves and have-nots."