Quantum Leap

The Baltimore Sun

In a random moment that a physicist might appreciate, a Russian Ph.D. named Katya Denisova suddenly found herself revealing the secrets of the universe to students at a troubled Baltimore high school. She offers energetic proof of the power of teaching

Ninety minutes can be a long time to sit in physics class, but Katya Denisova's students don't stay in their seats for long.

They walk clockwise around the room, stopping at different stations to see what everyone else wrote about why humans can only see one side of the moon. They line up in front of motion detectors connected to computers to see how it looks on a graph when they walk at a steady pace, speeding up and slowing down.

Outside Room 350 at Baltimore's Homeland Security Academy, gang-related fights are so common that one student carries a mouthguard in his pocket, just in case he gets caught in the middle of something. The high school, part of the Walbrook complex, has made a name for itself as one of the most violent and lowest-performing in the state. Pass rates on the exams juniors may need to pass to graduate hover in the single digits.

Inside the room, a 32-year-old Russian immigrant with blond hair, a ponytail and a doctorate in physics education is opening students' eyes to a universe beyond West Baltimore. She loves surprising them with simple facts they should have learned years ago: The moon is a rock and doesn't emit light. The earth takes 24 hours to make one rotation.

"I get 12th-graders who need to get out of high school ASAP, and they know my class is going to be the hardest class they've ever taken," says Denisova, whose students call her "Dr. D."

In a school system with only 14 certified physics teachers, Denisova is a candidate for the nation's most prestigious teaching certification. She is qualified to teach anywhere. And yet she teaches here.

When Andres Alonso became chief executive officer of the struggling city school system this summer, he said he wanted to identify pockets of excellence, with an eye toward replicating them. Every school, he says, has at least one great teacher.

Denisova is one of the bright spots, her colleagues at Homeland Security say.

"When a teacher loves what they do, you can't hide it," says Arnetta Rudisill, who recently became the school's fourth principal in three years. "It spills over to the kids. If you're in love with it, they'll fall in love with it, too."

Like the troubled Homeland Security Academy, physics can be hard to love. The combination of the two seems almost impossible to contemplate. Yet here is Denisova offering energetic proof of the potential power of teaching to inspire even in the most unlikely settings. It's an encouraging lesson in a system fraught with failure.

Physics is not a priority for the school system's central office administrators. They are focused on biology, the subject of the state science exam used to assess student and school performance.

Students don't often enter Denisova's class caring much, either. Many are seniors who just need another credit to graduate.

But her enthusiasm is infectious. She wears T-shirts imprinted with formulas like e=mc2. Next month, she'll participate in a "zero gravity" flight simulating outer space, a mission for which her students are expected to help her prepare.

Denisova recently completed the requirements for the highest teaching credential, National Board Certification. Statewide, 822 teachers have the certification, but only 24 are in Baltimore.

Over the summer, Denisova led physics training for science teachers around the state through a program at Frostburg State University. She's working on her administrative credential.

She is a vocal proponent of Physics First, which calls for resequencing high school courses so that students can study basic physics before chemistry and biology.

Many now make it through high school with no physics. City ninth-graders take an overview science class, though they don't always have access to labs. They take chemistry as sophomores and biology as juniors, with the idea that by then, they're mature enough to pass the state's end-of-course biology exam.

Physics is optional, typically for seniors. The city has 35 physics teachers, compared with 89 in chemistry and 109 in biology. Some physics teachers are assigned to other subjects.

At Homeland Security, physics faces other distractions.

A few weeks into the new school year, moments after the bell rings, a woman's voice is on the loudspeaker: "At this time, please shut and lock your doors."

A boy dashes into Room 350 just as Denisova is closing the door. Counting him, there are 14 kids present in a class with 24 enrolled. A few minutes later, there are 16, plus an aide who's supposed to help a special-education student but mostly just sits there.

Already, some of the students have been won over. Denisova tries to hook them by making lessons relevant. To start a unit on global warming and fossil fuels, she'll have students study their family BGE bills.

The one who carries the mouthguard, 19-year-old Eugene Thomas, appreciates Denisova's patience. He feels as though she really wants him to understand. "The teacher is in control," he says. "Other classes, students try to override the teacher."

Every year, Denisova discovers bright students who've made it to 12th grade without anyone telling them they're smart. Even if she can get their sights set on college, sometimes it's too late. By the end of the school year, they may be able to show her how not to overload an electrical circuit, but they still struggle to read.

Last year, one of her students who wanted to major in science got an athletic scholarship to a college out of state, and his grandmother wouldn't let him go.

Back in Russia, Denisova's grandfather was a dean of a university's theoretical mechanics department. Her mother is an astronomy professor, and her father has a doctorate in astronomy. "My first language was formulas and technical terms," she quips.

After studying physics education at Herzen State Pedagogical University, Denisova came to the United States to get a master's degree at University of Northern Iowa, which has an exchange program with Herzen. She then earned her doctorate through a joint program of the two universities, traveling between St. Petersburg and Cedar Falls.

In St. Petersburg, she taught science briefly at an English-speaking school in the U.S. Consulate. But the school had low enrollment, and Denisova decided to look to the United States for greater opportunities.

She had no choice about where she would be assigned to teach when she moved to Baltimore in 2002. Applying for jobs from overseas, she found no shortage of American school districts that wanted to hire her - until they found out they'd need to sponsor a visa for her. Then Baltimore's was the only offer still good.

The school system assigned her to what was then Walbrook High. She recalls how the principal - two-time mayoral candidate Andrey Bundley - told her she wouldn't last long.

"I remember I was scared to death to exit the building because I'd be the only white person in the street," she says. "I'm still the only white person in the street, but now people know who I am. ... I've been here in the same building in the same room for six years, and I actually like what I do immensely."

Walbrook has been through a lot during Denisova's time there. In 2004, officials discovered that students had been permitted to graduate without meeting all the requirements. That fall, the school was disrupted by dozens of arson fires. In 2005, Walbrook broke up into three smaller schools, one of which closed this summer after the state designated it "persistently dangerous." Homeland Security is one of the two that remain.

Denisova has been through a lot, too. She married and divorced, living now in Owings Mills with her 3-year-old son. In her spare time, she directs a Baltimore-based Russian folk dancing ensemble called Kalinka.

At work, she's often faced with bureaucratic barriers.

In the spring of 2004, with her Maryland teaching certification complete but her visa about to expire, the school system notified her she was being let go. For her visa to be renewed, system officials would have to place a classified advertisement for her job in a local newspaper to be sure that no qualified American citizens applied. They told her it wasn't worth their time.

"I was calling every number and I was knocking on every door," she says. "I was using all the network connections that I had. ... Eventually they let it happen. But they definitely did not welcome my intention to stay."

Since then, the system has hired hundreds of teachers from the Philippines. Nearly half the teachers at Homeland Security this year are Filipinos. It's more efficient to process paperwork for a group than an individual, school officials told her.

For more than a year, Denisova has offered to lead training for city physics teachers on the school system's professional development days, when there's currently nothing for them to do.

The system's new head of secondary science says she'll work with Denisova to implement physics professional development by early 2008, pending a final proposal and budget approval.

At Homeland Security, Denisova is the science "instructional support teacher," a position similar to a department head. She teaches one 90-minute class and spends the rest of her day supporting other teachers.

Once a week, she's required to attend a central office meeting that conflicts with her class. So once a week, her class has a substitute.

One afternoon, Rudisill rushes up and asks Denisova to help a new chemistry teacher whose room looks uninviting and whose students are doing mindless work, copying the periodic table.

On top of the bureaucracy is the violence. During a student weapons search at the Walbrook complex last month, school police confiscated 14 knives, a box cutter, a firecracker, three cans of mace and two bricks hidden inside socks.

The day of the motion detector experiment, Denisova has her students on task for the full 90 minutes, moving between computer and word problem stations. At 1:15, the bell rings, and it's supposed to be lunchtime. But moments later, kids are streaming back into Room 350.

"Everybody out of the hall," an agitated female voice says on the loud speaker. "We've got a lockdown. Everybody get in a room, any room."

"Somebody got shot," a boy returning to Denisova's room says matter-of-factly.

As it turned out, a student on long-term suspension for bringing a knife to school entered the building, and there was a false rumor that he was armed. But for 10 minutes - until the lockdown is over - no one in the room knows what is happening.

"Everybody sit down and wait for announcements," Denisova says, her voice calm but firm. "You're completely safe in here."


Katya Denisova will answer readers' questions this week on The Sun education blog, www.baltimoresun.com/classroom.

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