Annapolis High School fends off state takeover

The Baltimore Sun

A sweeping, sometimes controversial set of reforms to turn around embattled Annapolis High School won the approval of the Maryland State Board of Education yesterday, staving off threats of state intervention.

The board backed the three-year restructuring plan by Anne Arundel County school officials, and a report prepared for the board gave high marks to Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell's initiative last year forcing all 193 staff members - from custodians to the principal - to reapply for their jobs.

District officials also began requiring Annapolis High's staff to work year-round, made teachers commit to staying three years at the school and launched a summer program for incoming at-risk freshmen and a ninth-grade academy to foster relationships with teachers, all in hopes of ending years of subpar performance.

"I believe that we are on the way to achieving great things at Annapolis High School, and the things we have put in place are beginning to pay dividends," Maxwell said.

Annapolis High School, which has an enrollment of 1,700, failed to make adequate academic progress in each of the past five years, and came up short in graduation rate goals in the past two years.

Maxwell began the overhaul in January 2007 by announcing the "zero-basing" of the school's employees, a move that the board report noted got rid of teachers "who were not committed to the success of all students." More than 40 percent of the staff turned over; some of those who left simply resigned, saying they were demoralized or being unfairly blamed for years of policy failures.

But Maxwell said the shake-up made a difference. Among the successes he cited were a 58 percent drop from last year in referrals and suspensions, improved attendance and a 6 percent bump in the percentage of students earning a grade-point average of at least 2.0.

Classes are smaller, Maxwell said, and parents are being encouraged to get involved in the life of the school.

"After years of what I would consider benign neglect, Kevin Maxwell took the bull by the horns and did what was right for the kids," said Eugene Peterson, an Anne Arundel school board member, who did not attend the meeting in Baltimore. "These are serious issues. The state board did due diligence and concluded that we have made significant progress."

The federal No Child Left Behind law authorizes the state or school district to impose sanctions that can range from a complete staff turnover to longer school days and even a state takeover, but Maryland has never taken over a school under that law.

State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said that, even in the worst cases, the state does not "take over" chronically underperforming schools, but rather works with school districts to reorganize the schools and find ways of improving their output.

"We are not heavy-handed unless we see that the system does not have a viable plan," Grasmick said.

Anne Arundel County school officials, she said, "stepped up to the plate immediately."

Maxwell told the board that some of the issues that had bedeviled Annapolis High were "embedded" in its culture.

"There was no sense of urgency that things needed to be fixed," he said, adding that, even with the changes, "we still have some challenges."

He lamented, for instance, that some ninth-graders still have trouble reading. "If we could have most of our kids reading proficiently in the second or third grade," he asked, "wouldn't we be better off?"

Annapolis High Principal Don Lilley appeared nervous as he addressed the board.

"I am constantly, constantly involved in staff development," he said, by way of explaining his priorities.

"You're going to see a difference in Annapolis," Lilley said, "because those are our kids in the streets."

The headline of an article in yesterday's Maryland section on Annapolis High School incorrectly stated that the school was under threat of a state takeover. In fact, the school might have been subject to additional intervention by the state had Anne Arundel County not proposed a restructuring plan. The state is not authorized under current state law to step in and directly manage local schools.The Sun regrets the error.
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