'Ambassadors' play role in school reform

The Baltimore Sun

The Annapolis High School senior was at risk of not graduating. She had been doing well in her classes but suddenly, during final exams, stopped going to school.

There was a time when she might not have been noticed in a school with 1,700 students. But this year, the school employed community ambassadors to make sure no student was lost.

One of the ambassadors tracked the student down and coaxed her back to school in time for the English exam that she needed to pass to earn a diploma. The ambassador talked with her English teacher to see what additional support the girl could receive in class and helped the girl iron out family issues that had caused her to bounce from one relative's home to another and miss school.

The ambassadors are part of a broad reform effort at Annapolis High School that last week won the unanimous support of the State Board of Education. The district's three-year plan to restructure Annapolis High and turn around four consecutive years of flagging performance on state tests and low graduation rates included an infusion of new staff, a year-round schedule for teachers and a host of programs to support students at risk of dropping out. All 193 staff members at the school were also forced to reapply for their jobs.

The state board approval, which fended off further state intervention, came as a result of gradual, but hopeful signs of improvement at the school. Discipline referrals have fallen 58 percent because of a group of "advocates" who staff the halls during class changes and have been able to halt the scuffles that led to suspensions and in-school detention.

Reducing behavior problems has also helped the school improve academic performance, Principal Don Lilley said. The school has increased the number of students earning C-average grades by 6 percent.

"It's a slow process," Lilley said. "Staff morale was high when the year started out ... but people bottom out sometimes when the change doesn't happen as fast as they want. I just keep reminding them Rome wasn't built in a day."

Annapolis High's staff began work last summer on a strategy to sharply raise test scores and boost attendance and graduation rates, especially among black male students, half of whom do not graduate in four years. The school also started a summer program for 200 at-risk freshmen, hoping to reverse a trend in which nearly half of ninth-graders entering the school dropped out before they reached their senior year.

Lilley created a "cabinet" of about 40 student advisers with whom he meets monthly. The students have helped change how the school prepares for state tests, Lilley said. In the past, study guides for the tests and tutoring sessions started a couple of weeks before the tests, which are usually administered in May. This year, at the students' urging, Lilley instructed staff to get the guides out and start intensive tutoring in February, a move that he hopes will result in higher scores.

At the heart of the reform, though, is a boost in social work and outreach the school does with students through people such as the community ambassadors, Lilley said.

The ambassadors have been a key link to students who live in the public housing communities and make up nearly a quarter of the school's population. They have alerted the school's administrators of domestic disturbances, shootings, turf wars - anything that might affect students' academic performance and behavior in school, said Kevin Randolph, one of two pupil personnel workers at the school.

"Two weeks ago, the ambassadors helped us know about a conflict that had started in one of the neighborhoods and threatened to spill over into the school," Randolph said. "It would've been a huge fight, but they helped us stop it."

The school has also improved relationships with local businesses, which have begun by helping sponsor parent events.

"We didn't want to try to do too much at once," Lilley said. "But I think we're slowly making some progress."

ruma.kumar@baltsun.com

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