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'Dangerous' schools

The Baltimore Sun

The state school board labeled five Baltimore schools yesterday as "persistently dangerous," as required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, but not before members denounced the designation and said they'd send a protest letter to the U.S. Department of Education.

While the Maryland school board has never warmed to the annual task of designating schools as persistently dangerous, this year's board - with three new members appointed by Gov. Martin O'Malley seated this month - was more outspoken in its opposition. Board members are uncomfortable with the designation because they say it leaves an unduly harsh label on just a few schools.

"At the national level, there is no question that the 'persistently dangerous' label has been counterproductive," said Kate Walsh, a new board member. "I wonder if we could again look at this issue and study it more closely."

"We can do that," said the state schools chief Nancy S. Grasmick, but she added that the state needs to take action to comply with the law.

Walsh said there are plenty of states that do not designate any of their schools persistently dangerous and are in compliance with the law.

Three schools, Calverton Middle School, Dr. Roland Patterson Academy and W.E.B Du Bois Senior High School, will remain on the list from last year.

Hamilton Middle School and Reginald F. Lewis High School were added to the list this year.

Thurgood Marshall Middle School was removed. No schools outside Baltimore City received the designation.

Under the federal No Child Left Behind law, states were expected to draw up criteria for the designation and then hand it out each year to those schools that had met that standard.

Maryland has one of the strictest regulations defining what constitutes a dangerous school. If the number of students who are suspended for physical attacks, firearms, arson, drugs and sexual assault represent more than 2 1/2 percent of the student body for three years in a row, the school can be designated persistently dangerous.

Only 46 schools in eight states across the nation were designated persistently dangerous in the 2006-2007 school year, and six were in Baltimore, according to the U.S. Department of Education statistics. All other states, including large states such as California and Michigan, reported no persistently dangerous schools.

Despite the opposition over the years, the board has not redefined Maryland's criteria to make them less stringent. This year, several board members said they might want to reconsider the definition. When a board member suggested that the federal government might not approve criteria that were too lenient, Walsh shot back, "They approve everything. They widely regard this as failure of the law," she said.

Dunbar Brooks, the former chairman of the board, said he had personally told U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education Raymond Simon this year that the board did not support the designation.

Brooks recommended the board approve the list, saying: "Compliance in no way means agreement."

All but Walsh voted to designate the schools persistently dangerous.

Grasmick suggested that the letter to the U.S. Department of Education point out the lack of consistency in the designation from state to state.

Answering questions from the board, Baltimore schools chief Andres Alonso said there was a perverse incentive in the criteria. Principals who honestly report how many students are suspended for certain behavior are more likely to have their schools labeled than principals who underreport the statistics or refuse to suspend students for serious offenses.

In effect, schools that are well-run and under control may have more suspensions because their principals are suspending students for serious infractions.

"I don't pay attention to the classification," Alonso said. Although he said he doesn't believe schools can improve if they are violent, he said he doesn't consider the classification in deciding how to improve schools.

"I think the law is full of incentives and disincentives that are perverse. At the same time, we have to pay attention to it," Alonso said.

In other news yesterday at the board meeting, James H. DeGraffenreidt Jr., who took his seat on the board July 1 and attended his first meeting yesterday, was elected president, taking over from Brooks. DeGraffenreidt is chief executive officer of WGL Holdings, Inc., the parent company of Washington Gas. Blair Ewing was elected vice president. Both men were appointed by O'Malley. Since this month, the majority of the board has been appointed by O'Malley.


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