Two years ago, Woodlawn Middle was the first Baltimore County school to undertake sweeping reforms to stem years of dismal state test results. This year, dozens more students scored above grade level, and nearly twice as many passed the math exam as in 2006.
All the teachers at Woodlawn Middle were required in 2006 to reapply for their jobs - a process known as "zero-basing" the staff. Principal Brian W. Scriven said he rehired about three-fourths of the school's teachers, who had to commit to staying at the school for three years and received bonus pay for doing so.
"That meant everything to me, that people had the option to either be here or not be here," Scriven said. "It's easier to move people forward if they have a choice."
The school's performance on the Maryland School Assessments, given annually in grades three through eight in math and reading to help gauge whether systems are meeting state and federal standards, mirrored progress being charted across the county and the state.
Systemwide, more Baltimore County students posted higher scores, including poor children and minorities. In almost every tested grade, more students scored "advanced," or above grade level, regardless of race or ethnicity.
In a school system where passing averages on the statewide exams have been approaching 90 percent in recent years, and as greater numbers of students begin achieving "advanced" status, it becomes more challenging to replicate that progress, county schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston said in a recent interview at the system's headquarters in Towson.
Even so, Hairston said, the system is positioned to build on this year's success by maintaining proven reading and math initiatives, ensuring that each school has a strong principal, and by giving teachers the resources they need to address each child's academic needs individually.
"Once you have experienced success, it breeds success," Hairston said. "A large part of education evolves around beliefs and values. Our children believe they are capable, and our teachers believe they have the ability to teach and give our children what they need to succeed."
Some state and national testing experts have said that scores rose across the state in part because this year's test was shorter and because some questions were changed to more closely reflect Maryland's curriculum.
But Hairston said the progress being seen in Baltimore County is the result of the system's Blueprint for Progress, a set of standards, goals and strategies that the district adopted in 2003 and has revised annually.
"We have a stable, focused approach for all our children," Hairston said. "We're seeing the fruits of our labor."
Children at Red House Run Elementary in Rosedale, where more than 40 percent of the students received free or reduced-priced meals, continued to make steady progress on the tests a year after it was named a Maryland Blue Ribbon school. Among the 24 elementary schools in the system's southeast region, 19 had at least 70 percent of their students passing this year's state math exam, including Dundalk Elementary, where 84 percent of fourth-graders passed it.
At Woodlawn Middle, Damien Ingram was recently promoted from assistant principal to replace Scriven, who is taking over as principal of Woodlawn High, the county's first high school set to go through a restructuring process similar to the one at the middle school.
Ingram, who has worked alongside Scriven throughout the reform process at the middle school, echoed Scriven's emphasis on the value of having a freshly recommitted staff.
"Once teachers accepted the position, they also understood they would be under a magnifying glass," Ingram said. "There was a no-fail attitude. ... We had a commitment of people dedicated to the kids."
Scriven helped launch the county's use of "short-cycle assessments," given to students every six to eight weeks to gauge their mastery of concepts. Administrators and teachers pored over the results of those assessments to determine how to adjust instruction.
In addition to the academic initiatives, such as more before- and after-school programs, Scriven and Ingram said the gains came from instilling in the children "a sense of ownership" of their education and the reclaiming by teachers of a sense of educational mission.
"This is not just about testing," Ingram said. "It's about genuine learning."
Scriven said the Woodlawn education community "still has a lot of work to do," but that a collaborative effort among administrators and staff from the elementary, middle and high schools has laid the groundwork for further success.
"We're not there yet," Scriven said. "It is clearly understood that we can celebrate these accomplishments. But this should only fuel them and excite them to push even harder to offset those negative perceptions that we can't do this. Oh yes, we can do it."
Find a link to test scores at baltimoresun.com/msa