Baltimore County schools officials have developed a plan to improve student achievement and the graduation rate at Dundalk High School that includes replacing some school staff, fostering community ties and switching to a six-period day of classes.
"It's all about moving our kids forward," said Tom Shouldice, principal of the high school since July, of what is officially called an "alternative governance plan."
The plan, which the school board is to consider tonight, is part of a requisite process for schools that have repeatedly failed to meet benchmarks known as adequate yearly progress, or AYP. Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, states must annually identify schools and school systems that miss the benchmarks. Dundalk High, which has not met targets for graduation rate, special education students and English language learners at different times over the past several years, has been on the state watch list since 2004.
A school is required to develop a restructuring plan after five consecutive years of failing to make AYP. In Maryland, 93 schools have launched such plans, according to the State Department of Education. Four of them are in Baltimore County: Southwest Academy, Lansdowne Middle and Woodlawn middle and high schools. The Dundalk plan is scheduled to go before the State Board of Education in late May, according to the department and school officials. It would be implemented for the next academic year.
At Dundalk, changes are already under way. About 20 percent to 25 percent of the staff will be replaced, said Shouldice, who was previously principal of Dundalk Middle. New recruits are being interviewed and selected now, he said, and job fairs this month and next will provide additional opportunities.
Shouldice noted that the school already has "some extremely highly qualified teachers." His job is "mobilizing the staff to work as a team and work out of isolation, and really provide students - both in the classroom and out of the classroom - with structure and high standards," he said.
The plan also calls for switching from a block schedule, in which students go to each class for 90 minutes every other day, to having six 60-minute periods daily, for more consistent instruction, Shouldice said.
Zeroing in on the graduation rate, Shouldice said he was surprised to discover there were more dropouts among ninth- and 10th-graders. Officials seek to create a "monitoring and mentoring" program in the coming school year to help students feel more engaged, he said. And this year, exit interviews have been done with students dropping out, and counselors are working with others deemed at risk of leaving, Shouldice added.
The school also faces challenges in the form of high mobility among students, as well as the population it serves: About 45 percent of the district's students eligible for free or reduced-price meals - an indicator of low family income - are in the southeast area, said Jean E. Satterfield, the area assistant superintendent.
Dundalk also needs to do a better job of marketing itself to the community, which is often unaware of the programs and activities going on inside the building, Shouldice said. By informing neighbors of those things, he said, he hopes to develop school pride.
"We're doing some dynamite things here," he said. "We have to get that message out."
He said that the school is making "substantial progress," with improvements in reading and even more so in math, an area where it failed to make AYP in 2005. Dundalk has gone from a 25 percent pass rate in that subject to about 70 percent in 2008, according to state assessment data.
"Even though we're not happy with things as they are," Satterfield said, "we are pleased that the school has been making progress."