By the time most other high schools began their ritual end-of-summer awakening, the teachers at Dundalk were already a week on the job, clustered in the stuffy classrooms of a tired school that so many others had written off as a lost cause.
As the English department chair started up a flight of stairs, clutching a stack of results that revealed signs of progress, she stopped to share her frustration: How, after all the changes that had been made, did only about half the 10th-graders pass the state test on the first try?
So much has changed at the school in the three years since the federal government ordered the place to be closed down or torn apart and radically restructured. There are new teachers, a new principal, and a new attitude that says the place should have a future.
Yet so much has been left undone: Attendance is still too low, academic success is still uneven, and progress is still hampered by a student body that turns over as quickly as families in the neighborhood.
And so as Dundalk gets ready to open its doors Monday, the teachers inside are preparing not just for yet another new year, but for their next act in a performance whose ending is still being written — a story about how to save a failing school.
The questions that teachers have are the same ones as always, librarian Pamela Cline said: "How are the kids going to be? Will they respond?"
The answers, though, have never mattered more.
Nothing in Tom Shouldice's friendly, unassuming manner suggests him for the work of salvaging a troubled high school. Those jobs seem to go to hard-charging, charismatic leaders who arrive with a prescription for change. Shouldice is more the quiet consensus builder — a wallflower who barely gets a nod from the kids when the halls fill between classes.
So in the summer of 2008, he might not have been the obvious choice to become principal of Dundalk, a school in such a deep malaise that rules required an overhaul the next year. But his boss saw something in him. And no one else wanted the job anyway.
The challenge was this: sweep away the majority of the teaching staff, convince the community that their failing high school in a dying industrial center could be a source of pride, reduce the dropout rate and ramp up the expectations for students.
On his first visit to the school, Shouldice was astounded and depressed by what he found. Not only was it worn and tired-looking, but piles of old papers and stacks of books lay around, and teachers peered out of their classrooms at him rather than being engrossed in lessons.
And as he pored over the data in his back office that first year, the numbers shocked him. Thirty percent of the students in each grade were dropping out between freshman and senior year, and the sentiment among the staff seemed to be that they were "glad they are gone; they are difficult and we don't want to deal with them," he said. The students seemed to run the school, he said. There were some good teachers, but many more were uninspired and resistant to attempts to improve their teaching.
Such problems are common in failing schools, but no one has been able to provide a road map for leaders like Shouldice. Education researchers can't point to many high schools that failed, were turned around and sustained that improvement.
So it was up to Shouldice to fashion a workable solution. As principal of Dundalk Middle down the street, he had made improvements. He knew the community and they trusted him. He was analytical and good at delegating, teachers would say. Although he had to take the drastic step of replacing most of the staff, Baltimore County had given him a whole year to develop a plan. And perhaps ironically, with failure came money — enough to add new technology and hire five extra teachers to bring down class sizes.
New teachers are hardly a foolproof solution.
Most new hires have to be newly minted college graduates or career-changers, who, even if destined to become stars, are not typically effective in their first year.
So how was he going to improve student test scores and the graduation rate with a crew of newbies?
He figured he would hire energetic teachers, who were highly committed and weren't afraid of change. What they might lack in teaching experience, he hoped would be made up for with attitude. He wanted teachers who would coach sports teams, lead clubs, tutor after school and be mentors for students who didn't get all they needed at home.
Under his approach, the next three years would be a story of looking for the right people, finding great mentors to guide them and making the faculty responsible for changes. From the vantage point of those who took part, the task was filled with personal and professional risks. Despite a national education agenda that has made a priority of turning schools like Dundalk around, the odds are against it. Nearly all attempts fail or stall.
Throughout the 2008-2009 school year, the Dundalk faculty lived in a state of anxiety, knowing that most of them would be transferred out of their jobs. Cline, the librarian, had come to the school in 1984 as a young woman and hoped to stay, but she was anxious. Would Shouldice think she was too old? Not good enough?
She remembered when teachers thought Dundalk was a treasure and stayed for their entire careers, when the school, like the community, was a close-knit family.
Looking back, it seemed to her as though everything began to fall apart in 2000. The Key Bridge and the smokestacks of Sparrows Point could be seen out the back windows of the school, haunting vestiges of the industrial core that had shrunk and left families stranded.
The children came to school with more needs than ever before. The sports teams were getting worse and school spirit sagged. After awhile the school's scores went down, its attendance was abysmal and no one wanted to come to Dundalk. Gangs began recruiting in the halls, and while Cline never felt unsafe in the building, she sometimes thought, "We have to get a grip."
"We were tired, and we were running out of strategies," she said of the faculty.
A once-stable faculty was now rolling out the door. Twenty, 30 or sometimes 40 teachers out of 100 left at the end of each year. Some who came in were new; others were the teachers that other principals had passed around the system.
Then during one March day, the emails started popping up in teachers' in-boxes around the building. Come see Shouldice at an appointed time. A buzz spread as teachers signed on to their computers. Who had gotten an email? Was everyone getting it, or just those who were being told they couldn't stay?
"Everyone was very, very anxious. They started to put the pieces together. There was a lot of consoling or anger. There was a huge hodgepodge of emotions," Cline said.
Sitting in her glass-walled office, she had a rush of mixed emotions with each jolt of news. Sometimes, she was relieved a teacher was out; other times she was saddened. All the while she wondered about herself, knowing she would be devastated if she had to leave. For two hours, the emails continued, then silence. By the end of the day, she felt unsettled and unsure. The next morning came, and she figured, "So this is it. So I am OK."
The teaching staff was completely drained. Shouldice had purged 60 percent of the staff in one day, and the rate would reach 72 percent within two years.
Some yelled, some cried, and others just walked out. Shouldice tried to be sensitive. "Look, you are a good person, but you can't be here any more," he would say. In most cases, he felt they weren't people who fit the profile of what he needed.
"That took a huge toll of emotional energy," he said.
But as the months wore on, Cline said, those whom Shouldice kept rallied around the idea that a turnaround would only work if the experienced teachers pitched in to mentor the new ones who would arrive in August. Besides bringing in new teachers, Shouldice hoped to make headway by changing the schedule from 90-minute to 50-minute classes so that students wouldn't lose interest. He wanted teachers to stop handing out dittos, and get students to write and think. And the school was about to be flooded with new technology.
Shouldice tried to keep all his emotions locked up, only showing optimism and enthusiasm to the staff each day so that they would not question the decisions or the need for change.
Still, deep inside he also wondered: "Did we cut enough?"
Not an ideal student
When N'Didi Ibe came to Dundalk, he knew he was out of control, and the school wasn't a lot better. A football player, Didi would go to other schools for games and hear his school called "Dumbdalk."
He found the school had "a sad atmosphere," with students fighting in the halls and cutting classes every day.
His grades couldn't get much lower. One day in 2008 he walked into Chelsey Stewart's English class late, as usual, and she complained. On so many days Didi was a problem.
"He was just goofing off. He was more interested in having fun than learning. So I would pull him out and discuss what he needs to do," Stewart said. Didi, she thought, had so much wasted potential.
But Didi had never considered himself a kid headed for much in life, so he thought, why not act out?
Didi remembered coming into class one day "yelling because I was in a bad mood. I started using all kinds of profanity." Stewart pulled him into the hall and Didi said she told him: "In college they definitely won't accept that!"
In the instant that the words registered, Didi started to feel differently about school.
No one had ever suggested that he might go to college. "It was like a warm feeling that she cares because if she didn't she wouldn't have said anything," he said.
Stewart treated him like a son, Didi felt, giving him extra time on tests and talking to him in her spare time. "That was when I started caring about my grades. I wasn't misbehaving."
Still, Didi was hardly an ideal student.
Erin Haroth was one of the first-year teachers Shouldice had chosen to put his faith in, plucking her resume from the dozens he had reviewed. Now Haroth was returning to the neighborhood where she had grown up to convince seniors just five years younger that they could love "Hamlet" and learn to write.
Her first week on the job in 2009 was overwhelming. She was working night and day, and the students hadn't even shown up yet. Beyond all the details of learning the school, her mentor wanted to review two weeks of lesson plans for each class she was teaching before school opened. "I remember thinking, 'I don't know if this is going to work out,'" she said. The other first-year teachers were feeling the same way.
Her nerves were calmed by the arrival of the students, who didn't seem to know or care whether she was a first-year teacher with jitters. Her one advantage was the credibility her local roots gave her. Students knew she didn't look down on them because they were from Dundalk, because she showed pride in her community and she expected them to be proud too.
The start of the school year came soon after the death of her father, a former teacher and principal whose loss forced her to take her first halting steps as a teacher without his usual guidance. And over the next six months, she watched six students lose their fathers too. "Every time that happened, I would see these kids in the same kind of grief I was experiencing," she said. One boy confided to her after his father died that he was alone in the world. Halfway through his senior year, he was living by himself or was moving from one friend's house to the next. He was bright, but she recognized that if he didn't finish that year, he would never graduate from high school.
So she reached out to him, and left notes of encouragement on his desk each morning to tell him she was glad he had made it there. "He really needed someone to hope that he was going to be in school. He needed someone to want him to do well," she said.
At the end of the year, she gave out a teacher evaluation form for students to complete. She felt she had done the best she could in her first year to keep one step ahead of the kids. Her mentor — one of three in the building — had been a steady presence, available at a moment's notice to act as a coach and cheerleader. She knew she showed promise, that she had earned the respect of her students and was able to manage the classroom reasonably well, but had it been enough?
Her second-floor classroom was sweltering that day in May and she was anxious to leave when the bell rang, but she was so curious about the evaluations that she put up with the heat.
Sitting at her corner desk with the stack of papers in front of her, she made her way through the pile, finally getting to the one from the boy who was adrift after his father's death. It said simply: "I am not going to answer all these questions. I'll just say you saved my life."
The attempts at improving the school sometimes came in incremental steps and in frustrating setbacks. Shouldice had great hopes for a young first-year teacher, but the teacher was full of self-doubt. A month into the job, he walked into the principal's office and quit.
Shouldice was angry; he knew it would be harmful to a whole lot of kids who would fall behind if they had a substitute for a long time. So he asked the teacher if there wasn't something he could do to keep him. "I think you have the talent and will be a good teacher," he told him. But Shouldice recognized it was no use.
Shouldice went home that night questioning himself and his staff. Maybe they hadn't done their jobs well enough to help a struggling new teacher.
By the time he found a replacement, the classes were out of control.
The struggle to get students to show up each day to learn was a battle waged on several fronts, including the telephone. Teachers were calling students to wake them up, and the school was providing incentives for good attendance. Still they weren't making enough progress.
But there were leaps as well. The new technology, made possible from state and federal grants, had turned a school with overhead projectors into one rich with computers. Teachers now displayed lessons from their laptops, students could check a laptop out of the library and they were experimenting with iPads.
And the school's faculty, including the football coach, Brian Powell, were more involved in the lives of students. Powell followed Didi into his English class one day determined to make him understand that he cared not just about how well he threw a spiral, but also how he did in class.
Powell sat down in the seat next to Didi, who turned to him and said: "Coach Powell, are you going to follow me around to every class?"
Yes, was the answer. Matthew Hohner, the English teacher who was fed up with Didi's lack of focus, saw the hangdog look on Didi's face and thought, chuckling to himself, how miserable he must be and yet how good this was for him.
Didi thought it was the longest school day of his life. "He made me so embarrassed in front of everyone."
But Didi also knew Powell was showing how much he cared. Shouldice had hoped that the new, intense mentoring his teachers were providing on the playing field would reel in students who felt unconnected to school and make them more willing to work hard in their classes. Coaches were showing up at kids' homes and taking them out to dinner.
"It changed my behavior. It changed my attitude toward teachers," Didi said later.
In the fall of 2009, Shain Palmer was starting his third attempt at 10th grade, having nearly flunked or dropped out of several county high schools. Administrators had let him back into Dundalk halfway through the previous year, but his attendance was so poor that he never earned any credits.
Just about everyone had lost patience, including his mother. She was a high school dropout herself, and he remembers her telling him he might as well go out and get a job; he would never cross the stage in a cap and gown. When people gave up on him, Shain got angry and decided to prove them wrong. He returned to Dundalk for another try and found it had changed over the summer. The school was identifying and mentoring students who might drop out; and it was trying to get students to see graduation as a necessity no matter what.
Shain found one teacher he particularly liked. The feeling wasn't mutual, at least not at first.
Before he met Shain, Steve Teter had nearly written him off after reading the string of failing grades on his report cards. But then he realized this class troublemaker was bright and well read. What Shain needed was "positive reinforcement and feedback from the adults around him," Teter said.
When Shain did well on his first test, Teter saw a light go on. It was just enough of a catalyst to push him to work hard.
"Once he knew that I cared about him and thought he was smart and capable, he began to do exceptionally well. You could see that sense of pride building," Teter said. Shain made the honor roll every semester that year.
In Shain's mind, his moment of triumph came when Teter told the entire class that he had expected nothing but a "punk," but had found his best student. And there was another benefit. That troublemaker was now leading by example and turning others in his class around.
A sense of purpose
As 120 10th-graders sat down in front of computers in the library to take the state English test in May, Hohner was acutely aware of a new tension and seriousness of purpose in the room.
"You could have heard a pin drop for three and a half hours," he said. The students attacked the High School Assessment, a test they needed to pass to graduate. He was so proud. "I knew that I had kids on the right path for the first time."
Just two years before, Hohner had taught 10th-graders at Towson High School, where he believed nearly every student could have passed the test on the first day of class with little trouble.
But he had wanted to be more than just "a speed bump on someone's way to take over the world at … (fill in the blank with a great college)." At Dundalk, he thought, he might become a lifeline for students. After eight years at one of the county's best high schools, he jumped ship and went to one of the county's worst.
Some Towson teachers thought he was crazy, he said, and asked, "Don't you know how good it is here?"
He found he liked the straight-talking, in-your-face approach of the Dundalk students. A teacher with a love for the dramatic, Hohner identified with them. "Many of my kids are going through things I don't think most adults could deal with. They show me a strength and resilience just to get up here every day," he said.
Hohner had grown as a teacher, he thought. He was offering support to other colleagues because "you never know when you are going to be called to the next room because there is a fight or someone is having a meltdown." And as a gray-haired guy, he was learning from these energetic new teachers and beginning to see a change in the students who came to him.
They were better prepared, asking more questions about college and behaving better. "I am seeing a strong interest in academics," he said. Students who had gotten D's and E's were now getting C's, he said.
He saw so much untapped potential in students, in general, and wished the school had better strategies to get parents more involved in supporting good homework and study habits.
"People who live in Dundalk are fiercely proud of who they are," Hohner said. "They love each other, love America, and love their kids. And they want us to help give their kids the best chance at being successful in life."
More work to do
Shouldice could barely be heard over the drone of one of the school's few air-conditioning units. With only a few weeks left in the 2010-2011 school year, he told the teaching staff he understood they were tired. But he had gathered them late one afternoon to plant seeds, questions he wanted them to be working over in their minds for the next couple of months so they could find solutions by the time they met again during the summer.
Attendance was still a major issue. Even though it had improved from 87 percent to 89 percent, it fell short of the 94 percent state and federal standard.
He handed out papers with an analysis of PSAT scores and graduation rates. He pointed out that the brightest students weren't always in the highest-level classes and that some students with below-average PSAT scores had done high-level work. He asked what that said about the students' needs. He gave no orders, no instructions. The details would be left to the teachers to work out.
At the end of a long year like this, the faculty could lose sight of how far the school had come since the summer of 2008.
No gold medals are handed out to turnaround schools when they meet a certain mark. The successes come out in dribs and drabs, and so the depth of the changes was easy for people from the outside to miss and for those enmeshed in the work to forget.
In these first three years, the graduation rate had soared from 62 percent in 2008 to 78 percent in 2010. (The turnaround of a Memphis school that took its graduation rate from 60 percent to 80 percent during the same period was deemed significant enough to earn a visit from President Barack Obama.)
The college acceptance rate jumped from 42 percent in 2009 to 70 percent in 2011. And the dropout rate, which had been in the 30 percent range, dropped to 21 percent this year.
In addition, more students were passing the HSAs. In 2010, 79 percent of seniors had passed the English test, compared with 56 percent in 2008, before Shouldice took over. Similar jumps have been seen in algebra and biology. The achievement gap between African-American students and white students who had remained at Dundalk for several years was shrinking. And the school had met the annual progress goals for No Child Left Behind for two years. This past school year, Shouldice believed the school may have just missed the goals, although the final state calculations are not yet out.
Statistically, researchers say, Dundalk is one of those rare success stories that the Obama administration is so desperate to find — a turnaround attempt that has worked.
Many teachers say good mentoring and teams of teachers working together have been the reason the school has improved. "You can see some of the change in the teachers is dramatic. Some of those teachers are rocking," Cline said.
It is an observation that brings a sly smile to the principal's face. Indeed, that is just what Shouldice wants the staff to think, that they are at the center of the work.
But the intangible changes that Shouldice witnessed also made him proud of the progress. Only four teachers retired or left the school by choice at the end of this year, perhaps one of the greatest testaments to the change in culture.
The proof also lay in students like Didi and Shain, who walked across the stage at graduation June 7 on their way to community college. "It was a huge relief. I have come so far ... and it felt like a big accomplishment," said Shain.
But everyone knows there are still great issues to wrestle with. Every year, 50 percent of the school's student body turns over. Of the 260 rising seniors, only 63 had been at the school in ninth grade. Overall, the economy has taken a toll on families, who are falling out of the middle class.
The school is facing more changes. Class sizes will increase because the school has lost 14 teaching positions as part of a reduction in high school staff countywide. A $60 million facility, which will combine Sollers Point High with Dundalk, is rising just feet away from the old building and is expected to open in the fall of 2013.
But as the school year begins, Shouldice believes his young faculty is beyond their first- and second-year difficulties and are now beginning to feel comfortable in their teaching skins. "I have great confidence in them," he said.
Personally, though, he knows that they must get much better. He needs 90 percent of the staff to be outstanding, not just 20 percent, as it is at some schools. And in his reflective moments he does have doubts.
"There is no formula for this. How do you lead a group of teachers to be remarkable teachers?" he asks.
He wonders how he will sustain the progress and keep the faculty creative, energized, proud of the school and fulfilled professionally. "I want them to feel valued by what we are doing and the community," he says.
Shouldice hopes by the time he is moving students into the new building in two years, principals from around the region will be coming to look at Dundalk to ask how it managed to achieve what many schools haven't.
In the meantime, he knows he has a lot of work to do.