In Maryland, some schools overcome challenges to stand out in new rating system

Principal Matt Hornbeck rarely interrupts the school day to make announcements over the intercom. He doesn’t want to be a distraction during students’ time to learn.

But on Tuesday, he couldn’t help himself. When he got the news that Hampstead Hill Academy was one of the top-performing schools in the city — and the state — he had to share it with the students, teachers and staff.

“We’re an example of a city school that’s getting it done,” Hornbeck said.

Maryland’s new system for ranking public schools was released Tuesday, with each school awarded between one and five stars, with five being the best. The system rates every school on a number of factors, including standardized test scores, chronic absenteeism rates and the achievement of English language learners. Even schools with low PARCC scores can earn a good rank if they excel in other measures.

Overall, the new system is tough on the Baltimore school system. There are 35 Maryland schools that earned one star — and 23 of them are in Baltimore. The city also has more two-star schools (76) than the rest of the state combined (68). Some school leaders say this is unsurprising, given the complexities of the education system in Baltimore, which serves many children who come from poverty.

But there are city schools that stand out, like Hornbeck’s, which was one of only three Baltimore schools to earn a five-star grade. And across the state, there are other schools that serve as encouraging signs within their school systems, including Colgate and Bedford elementaries in Baltimore County — which each earned four stars — and South Dorchester, a pre-kindergarten to eighth-grade school in Dorchester County, which earned five stars.

City schools CEO Sonja Santelises said Baltimore’s results don’t tell the whole story of progress being made in the district. Some poor-performing schools are already slated for closure, and others have new leadership. She also is heartened that the city has 19 four-star schools, and that they cut across different demographics.

“We have bright spots across the city,” Santelises said. “That’s what I'm focused on.”

Santelises said the report card lacks a tool that allows people to compare schools to others with similar student populations. She said it’s hard to fairly judge a school where 90 percent of students come from poverty against one where only 10 percent do. The state expects to implement this tool in future years, which should make it easier to determine which schools in challenging circumstances are examples that systems can try to emulate.

Hampstead Hill is a neighborhood conversion charter school, meaning it draws most of its roughly 800 students from its Southeast Baltimore neighborhood.

Hornbeck said there’s no silver bullet for what makes a school “high-performing,” especially given the array of challenges faced by many city public schools. But he says Hampstead Hill has benefited from stable leadership, low teacher turnover, lots of counseling support and the early adoption of restorative practices, a program that attempts to interrupt poor behavior.

Santelises also highlighted Tench Tilghman Elementary in East Baltimore, which earned four stars. The school serves a predominantly African-American student body and many students come from low-income families. While students there performed poorly on standardized tests, the school’s star rating was buoyed by excellent attendance measures.

“Based on their population, you would expect their chronic absenteeism to be higher. And it’s not,” Santelises said. “The question we’re asking is: What is Tench doing as a school that’s allowing those young people to come more consistently than some of their peer schools?”

Baltimore has the highest rate of chronic absenteeism in the state: 37 percent of students missed at least 10 percent of school last year. The rating system awards up to 15 points based on this factor.

Tench Tilghman Principal Jael Samuel said her school is laser-focused on attendance. Staff members regularly make home visits if a student is not showing up for school.

They aim to eliminate every barrier that’s keeping a kid out of the classroom. Are they staying home because they’re sick? Tench has a health center that offers full clinical service, even if a parent lacks health insurance. Is a child missing class because they don’t want to wear a dirty uniform to school? Tench has a washer and dryer that families can use.

“Everyone is committed to it,” Samuel said.

Some schools benefited from the fact that the new star rating system factored in measures other than standardized test scores, which used to be the sole criterion to determine a school’s success. Among them are Colgate and Bedford elementaries in Baltimore County, which earned four-star ratings.

Bedford, a small school in Northwest Baltimore County where four out of 10 children qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, was never before considered one of the county’s top performers until the new rating system started giving credit to teachers who make academic progress with their students from one year to the next.

The school’s PARCC scores were average, but its academic progress scores were high.

“This report looks at Bedford from a more well-rounded perspective,” said Christina Connolly, Bedford’s principal. “It recognizes that growth is equally important and we have made a lot of growth over the years.”

Less than 15 percent of Colgate’s students passed the state tests in math and English, but the teachers have made progress in improving their students’ academic performance, said Principal Erin DiCello.

“It is the first time I have seen our school be evaluated on academic achievement as well as progress,” she said.

She said Colgate’s rating now reflects the time and attention the school pays to teaching immigrants and its focus on making the school a welcoming, positive place. The school also invested a lot of time in teaching kids different virtues, such as self-control and responsibility, which DiCello said translates into better behavior and more time spent on learning.

A number of the schools that seem to be beating the odds are small schools. One is on the Eastern Shore, in a remote part of Dorchester County. South Dorchester, a pre-kindergarten to eighth-grade school, has 200 students. With one class for each grade, the teachers come to know the students well, said Principal Jennifer Ruark.

In middle school, students have the same English teacher for sixth, seventh and eighth grade. The result is that more than 80 percent of students pass the PARCC English tests, outperforming the usual trajectory for a school with 40 percent of its children who qualify for a subsidized meal at school.

Ruark said she knows the community well — some of the students she encountered early on in her career as a principal at the school now have children enrolled there.

“Our families value education,” Ruark said. “We have a very low teacher turnover and a high parent involvement.”

The result? The school earned a five star rating, and its middle grades are now ranked as one of the top four middle schools in the state.

trichman@baltsun.com

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