Baltimore schools struggle in new star ranking system, but CEO Santelises promises change

The majority of Maryland’s struggling schools are concentrated in Baltimore City, according to rankings released Tuesday.

The state has implemented a new accountability system that rates every school on a number of factors, including standardized test scores, chronic absenteeism rates and the achievement of English language learners. Each school is given a rating, with one star being the lowest and five stars being the highest.

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).

School system CEO Sonja Santelises said she wasn’t surprised by the results, but that they do not factor in the complexities of the city’s education system. The district has faced decades of underfunding, and many of its students come from families who live in poverty. She said that even before the results were publicized Tuesday, the district had made changes to begin transforming the lowest performing schools.

“There are some one-star schools,” she said. “But those are in communities where we’ve made changes. Many have new buildings and new leaders and critical numbers of new teachers who are working together to make change. … The ranking systems don’t say everything about the progress that’s happening in schools.”

Search for star ratings for every Maryland elementary, middle and high school »

Some of the city’s worst-rated schools likely won’t be open next year. As part of an annual review, Santelises has recommended the school board close a handful of schools where academic achievement lags.

Roots and Branches School — a public charter school — is rated as the state’s second-worst school, earning just 12 points and one star. The school board will vote in January on whether to close that school and five others, each of which earned between a one- and two-star rating. The Roots and Branches principal declined to comment Tuesday.

Santelises also ordered a shake-up of principals last summer. Nicholas D'Ambrosio, for example, took over the troubled Academy for College and Career Exploration after leading the high-performing Roland Park Elementary/Middle for six years. His former school earned four stars; his new one got one star. Santelises says reforms at that school and others will play out in future years’ results, as principals now have a better idea of how the system works.

“The rankings will look different next year,” she said.

Some education analysts have expressed worry that this kind of ranking system will simply give a black eye to poor schools, which struggle to compete against suburban counterparts with wealthier student populations and more classroom resources.

The state plans to eventually make it possible to compare schools with others that have similar demographics. Santelises said that tool — which is absent this year — is vital.

It will give the district “a better temperature check about how we as a community, relative to other communities, are serving the same population of young people,” Santelises said. “We are still looking for that.”

Federico Adams, principal of William Pinderhuges Elementary/Middle School, echoed her concerns. When he looked at Baltimore schools that, like his, earned one star, he noticed that they were largely concentrated in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. His students live in West Baltimore’s Sandtown-Winchester, the neighborhood where Freddie Gray grew up. Many of the children there struggle with chronic hunger and were born into generational poverty.

How, Adams asks, can the state compare his school to another program in a richer county? He understands the need for the state to have an accountability system, but said it needs more nuance.

“My kids can compete with anyone but you’ve got to level that playing field,” he said. “It’s like comparing apples and the Titanic.”

Adams said until there is more money funneled to poor schools, the star rating system will stigmatize programs like his. A one-star effectively gives them a “scarlet letter.”

“What is the state doing to say, ‘Hey, all you ones and twos — tell us what you need to become threes and fours,’” Adams said. “They need to look at the conditions in which the school exists.”

Still, nearly 70 city schools earned three stars or higher.

And there are some bright spots. Three schools — Baltimore School for the Arts, Baltimore Polytechnic Institute and Hampstead Hill Academy — were awarded five stars.

“We have schools that are doing a good job educating the young people who come to them,” Santelises said. “We need more.”

trichman@baltsun.com

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