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Thomas Johnson Elementary's transformation

Thomas Johnson Elementary's declining enrollment once made it a target for school closure. But the Baltimore City Public School district chose to add middle school grades to boost enrollment — and it's a good thing they did. Today, Thomas Johnson Elementary/Middle, in the Federal Hill region of the city, has blossomed into one of the strongest public schools in all of Maryland.

I came across "TJ" through SchoolGrades.org, a site designed by my colleagues at the Manhattan Institute to grade America's schools by a consistent, meaningful standard. Using this tool, I've gone on a quest to identify and visit America's best schools.

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I searched America's 20 largest cities for schools that received an "A" grade that were surrounded by "D" and "F" schools. Visiting TJ, I learned that the school's emphasis on parental involvement, consistent expectations around behavior and flexible administration are what makes it such a diamond in the rough.

After TJ's close call with closure, "we knew that we needed to sell ourselves to the community," according to India Becton, the fifth grade math teacher. The school brought on James Dendinger, known to all as "Mr. D," as principal, and he teamed up with the Downtown Baltimore Family Alliance to convince young families that that they should stay in the city and send their kids to TJ.

The school hosted regular open houses to showcase itself to parents, many of whom came with newborn babies in tow, looking at schools five years early. TJ's emphasis on bringing parents in has not only helped it nearly double in size, from around 300 students to 550, it has also profoundly strengthened the fabric of the school.

"At my old school," says Rebecca McClure, a fifth grade English teacher, "only a couple parents showed up to a back to school night. Here, we see more than 50 for each PTO meeting." The school hosts monthly events for parents, and the PTO has given the school major boosts, raising the funds for a whole new computer lab. Mr. D recalls that when the PTO pitched him on a fundraising Fall Festival, "I'll admit I was skeptical. But it's just exploded. The rain forced it inside almost every year, but this year our parents raised more than $20,000."

There's no sign at TJ of the misbehavior and social strife that plagues so many urban schools. Teachers credit the students, rather than themselves, for upholding high standards of conduct. "I remember this one girl who transferred in," says Laura Yacobucci, a 5th grade special ed teacher. "She was acting out. That's what she had to do at her old school to get respect, to stay safe. One day I took her aside and told her, 'Look around, we just don't do that here.' She realized that what used to get make her cool was making her look like a fool. She changed, just like that."

There's also no sign of the administrative dysfunction made infamous by "The Wire." When I asked Ms. McClure about the famous scene where a teacher opens a closet to find dozens of unused computers, she said, "I saw that at my old school. The system used to be 'use it or lose it.' You had $5,000 for textbooks. You lost the money if you didn't buy them, so you had every reason to buy things you didn't need." But around the time Mr. D started at TJ, former superintendent Andrés Alonso instituted the FAIR funding system, which ties money to students rather than line items, giving principals much more flexibility.

Ms. McClure has seen FAIR cause great disruption in schools that incorrectly estimate future enrollment and are forced to off-load or onboard teachers mid-year. "But Mr. D does this crazy thing I hadn't seen other principals do — he actually asks parents if their kids will be with us next year."

Mr. D says, "FAIR is definitely the best way to fund schools. It makes principals accountable for attracting students, and we can no longer blame the district for holding our school back or trying to make us something we're not. Now, I look at other schools and see what I can learn from them. And when teachers come to me with an idea, I actually have the flexibility to help them pursue it."

The future seems bright for TJ, with content and committed staff eager to build on their steady success. And the school certainly is a bright spot in American education — one that other school leaders could learn a thing or two from.

Max Eden is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. He can be reached at communications@manhattan-institute.org.

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