When Khalek Kirkland and one of his college buddies imagined their dream jobs, they wanted to be in charge of schools where they had students for enough hours in the day to change the course of their lives.
Kirkland got that job this summer as head of the SEED School, a public boarding school that serves at-risk kids from 18 of Maryland's 24 jurisdictions. "SEED is the dream job," Kirkland said.
But Kirkland, 39, also understands that dreams can come with challenges. The New Yorker, who has moved his wife and two small children into a dormitory on the campus, is being viewed as the man who can put the school on the right path after several difficult years.
While its opening in an old city high school in Southwest Baltimore was championed by state leaders and educators, the SEED School of Maryland has not delivered the kind of academic success that was expected when legislators passed a bill to allow a public boarding school in 2006.
Its students performed above the state average on reading and math tests only once in the past three years, and this year it was designated by state officials as a school "in need of improvement." Moreover, SEED's eighth-graders, who have all attended the school since sixth grade, were still doing poorly in math by the end of the year. Only 45 percent passed the state math test this year, while 80 percent passed reading.
The school also has had problems retaining its students. SEED started four years ago with about 80 sixth-graders; 66 of them remain.
"I think they have had growing pains," said Bernard J. Sadusky, interim Maryland school superintendent.
Maryland State Department of Education staff, including former state superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, met with leaders of SEED to discuss achievement this past school year, he said, and the school has made some adjustments.
Sadusky said the state believes the school may not have been teaching a curriculum that stressed the same skills students needed to do well on state tests, it hadn't given teachers enough training to teach at-risk students, and it didn't make the best use of testing data.
The school has since hired a consultant to analyze data, Sadusky said, adding that he believes the school will do far better this year.
SEED is hoping that Kirkland can bring stability to the top leadership. The first head of the school left within months of its opening.
After Kirkland arrived in June, he began making a series of changes. He reorganized the school schedule so students can begin their homework right after classes, rather than after sports, clubs and dinner when they were too tired to concentrate. He has also brought in a writer who will work after school with the students on plays.
The school has hired 12 new teachers and Kirkland is giving all teachers more training in how to handle a wide variety of students in the classroom and in special education. "I think in order to get good results we need great teachers," he said, adding that he expects students to go far beyond just passing the state tests.
To entice students to stay at SEED, he decided to expand the sports facilities. He took two unused rooms in the old building, both with wooden floors, and made one into a dance studio and the other into a weight room and wrestling space.
He has made the tennis courts more usable, refurbished the baseball field and had the trees and underbrush growing into the track hacked away.
"I don't think what we did was take full advantage of our campus," he said.
Eric Adler, a founder of the SEED Foundation and a former high school physics teacher at St. Paul's School in Baltimore County, acknowledges that the school may not have had the success that was hoped for in the past two years. But he says starting a new boarding school from scratch is a complex challenge, and it can be difficult to do well in the first few years. Most students enter SEED several years behind in reading and math.
Adler points to the success of the first SEED School, started in Washington in 1998, which is now one of the highest-performing charter schools in the district. Moreover, SEED says 96 percent of students go on to four-year colleges, even though most come to the school in sixth grade with factors that make them at risk for not graduating from high school. They come from economically disadvantaged families, have little support at home or have been doing poorly in elementary school.
The dream in 2006 was to build a school in Maryland that would help lift children out of those circumstances and give them enough support 24 hours a day, five days a week, to keep them away from neighborhood forces that could doom them to failure.
Students stay at the school in dorms from Sunday afternoon to Friday afternoon, when they get picked up by parents or take transportation provided by SEED to a central location where they get rides home. At night they live on campus with staff the school hires to provide supervision and support. Several teachers also live in dorm apartments for free.
As a boarding school, the cost per student is not cheap: averaging $35,000 a year. When students are accepted at SEED, the public school system in the jurisdiction they are leaving contributes about 85 percent of what it would cost to educate them in their home district and the state contributes $25,000 on top of that. Another $1,000 per pupil in private money is raised each year to supplement public money.
Because SEED adds a grade each year, it will be three more years before the school is at 100 percent capacity, or about 400 students. Today, the school has 308 students.
Any fifth-grade student from any school district in Maryland can apply, although they must qualify as having one of the factors that put them at risk of failing or dropping out. Because more students want to come to SEED than there are open spots, the incoming class is chosen by lottery. Students cannot be added after the end of the sixth-grade year, although the school keeps a waiting list of sixth-graders and will let them start midway through the year if others leave.
Kirkland, former principal of a middle school in Brooklyn, N.Y., said there are a number of heartbreaking cases of students on the waiting list who have little parental support and are calling daily to find out if their name has moved up the list.
For Michelle Lee, whose daughter, Madison Lee, joined the school in the first class of sixth-graders, the school has been "wonderful."
"She loves it," she said. Lee has never regretted the decision to send her, even though it was hard to let go of her little girl in the sixth grade. She said she knew "as a single mother with a limited income, SEED would open her to a world of new opportunities."
The teachers, she said, have traveled and can share their experiences with her daughter. She said her 17-year-old son goes to Polytechnic Institute. "He doesn't even talk about college, but my daughter talks about it all the time," Lee said.
The 52-acre campus is also getting an overhaul. It is the old home of Southwestern High School, which was leased to SEED by the city after it shut down the comprehensive high school. A campaign has raised millions in private funds to build two new dorms over the past few years and renovate the old Southwestern building, a massive brown structure with few windows.
SEED has already torn down half of the building, removed much of the remaining wing's interior and is raising money to complete the renovations.
With the changes to the campus and in the classroom for the coming school year, much is expected of Kirkland.
"We are very excited about Khalek," Adler said. "We expect [in 10 years] that he is going to be running a school like the one in Washington that is producing great results for kids."
And Kirkland does have his old college friend and fellow New York middle school principal to thank for his dream job and to turn to for advice. The friend, Charles Adams, is head of the SEED School in Washington.