Once students hurled computers out the windows at Calverton Middle School, but today they are learning on state-of-the-art technology that has flooded into the West Baltimore school. Once teachers couldn't wait to transfer out of a place where students ruled the classrooms, but now faculty turnover has slowed.
Calverton is among seven Baltimore schools benefiting from a $3 billion federal program that is focused on the worst of the nation's schools. And though it is far too early to declare the effort a success — at Calverton or the other city schools — some improvements are clear.
"I feel more safe and I feel like I am learning a lot more. They are starting to have challenges for us," said Jasmine Dukes, a seventh-grader at the newly revamped Friendship Preparatory Academy at Calverton.
The seven Baltimore schools were chosen to receive $25 million over three years in the School Improvement Grant program, with much going to technology and teacher training. In the program's second year, the schools have showed varied results: Some have gotten worse, and others are slowly showing progress.
Because national experts say there is no proven model for turning a school around, the city is using different approaches, from turning schools over to outside operators or charters to firing staff and starting over. Schools don't get fixed quickly, and state and city officials said it will take several years to understand what has worked.
"There is no silver bullet. The work is messy. It is not linear," said Tina McKnight, who has helped to monitor the schools for the Maryland Department of Education.
Overall, though, Maryland educators say they are pleased at the early results. "The success we have been seeing at these schools has not been seen for a long time," said Ann Chafin, an assistant state superintendent, although she acknowledged that "every school is moving at its own pace."
Commodore John Rodgers Elementary has exceeded the expectations, improving by all measures, including test scores. It was taken over by the Living Classrooms Foundation, a Baltimore based nonprofit that already runs Crossroads, one of the city's most successful middle schools.
"We've had great pockets of success," said Maria Navarro, special assistant to the city's chief academic officer.
Under the nonprofit Friendship Public Charter, Calverton has spent more than a million dollars in federal money on mentoring new teachers, new science labs, two new computer labs, a laptop for every teacher and a white board in every classroom.
The climate of the school is far better, according to school system surveys. Attendance is up and truancy down. Test scores in the first year, however, dropped.
The city turned over the reins of five of seven of the SIG schools in 2010 to outside operators, who were as varied as the Johns Hopkins University and Global Partnership Schools, a national for-profit company.
At three of the schools, the first-year results were so disappointing that city school leaders decided to put them in "corrective action" and considered taking operations of one of the schools back. Principal turnover has been high in those schools: Two each had three principals in the first year.
"We haven't seen the improvement that we expected to see in some schools around rigor and culture and in some cases they are really struggling," Navarro said.
Of greatest concern was Garrison Middle School, where nearly every sign — from attendance to test scores — has gotten worse since it was taken over in 2010 by Global Partnership. The attendance rate at a school with 313 students went from 93 percent to 87 percent in 2011 and still worse, the percentage of students who were absent for more than 20 days that school year rose from 18 to 44.
Chafin said the state and city school leaders considered finding a new operator for Garrison, but ended up keeping Global Partnership because it is willing to make changes.
"We have not hesitated to say that this operator in this school isn't working," Chafin said.
Anna Tilton, chief program officer for Global Partnership, said she believes the school is now on the right track.
"I think the biggest issue in Garrison had to do with turning around the environment. You first have to make sure that students feel safe," she said. "That took a lot of time. ... We have a long way to go. This is a school with years of being chronically underperforming."
Global Partnership replaced the two top leaders at the school in August. Test scores had declined the year before in every subject and grade with the exception of sixth-grade math, but Kevin Woolridge, a new leader working for Global Partnership, said there wasn't time to replace any staff or make major changes in his first few weeks, so they have concentrated on teacher training and support.
The school has instituted a behavior management program, and the suspension rate has dropped 20 percent since this school year began. Woolridge said they are working hard but they aren't expecting test scores to rise drastically this year.
Baltimore school officials said their definition of success is not limited to student achievement data.
"The other piece is sustainability — the continual student success and outcomes five, six years down the line," Navarro said.
Navarro also said the city has encouraged its schools to invest their money strategically.
For example, she said at one city high school, Augusta Fells Savage Institute of Visual Arts, the majority of the $1.4 million budget for this school year has gone toward developing staff, while other schools spent large chunks of their funds creating more positions that won't continue when the grant funds dry up.
Augusta Fells, in its second year of turnaround efforts, is the city's only high school in the SIG program, receiving $4 million in federal funds over three years. Under the turnaround model, new staff was brought in and the curriculum overhauled.
When Lionel Jackson arrived in Baltimore in summer 2010, he entered Augusta Fells, which he had been hired to run, and didn't know where he was —and it wasn't because he was a newcomer to town.
"When I walked in the first day, half of the lights were out, this door didn't work," Jackson said of the school. "I didn't know where Augusta Fells was. There was no identity. There was no mission or vision."
Today, artwork jumps from every corner and crevice, as do the school's mission and purpose: graduation. In the senior wing of the school, posters name the students who still have to pass state requirements to meet that goal.
"Before, you didn't even know it was an arts school, it was just a school people came to ditch — and now it's a place kids come to graduate," Amber Mitchell, now a senior at Augusta Fells this spring, recalled of her first two years at the school.
"I knew I wanted to be an artist, but [my freshman year] I thought, 'Oh my God, am I even going to learn anything, let alone figure out what I wanted to do after? '"
Teachers say the money has illustrated that it's the little things that can make a big difference in the classroom.
"The SMART board was the best thing that ever happened to us," said biology teacher Kiesha Wilson, who has taught at Augusta for six years and survived the staff overhaul. The interactive white board, she said, has allowed her to be more efficient and effective in her lessons.
"People think, 'Oh, you used the money for a little bit of technology,' but this little bit of technology — it touches everybody," she said.
The rest of the school's grant was spent outfitting every classroom with other technology and tools that would foster a more visual approach to teaching and learning.
Additionally, the school was able to build a state-of the-art broadcast studio and art gallery, and Jackson also used the funds to turn an underused part of the school into a community support wing, which houses everything from a food pantry to a free clothing room.
The school continues to struggle with low attendance rates, much attributed to its low-income population. And the challenges of urban education are still prevalent: In the past year, four Augusta Fells students have lost their lives to violence.
In 2011, 77 percent of Augusta Fells' students graduated — up from 50 percent in 2010, though the school's dropout rate rose slightly. And the highest pass rate for the state's High School Assessments was the 27 percent of the seniors who passed the government exam.
While the SIG grants have helped to lay the groundwork for a successful education environment, Jackson says he hopes the achievement data begin to follow suit.
"The challenge for me is to create structures that will sustain over time, so when the money goes away, we can still do it," he added. "This has allowed us to see where we get the most bang for our buck. But the important question is: If this all goes away, can we keep up the momentum?"
The following schools in Baltimore City have received federal School Improvement Grants:
•Garrison Middle School
•Commodore John Rogers Elementary
•William C. March Middle
•Augusta Fells Savage Institute of Visual Arts
National education project
The Baltimore Sun was one of more than 20 news organizations that took part in a collaboration with the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit news outlet, and the Education Writers Association to examine the federal grant program to help turn the nation's worst schools around. To read more stories from the project, go to baltimoresun.com.