Maryland's only public boarding school tries for new start in its fourth year
New head of SEED looks to turn around struggling school
Khalek Kirkland, 39, is the new head of school at SEED, the state's public boarding school that begins its fourth year in the fall with a mixed record. (Jed Kirschbaum, Baltimore Sun / August 14, 2011)
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.