Overhauling a troubled school
Hope and frustration as new year starts at Dundalk High School
Student Shain Palmer gives a thumbs up in English class at Dundalk High School. (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore Sun / August 27, 2011)
The struggle to get students to show up each day to learn was a battle waged on several fronts, including the telephone. Teachers were calling students to wake them up, and the school was providing incentives for good attendance. Still they weren't making enough progress.
But there were leaps as well. The new technology, made possible from state and federal grants, had turned a school with overhead projectors into one rich with computers. Teachers now displayed lessons from their laptops, students could check a laptop out of the library and they were experimenting with iPads.
And the school's faculty, including the football coach, Brian Powell, were more involved in the lives of students. Powell followed Didi into his English class one day determined to make him understand that he cared not just about how well he threw a spiral, but also how he did in class.
Powell sat down in the seat next to Didi, who turned to him and said: "Coach Powell, are you going to follow me around to every class?"
Yes, was the answer. Matthew Hohner, the English teacher who was fed up with Didi's lack of focus, saw the hangdog look on Didi's face and thought, chuckling to himself, how miserable he must be and yet how good this was for him.
Didi thought it was the longest school day of his life. "He made me so embarrassed in front of everyone."
But Didi also knew Powell was showing how much he cared. Shouldice had hoped that the new, intense mentoring his teachers were providing on the playing field would reel in students who felt unconnected to school and make them more willing to work hard in their classes. Coaches were showing up at kids' homes and taking them out to dinner.
"It changed my behavior. It changed my attitude toward teachers," Didi said later.
In the fall of 2009, Shain Palmer was starting his third attempt at 10th grade, having nearly flunked or dropped out of several county high schools. Administrators had let him back into Dundalk halfway through the previous year, but his attendance was so poor that he never earned any credits.
Just about everyone had lost patience, including his mother. She was a high school dropout herself, and he remembers her telling him he might as well go out and get a job; he would never cross the stage in a cap and gown. When people gave up on him, Shain got angry and decided to prove them wrong. He returned to Dundalk for another try and found it had changed over the summer. The school was identifying and mentoring students who might drop out; and it was trying to get students to see graduation as a necessity no matter what.
Shain found one teacher he particularly liked. The feeling wasn't mutual, at least not at first.
Before he met Shain, Steve Teter had nearly written him off after reading the string of failing grades on his report cards. But then he realized this class troublemaker was bright and well read. What Shain needed was "positive reinforcement and feedback from the adults around him," Teter said.
When Shain did well on his first test, Teter saw a light go on. It was just enough of a catalyst to push him to work hard.
"Once he knew that I cared about him and thought he was smart and capable, he began to do exceptionally well. You could see that sense of pride building," Teter said. Shain made the honor roll every semester that year.
In Shain's mind, his moment of triumph came when Teter told the entire class that he had expected nothing but a "punk," but had found his best student. And there was another benefit. That troublemaker was now leading by example and turning others in his class around.
A sense of purpose
As 120 10th-graders sat down in front of computers in the library to take the state English test in May, Hohner was acutely aware of a new tension and seriousness of purpose in the room.
"You could have heard a pin drop for three and a half hours," he said. The students attacked the High School Assessment, a test they needed to pass to graduate. He was so proud. "I knew that I had kids on the right path for the first time."