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)
But he had wanted to be more than just "a speed bump on someone's way to take over the world at … (fill in the blank with a great college)." At Dundalk, he thought, he might become a lifeline for students. After eight years at one of the county's best high schools, he jumped ship and went to one of the county's worst.
Some Towson teachers thought he was crazy, he said, and asked, "Don't you know how good it is here?"
He found he liked the straight-talking, in-your-face approach of the Dundalk students. A teacher with a love for the dramatic, Hohner identified with them. "Many of my kids are going through things I don't think most adults could deal with. They show me a strength and resilience just to get up here every day," he said.
Hohner had grown as a teacher, he thought. He was offering support to other colleagues because "you never know when you are going to be called to the next room because there is a fight or someone is having a meltdown." And as a gray-haired guy, he was learning from these energetic new teachers and beginning to see a change in the students who came to him.
They were better prepared, asking more questions about college and behaving better. "I am seeing a strong interest in academics," he said. Students who had gotten D's and E's were now getting C's, he said.
He saw so much untapped potential in students, in general, and wished the school had better strategies to get parents more involved in supporting good homework and study habits.
"People who live in Dundalk are fiercely proud of who they are," Hohner said. "They love each other, love America, and love their kids. And they want us to help give their kids the best chance at being successful in life."
More work to do
Shouldice could barely be heard over the drone of one of the school's few air-conditioning units. With only a few weeks left in the 2010-2011 school year, he told the teaching staff he understood they were tired. But he had gathered them late one afternoon to plant seeds, questions he wanted them to be working over in their minds for the next couple of months so they could find solutions by the time they met again during the summer.
Attendance was still a major issue. Even though it had improved from 87 percent to 89 percent, it fell short of the 94 percent state and federal standard.
He handed out papers with an analysis of PSAT scores and graduation rates. He pointed out that the brightest students weren't always in the highest-level classes and that some students with below-average PSAT scores had done high-level work. He asked what that said about the students' needs. He gave no orders, no instructions. The details would be left to the teachers to work out.
At the end of a long year like this, the faculty could lose sight of how far the school had come since the summer of 2008.
No gold medals are handed out to turnaround schools when they meet a certain mark. The successes come out in dribs and drabs, and so the depth of the changes was easy for people from the outside to miss and for those enmeshed in the work to forget.
In these first three years, the graduation rate had soared from 62 percent in 2008 to 78 percent in 2010. (The turnaround of a Memphis school that took its graduation rate from 60 percent to 80 percent during the same period was deemed significant enough to earn a visit from President Barack Obama.)
The college acceptance rate jumped from 42 percent in 2009 to 70 percent in 2011. And the dropout rate, which had been in the 30 percent range, dropped to 21 percent this year.
In addition, more students were passing the HSAs. In 2010, 79 percent of seniors had passed the English test, compared with 56 percent in 2008, before Shouldice took over. Similar jumps have been seen in algebra and biology. The achievement gap between African-American students and white students who had remained at Dundalk for several years was shrinking. And the school had met the annual progress goals for No Child Left Behind for two years. This past school year, Shouldice believed the school may have just missed the goals, although the final state calculations are not yet out.
Statistically, researchers say, Dundalk is one of those rare success stories that the Obama administration is so desperate to find — a turnaround attempt that has worked.
Many teachers say good mentoring and teams of teachers working together have been the reason the school has improved. "You can see some of the change in the teachers is dramatic. Some of those teachers are rocking," Cline said.
It is an observation that brings a sly smile to the principal's face. Indeed, that is just what Shouldice wants the staff to think, that they are at the center of the work.