City schools with federal turnaround grants have mixed results
Some have gotten worse academically; others are slowly making progress
One of the first things that Lionel F. Jackson Jr., principal of Augusta Fells Savage Institute of Visual Arts, did was to display student artwork in the hallways and in a dedicated gallery at the school. The high school is one of seven Baltimore City schools undergoing turnaround efforts under the federal School Improvement Grant program. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun / April 16, 2012)
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.