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Struggling schools get hands-on help from success story in same district

GUIDING LIGHT—Principal Marc Martin greets students at Commodore John Rodgers School, a K8 building in Baltimore. Educators at the school, which has achieved a dramatic turnaround in performance, are now mentoring their counterparts at three of the city’s most troubled schools.
GUIDING LIGHT—Principal Marc Martin greets students at Commodore John Rodgers School, a K8 building in Baltimore. Educators at the school, which has achieved a dramatic turnaround in performance, are now mentoring their counterparts at three of the city’s most troubled schools.

Three chronically underperforming Baltimore City Public Schools are now getting intensive, hands-on guidance from educators at a fourth district school, Commodore John Rodgers, that has achieved a dramatic turnaround.

Educators at the struggling elementary and middle schools—Harford Heights, James McHenry and Mary E. Rodman—won’t just follow a set of guidelines.

Rodgers’ principal, Marc Martin, has begun coaching the schools’ new principals. The three schools will also end classes early on Fridays so educators can travel to Rodgers to attend PD sessions and observe classrooms.

The district intends to get the schools back on track by 2021, the goal of the four-year School Improvement Grant funding the project. A key annual benchmark will be cutting in half the number of students who are two or more grade levels under proficiency, says Sean Conley, Baltimore’s chief academic officer.

“We didn’t need to create a new model, because we have a strategy that worked,” Conley says. “We thought, ‘Let’s put that school at the forefront.’ ”

Commodore John Rodgers, a pre-K through 8 building, once ranked near the bottom of schools in Maryland. Since launching its turnaround initiative in 2010, proficiency scores in math and reading have surged, and enrollment has more than tripled.

Beyond normal expectations

The district launched the new initiative in the same way the turnaround began at Rodgers. Staff at the three schools reapplied for their positions and all three principals were replaced with more experienced educators, Conley says.

“We wanted to know who’s going to be committed beyond normal expectations—who’s really good at creating relationships with students,” he says. “Those are the teachers who were asked to return to those schools.”

Teachers in all four buildings will use an online platform to collaborate and share feedback on lesson plans. And in the classroom, small-group instruction has taken precedence because Rodgers teachers found this to be a more effective way to deliver personalized enrichment to high-performers and individualized assistance to struggling students, Conley says.

Staff members are also being coached in behavior management techniques such as de-escalation and restorative justice. Both methods focus on resolving conflicts and rebuilding relationships rather than on suspension or other forms of punishment.

“Our goal is to contribute to the development of students who are good people who make good choices,” Martin says. “If a positive culture is created at the school level, there will be a positive impact in the community.”

Gang violence in the three communities makes parental involvement a crucial turnaround component. James McHenry followed one of Rodgers’ key engagement strategies this summer by hosting a community barbecue, which 200 people attended.

“You have to start with families and get to know the communities to set the expectations for the schools,” Martin says. “What was missing at these schools was knowing what the expectations were and how we were going to deliver on them.” 


Matt Zalaznick is senior associate editor.