Changing the game

One year into an ambitious new school development, teachers, students learn to expect more from East Baltimore Community School


Credit: Chris Hartlove

The corner of Ashland and North Collington avenues in East Baltimore is a stark example of urban renewal's transitional anxieties. It's located along the southern border of about seven acres of an inner-city neighborhood where residential row houses once stood. Now it's a weedy plain bounded by a fence. A train track runs along the lot's northern edge, rushing passengers between Washington, D.C., and New York. This intersection sits in Baltimore's Perkins/Middle East neighborhood, home to roughly 4,500 people. It's a neighborhood where more than 87 percent of the population is African-American. Where the median household income is just above $18,000 per year. Where 28 percent of residents live below the poverty line. Where about 20 percent of residential properties are vacant.

On a hot Monday evening in June, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake stands on a podium at that corner inviting people to visualize something different. "We have set out an ambitious goal of growing Baltimore by 10,000 families in the next 10 years," she says. "But to do that, we need current residents to know that we are focused on the fundamentals that mean the most to families: safer streets, better schools, and stronger neighborhoods. . . . An important part of the community is a strong school. And that's what residents will have here soon."

"This program has allowed me to be more focused and patient and complete my classwork. Now I read with interest and curiosity."
Sidney Young

A nice-sized crowd has gathered for the ceremonial groundbreaking of Elmer A. Henderson: A Johns Hopkins Partnership School, construction of which is slated to begin this fall. There is a carnival-like atmosphere. Kids have their faces painted. Nursing students invite kids to jump rope and take their pulse to see how exercise increases heart rate. Both Ravens and Orioles team mascots have shown up. The school, a $43 million facility to house kindergarten through eighth grade and early childhood and community centers, will be the anchor to the 88-acre biotech and residential urban renewal project started in 2002 by the East Baltimore Development Initiative. East Baltimore Development Inc. is a nonprofit organization forged out of the partnership of the state of Maryland, the city of Baltimore, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, and other institutions and businesses, including Johns Hopkins University, whose East Baltimore campus is less than half a mile from this corner. The school will be the first new one built in East Baltimore in 25 years, and Johns Hopkins' first university-assisted community school partnership, a strategy of education reform that has sprouted up around the country over roughly the past three decades.

In his September 2010 inaugural address, Johns Hopkins President Ron Daniels spoke of the university's responsibility to its surrounding neighborhoods. "This commitment to community is manifested in so many different and profound ways," he said. "In the role that our faculty, students, and staff play in our public school system, in the many contributions that our schools and health systems have made to address the pressing health needs of our city, in the energy and financial resources we have invested in the very ambitious and worthy project that is aimed at restoring our city's east side as a safe, prosperous, and vibrant community."

The East Baltimore Development Initiative, and this school specifically, is a big part of that community engagement for Daniels, who in February told the EBDI board that he stakes the success of his presidency on the project's success—a genuine risk, given the community criticisms of the development project since its inception. Speaking at the June groundbreaking, he thanked the elected officials, community and foundation leaders, and Johns Hopkins deans and staff who make the partnership possible, before remarking on an Amtrak train that had passed during a previous speech. "Imagine that in the years to come, when people go up and down the Northeast Corridor," he said, "what they will see in East Baltimore is this magnificent school."

It's an ambitious vision sometimes difficult to picture right now. The East Baltimore Community School is a Baltimore City Public Schools contract school (a version of a charter school) founded three years ago by EBDI. A year ago, the Johns Hopkins School of Education partnered with Morgan State University to take over day-to-day operations of the school. When the new school building is complete, EBCS will move into the space and change its name to Henderson-Hopkins. Until that time, EBCS will be housed in a temporary building that, like Johns Hopkins' East Baltimore campus, is less than half a mile from the groundbreaking event, only to the northwest. Inside a roughly half-square-mile area surrounding the new site, the Baltimore Police Department crime incident reports reveal the following data for January 1 through June 13, 2012, the beginning of the year to the last day of school: 22 assaults, eight breaking and enterings, 10 thefts from vehicles, nine thefts, one vehicle theft, seven robberies, one arson, and three registered sex offenders.

During the 2011–12 year, EBCS served approximately 250 students across grades K–3, 6, and 7. Sidney Young is one of those students. She is also the emcee for the groundbreaking event, and, for a third-grader, she is fantastic with a stump speech, looking adorable in her school uniform and with her face painted, pulling a stool out so she can reach the podium microphone. She proudly talks about her teachers, how her reading habits have changed, and how she feels better about herself. "This program has allowed me to be more focused and patient and complete my classwork," Young says. "Before this program I had a difficult time staying focused and all I wanted to do was get to the end of the story, but I wouldn't understand what the story was about. Now I read with interest and curiosity."

Young's improvement in reading comprehension is commendable. More impressive is how she describes her attitude toward reading. Of course, the complete story of the school and its success won't be revealed for at least a decade, when the students who entered kindergarten here complete high school and begin to navigate life after public education. But the story of how education reform begins is already under way. Three years into its existence and one year into its partnership with Johns Hopkins, the EBCS community is starting to see its students see themselves differently. It's a school in the process of getting people—teachers, staff, parents, students—to expect more from themselves and their school.

Inside the EBCS temporary building, the cafeteria is a white-tile-floored rectangle. Every Wednesday at 11 a.m., tables are folded up and pushed to one side for the weekly community day assembly. On a May morning, students in their uniform khaki pants and navy polo shirts file in by class, taking seats on the floor and clapping in time to a pair of middle schoolers playing hand drums.

Music teacher Bridget Myers directs traffic with a wireless microphone. "This doesn't sound like the end of the school year to me," she says, before thanking teachers by name for getting their classes into place. "Let me see. Does kindergarten clap the loudest? Or does first grade clap the loudest?" She runs through all the classes, with each class adding a little more excitement when she calls on them. Save sixth grade, which puts all the energy 11- and 12-year-olds can muster into the activity. "Sixth grade?" Myers asks, looking directly at them before breaking into a smile. "Sixth grade needs a little help this morning."

The roughly 20-minute assembly is peppered with music and call-and-response, which provide a framework for participation, an entry point for students to take part in and take charge of the day. "What that does for our middle school is it really boosts their confidence and allows them to know they are really the school leaders," says kindergarten teacher Andrea Evans. "It's not just sit still, be quiet. We have a purpose of why we're in community meeting and they want to be a part of it and included and know that the younger children are looking up to them."

This sense of purpose is the biggest noticeable change in the school. It was one of the main goals for the 2011–12 school year identified by Annette Anderson, the School of Education's dean of community schools. A Baltimore native, Anderson was hired by EBDI and brought to the school in January 2011. She had previously been the principal of a university-assisted school in Chester, Pennsylvania, a partnership between Widener University and the Chester Upland School District.

Anderson says that when she arrived at EBCS one of her immediate goals was to address the school's culture and environment. "We set out to change the conditions in which the instruction occurred," she says. That included changing colors and settings in the school itself to create a different atmosphere. Bare cinder block walls were covered with images depicting life in the neighborhood. "We chose very specific images of East Baltimore and our school in the context of the rest of the world because we want our children to know where they are and where they're going and that they're part of something bigger," she continues. "We needed to announce that we were here and that we're serious about what we came here to do. The priority this year is to set the conditions for rigor."

In the education reform conversation of recent decades rigor is one of those words associated with a different group of three Rs—rigor, relevance, and relationships. It's an ideal summarized by Richard Strong, Harvey Silver, and Matthew Perini in their 2001 book, Teaching What Matters Most: Standards and Strategies for Raising Student Achievement: "Rigor is the goal of helping students develop the capacity to understand content that is complex, ambiguous, provocative, and personally or emotionally challenging."

This definition frames public education not as the institution through which we gain access to information but the laboratory where we learn how to think about who we are. That sets the benchmark higher than the dominant 20th-century model, which defined K–12 education as the first step on the road to college and/or entering the workforce. At stake is how a society produces knowledge, and universities—especially research universities—are knowledge producers.

In a sense, Johns Hopkins' relationship with EBCS and the building of the Henderson-Hopkins partnership school brings education reform back to where its American revolution started. In the 2000 paper "The Role of Community-Higher Education-School Partnerships in Educational and Social Development and Democratization," the University of Pennsylvania's Ira Harkavy and the late Lee Benson chart the course of American education revolutions, naming the creation of Johns Hopkins—a distinctly American variation on the European research university—as the first. The second revolution is the postwar rise in Big Science in conjunction with the Cold War, spurred by Manhattan Project administrator Vannevar Bush's call for a bigger governmental support of research.

Since the 1989 end of the Cold War, Benson and Harkavy argue that research universities should continue to realign their identities, pursuing local solutions alongside scientific breakthroughs. Building on the education reform ideas of John Dewey (who received his doctorate from Johns Hopkins in 1884), who launched lab schools at the turn of the century, the authors see education as the key component in creating healthy communities, which create a healthy democracy. One of the byproducts of the Big Science era was the creation of a "contradiction between the increasing status, wealth, power, and dominant role of American higher education in American society . . . and the increasingly pathological state of the American city," they write. In short, "after 1989, the combination of external pressure and enlightened self-interest increasingly spurred American research universities to recognize that they would benefit greatly if they functioned simultaneously as universal and as local institutions of higher education, i.e., democratic cosmopolitan civic institutions not in but of and for their local communities." [italics the authors']

It's a school in the process of getting teachers, staff, parents, and students to expect more from themselves and their school.

It's such an endeavor that President Daniels alluded to in his inaugural address, and to get there requires a change in school culture—at the university level of how it understands its role in its surrounding community and particularly at the level of the primary school and in the classroom itself. It's a matter of calibrating students, teachers, and parents to expect something different from the time kids spend at school. It's a matter of defining and refining the parent-student and parent-teacher relationship. It's a matter of everybody—teachers, students, parents—knowing and understanding their roles in the education process.

A school of education's role is to identify issues facing education and try to address them, and Henderson-Hopkins will provide the Johns Hopkins School of Education with a site for such research, professional training, and evaluation. When it opens in 2013, the new school will involve faculty and graduate students from not only the School of Education but also the School of Nursing for health and wellness, the Peabody Institute for musical instruction, and other of the university's academic divisions to create a hub for the developing East Baltimore community. "The timing was right for us to move in and get to know the existing staff while we think about how we're going to expand and build those relationships," says David Andrews, dean of the School of Education, of the school's role at EBCS. "So when we move into the new building, it's about expanding and modifying a program, not building it from the ground up." Taking over school operations enabled Johns Hopkins to begin the transition process, including hiring a principal and introducing a new curriculum.

Image credit: Chris Hartlove

That principal is Baltimore native Katrina Foster, Ed '05 (MAT), a 10-year education veteran who joined EBCS a few weeks before the 2012–13 school year began. (With a new kindergarten class matriculating, the school has grown this year to 284 students.) The new curriculum is Success For All (SFA), a comprehensive school reform effort that builds peer-to-peer learning into its program.

In education reform, such student-to-student conversations are known as "Accountable Talk," a concept introduced by educational psychologist Lauren Resnick in the mid-1990s as a way to add interactive discussion to the primary education process. How Accountable Talk works in the classroom is one ongoing discussion in education reform. Success For All was created in the 1980s by Robert Slavin, A&S '75 (PhD), his wife, Nancy Madden, and Johns Hopkins colleagues. (Today, Slavin and Madden are faculty at Johns Hopkins' Center for Research and Reform in Education, and SFA curricula are used in about 1,500 schools nationwide.) It's a reading-comprehension and oral communication–intensive approach that emphasizes cooperative learning, grouping students together according to ability to focus on skills development, steady assessment to identify and address issues quickly, and family engagement.

It's also an evidence-based education curriculum that promotes best practices informed by classroom data. "We have what is generally considered one of the most evidence-based literacy programs in the country," Andrews says. "It's particularly suited for trying to close the achievement gap, especially with struggling readers who need to be regrouped and focused."

SFA facilitator Christine SySantos came to EBCS to train the staff in the curriculum, oversee the process, and provide professional development throughout the year. "The students go through a transition of getting along together and learning problem-solving skills and listening skills," she says. "Success For All is based on cooperative learning, so if the children don't know how to work together, it's not going to be successful." For the first two weeks of the academic year, the kindergarten team worked with the students to create a more sociable classroom, where speaking to the teachers and each other was part of the process. "We worked on being respectful and taking turns and being able to talk and disagree without being argumentative," Evans says. "Accountable Talk is a big push in Baltimore City this year, speaking and listening. An assessment has to be individualized, but while we're working out our answers, it's OK to talk with other people. It's not just, well, Johnny, you sit and you get your answer, and Sue, you sit and you get your answer, and then you'll compete and see who has the best answer. Those days are gone."

That social aspect runs through the school, the product both of the SFA approach and the school's stabilizing its identity in its third year of operation. "The whole environment of the school was different this year," kindergarten teacher Terry Kreft says. "We know the children and they know us. And to me that's one of the biggest things with behavior—we all know what's expected of us."

Parents know what's expected of them as well, says teacher assistant Matthew Prestbury, who this past year started the Fathers Are Necessary club, where fathers and father figures discuss fatherhood, manhood, and raising children. "The parents have an understanding of the fact that it's not going to be a whole bunch of foolishness," he says. "If you want your child here, there are certain things you have to do."

"Our parent base is similar to what you would find at an elite school—they'll go above and beyond," Evans says. Parents consistently show up for the school's Celebrations of Learning nights, where the students present classroom projects; Parent and Community Engagement meetings, during which school policy and procedures are discussed and shaped; and weekend Parent University classes, to work on and discuss parenting skills. When EBCS had to present its name change to Henderson-Hopkins before the Baltimore City Public Schools board, about 50 parents showed up to the meeting with placards supporting the change. "The idea that we have both Henderson and Hopkins in that name, in that collaboration, I think that was very important for the community," Anderson says. "I think we've built up a great degree of trust with families."

Classroom success, though, is still evaluated by the standardized testing mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act, and in Maryland that means the Maryland School Assessment administered to third- through eighth-graders every March. EBCS third-, sixth-, and seventh-graders scored about the same as their citywide peers on the math assessment. The seventh graders scored better than their peers in reading, though the third- and sixth-graders performed worse.

"New schools take two or three years to have the kind of impact that we want them to have, typically," Andrews says of the MSA scores. "The first year is essential to establish the right type of culture and climate. When we came into the school there was an overabundance of discipline and attendance problems. So we spent a lot of time improving the culture and climate, and we feel like we've accomplished that pretty well. We've seen major drop-offs in discipline contacts, meaning the number of kids sent to the principal's office who are written up, or suspensions or expulsions." But that's only the first step, Andrews says. "We're happy with the culture and the climate, but we're not satisfied with where we are academically. We have to keep expectations high for this group of kids. That's my job—to keep pushing really, really high expectations and not settle for what we see as kind of small wins."

"We're happy with the culture and climate, but we're not satisfied with where we are academically. We have to keep expectations high for this group of kids."
David Andrews

Education reform is hard work, particularly at a school that will serve as an anchor to urban revival efforts. And Anderson sees the school—its students, teachers, and parents—laying the groundwork for getting the community where it aspires to be. "We really had a great transition into becoming the operator, but that transition is not finished," she says. "We still have to transition into the new facility and transition into our programming serving children not only at a K–8 facility but serving children from 8 weeks old to eighth grade. There's just so many pieces to transition and connect all those dots together."

Anderson also sees the school's relationship with Johns Hopkins as a future model for education reform and university-community school partnerships. "We are uniquely poised to be a leader around what universities can do in the K–12 arena," she says. "The university has a strong impact on the school, but the school is also impacting the university. And I think that is really where the conversation around true education reform is built."

Bret McCabe, A&S '94, is the magazine's senior writer. Many thanks to the EBCS students who participated in our photo shoot: Breyell Pratt, Melise Cade, Catrell Butler, and Reggie Phifer.