What was be­hind TJ’s turn-around?

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By Max Eden Max Eden is a se­nior fel­low at the Man­hat­tan In­sti­tute. He can be reached at com­mu­ni­ca­tions@ man­hat­tan-in­sti­tute.org.

Thomas John­son El­e­men­tary’s de­clin­ing en­roll­ment once made it a tar­get for school clo­sure. But the Bal­ti­more City Pub­lic School dis­trict chose to add mid­dle school grades to boost en­roll­ment — and it’s a good thing they did. Today, Thomas John­son El­e­men­tary/Mid­dle, in the Fed­eral Hill re­gion of the city, has blos­somed into one of the strong­est pub­lic schools in all of Mary­land.

I came across “TJ” through SchoolGrades.org, a site de­signed by my col­leagues at the Man­hat­tan In­sti­tute to grade Amer­ica’s schools by a con­sis­tent, mean­ing­ful stan­dard. Us­ing this tool, I’ve gone on a quest to iden­tify and visit Amer­ica’s best schools.

I searched Amer­ica’s 20 largest cities for schools that re­ceived an “A” grade that were sur­rounded by “D” and “F” schools. Vis­it­ing TJ, I learned that the school’s em­pha­sis on parental in­volve­ment, con­sis­tent ex­pec­ta­tions around be­hav­ior and flex­i­ble administration are what makes it such a di­a­mond in the rough.

Af­ter TJ’s close call with clo­sure, “we knew that we needed to sell our­selves to the com­mu­nity,” ac­cord­ing to In­dia Bec­ton, the fifth-grade math teacher. The school brought on James Dendinger, known to all as “Mr. D,” as prin­ci­pal, and he teamed up with the Down­town Bal­ti­more Fam­ily Al­liance to con­vince young fam­i­lies that that they should stay in the city and send their kids to TJ.

The school hosted reg­u­lar open houses to show­case it­self to par­ents, many of whom came with new­born ba­bies in tow, look­ing at schools five years early. TJ’s em­pha­sis on bringing par­ents in has not only helped it nearly dou­ble in size, from around 300 stu­dents to 550, it has also pro­foundly strength­ened the fab­ric of the school.

“At my old school,” says Re­becca McClure, a fifth-grade English teacher, “only a cou­ple par­ents showed up to a back-toschool night. Here, we see more than 50 for each PTO meet­ing.” The school hosts monthly events for par­ents, and the PTO has given the school ma­jor boosts, rais­ing the funds for a whole new com­puter lab. Mr. D re­calls that when the PTO pitched him on a fundrais­ing Fall Fes­ti­val, “I’ll ad­mit I was skep­ti­cal. But it’s just ex­ploded. The rain forced it in­side almost ev­ery year, but this year our par­ents raised more than $20,000.”

There’s no sign at TJ of the mis­be­hav­ior and so­cial strife that plague so many ur­ban schools. Teach­ers credit the stu­dents, rather than them­selves, for up­hold­ing high stan­dards of con­duct. “I re­mem­ber this one girl who trans­ferred in,” says Laura Ya­cobucci, a fifth-grade spe­cial ed teacher. “She was act­ing out. That’s what she had to do at her old school to get re­spect, to stay safe. One day I took her aside and told her, ‘Look around, we just don’t do that here.’ She re­al­ized that what used to get make her cool was mak­ing her look like a fool. She changed, just like that.”

There’s also no sign of the ad­min­is­tra­tive dys­func­tion made in­fa­mous by “The Wire.” When I asked Ms. McClure about the fa­mous scene where a teacher opens a closet to find dozens of un­used com­put­ers, she said, “I saw that at my old school. The sys­tem used to be ‘use it or lose it.’ You had $5,000 for text­books. You lost the money if you didn’t buy them, so you had ev­ery rea­son to buy things you didn’t need.” But around the time Mr. Ds­tarted at TJ, for­mer su­per­in­ten­dent An­drés Alonso in­sti­tuted the FAIR fund­ing sys­tem, which ties money to stu­dents rather than line items, giv­ing prin­ci­pals much more flex­i­bil­ity.

Ms. McClure has seen FAIR cause great dis­rup­tion in schools that in­cor­rectly es­ti­mate fu­ture en­roll­ment and are forced to off-load or on­board teach­ers midyear. “But Mr. D does this crazy thing I hadn’t seen other prin­ci­pals do — he ac­tu­ally asks par­ents if their kids will be with us next year.”

Mr. D says, “FAIR is def­i­nitely the best way to fund schools. It makes prin­ci­pals ac­count­able for at­tract­ing stu­dents, and we can no longer blame the dis­trict for hold­ing our school back or try­ing to make us some­thing we’re not. Now, I look at other schools and see what I can learn from them. And when teach­ers come to me with an idea, I ac­tu­ally have the flex­i­bil­ity to help them pur­sue it.”

The fu­ture seems bright for TJ, with con­tent and com­mit­ted staff ea­ger to build on their steady suc­cess. And the school cer­tainly is a bright spot in Amer­i­can ed­u­ca­tion — one that other school lead­ers could learn a thing or two from.

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