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Scrutiny Increases At Ailing Schools

4 in Pr. George's May Get Assistance

By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 24, 2005; Page B01

BALTIMORE, March 23 -- Four Prince George's County schools would be guided by "turnaround specialists" next year under a plan approved here Wednesday that shows how a landmark federal education law continues to shake up local school systems.

The action by the State Board of Education adds another layer of scrutiny to the schools -- James Madison Middle in Upper Marlboro, Doswell E. Brooks Elementary in Capitol Heights, Gaywood Elementary in Seabrook and Overlook Elementary in Temple Hills -- which frequently have struggled to meet academic benchmarks in recent years.

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Working with principals, the turnaround specialists would have master's degrees in school administration and at least five years of experience as teachers and three years as principals. They also would be versed in the county's curriculum and management style.

Mary Cary, an assistant state school superintendent, said the specialists would have "substantial" powers to help improve schools that have shown "a serious lack of student achievement over time."

But county school officials, who drafted the turnaround plan to meet the requirements of the 2002 No Child Left Behind law, said the targeted schools already are making progress.

"By no stretch of the imagination could these schools be identified as failing," Leroy Tompkins, chief accountability officer for the county schools, said in an interview after the state board meeting.

The developments demonstrated anew the hurdles facing the Prince George's school system, in which 73 of 196 schools are rated in need of improvement. Of Maryland's 24 districts, only Baltimore has more schools on the state watch list. The state board also approved turnaround, or "restructuring," plans Wednesday for 15 Baltimore schools.

In Montgomery County, 18 schools are on the state watch list, but none is restructuring. Such plans are required when a school stays on the watch list for four consecutive years.

Of the 73 schools on the Prince George's watch list, seven already are restructuring. Wednesday's action could raise that total to 11 by fall.

But county school officials say that such school accountability measures obscure some encouraging trends in test scores.

Two of the targeted schools, Overlook and Doswell E. Brooks, showed adequate progress on the 2004 state reading and mathematics examinations. If results from this month's Maryland School Assessments show that those schools met all of the standards for a second straight year, they will be taken off the watch list and their turnaround plans rendered moot.

"We're not sad, on edge or beaten down," said Patricia Lowery, principal at Overlook since 2000. "We know we're working hard, working for the children. The main thing we're concerned about is the progress of the students."

Overlook has more than 400 students from pre-kindergarten through fifth grade. Lowery said that parents naturally are eager for the school to progress, but the faculty and administration try not to dwell on state accountability measures. "It can pull your morale down so low until frustration and stress take over," she said.

A turnaround specialist, if needed, would be "another support to the school, another helping hand, to bring in ideas and discuss decisions." Lowery said.

Under the county plan, turnaround specialists would spend an average of two days a week in the targeted schools. They would monitor disabled students in special education programs, observe classrooms, help supervise teacher training, help principals manage budgets and personnel and, in general, act as reform catalysts.

Similar steps are underway this year in five middle schools -- Charles Carroll in New Carrollton, G. Gardner Shugart in Temple Hills, Nicholas Orem in Hyattsville, Stephen Decatur in Clinton and Thurgood Marshall in Temple Hills -- and in Bladensburg Elementary School and Lyndon Hill Elementary School in Capitol Heights.

James Madison, one of the four schools targeted Wednesday by the state board, failed to make adequate progress last year, but test data show it barely missed. The middle school met its reading and mathematics targets for every group of students except those in special education. At Gaywood Elementary, several math targets were met, but the school fell short in reading.

School officials said the law's strict requirements trip up schools that fail to meet standards for just one group of students. "It's equivalent to taking a test and having to get it 100 percent right to pass," Tompkins said.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company


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