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The Case for Baltimore Talent Development High School

The Case for Baltimore Talent Development High School

The School Commissioners of Baltimore City Public Schools
Jan. 29, 2013

The Case for Baltimore Talent Development High School

This brief presents information that we believe will help the Baltimore City School Commissioners make an informed decision regarding the recommendations they have received as part of the School Renewal Process to end the Center for Social Organization of Schools role as school operator for Baltimore Talent  Development High School (BTDHS) in June 2013 and then move to close the school the following year. We agree with the aims of the renewal process but not their recommendation for BTDHS.

The only question that matters

Will this action lead to better outcomes for the current students of BTDHS and the students it could serve in the future?

The supporters of BTDHS and those who know it best, its alumni, parents, teachers, current students, and community members, believe that a full reading of the evidence will show that accepting the recommendations of the Renewal Board would not be in the best interest of current BTDHS students, and the students BTDHS is designed to serve, those most impacted by the tentacles of poverty.

Speaking for the larger BTDHS community and as the operators of BTDHS, we present the following information. The core strengths of the school will be briefly discussed, as well as the role and contributions of the operator. The brief will then discuss the weaknesses of the school and present some critical information pertaining to them. It will end by presenting a path forward that could benefit all.

In addition to this brief, we invite you to read our application for renewal, which provides more detailed information on the school’s performance, the obstacles it has had to overcome, and its plans for the future. We are also available for follow-up questions or discussions.

What the Renewal Process/Report Found

The Renewal panel and the Renewal Rubric they applied found BTDHS to be ”Developing” in all the core areas reviewed-Academic Achievement, Climate, and Governance. The Chicago 5 Essentials Survey, a nationally validated, evidenced-based instrument that helps uncover a school’s capacity for improvement, reports that BTDHS is “moderately organized for school success.” Neither of these findings, in and of themselves, compel ending BTDHS’s relationship with its operator and closing the school. School closure has its own costs and as such is typically reserved for cases in which schools are severely under-populated or the schools performance is lower than the alternatives that exist for its students. Neither of these circumstances apply to BTDHS. The school has had steady enrollments of about 500 students since its first senior class. This enrollment fills the space that BTDHS has been allocated within the Harlem Park school complex, and the school is populated with students who primarily select it as their first or second choice (after a selective high school). The next section of this brief, moreover, will show that BTDHS is succeeding in its core mission of graduating students who need extra help and supports to succeed, as witnessed by the fact, that it has one of the highest graduation rates among all non-selective high schools in Baltimore City.

Presenting BTDHS’s Strengths

In its nine years, Baltimore Talent Development has been true to its mission. It is an Innovation High School, designed to be a better alternative to the school district’s non-selective high schools. Its mission is to serve students for whom the school district has not yet fully worked. These are students who enter high school with skills substantially below grade level and histories of chronic absenteeism or behavioral challenges. The goal of BTDHS is to provide these students with the education, experiences, and supports they need to graduate from high school prepared for adult success. In short, the school takes students who are heading off-track and positively changes the trajectory of their lives.

The strongest evidence of this is the school’s graduation rate. There is no work to support a family in the 21st century for high school dropouts. Thus, the ultimate outcome for a school system has to be its graduation rate. The difference between earning a standards-based high school diploma (as all BCPSS diplomas are) and dropping out is the difference between having decent odds of a good life, and having almost no odds. BTDHS’s five-year graduation rate, which captures students who graduate on time, as well as those who needed extra time and extra support to earn their diploma and reach state graduation standards, is compared to the other non-selective high schools in Baltimore in Table 1. Maryland State Department of Education data graduation rates show BTDHS is among the top performing, non-selective high schools in Baltimore. In fact, and we believe this is the critical piece of information to inform the school commissioners decision, there is only one non-selective high school with statistically significant higher graduation rates for BTDHS students to attend, should the school be closed. Hence in reality, many of BTDHS’s students, as well as future students in need of additional supports to graduate, would end up at high schools where their odds of graduating are lower, in some cases 20 percentage points lower. Currently 80% of students who attend non-selective high schools go to schools with lower graduation rates than BTDHS, only 5% (those who attend the National Academy of Finance) go to schools with statistically significant higher rates.

The success of the school in achieving its mission of taking students where they are and providing them with the education, experience, and supports they need to graduate from high school can also be seen in Table 1 by comparing BTDHS’s graduation outcomes to the state of Maryland and BCPSS. Maryland for five years in row has been found to have the best school system in the United States by Education Week. Its five-year graduation rate for students who receive free and reduced price lunch is identical to BTDHS’s. BCPSS has rightly been recognized as one of the fastest improving urban school districts, and in particular, for its great strides in raising its graduation rates, especially among young men of color. BTDHS’s five-year graduation rate is 8 percentage points higher than the school district’s for all students, and young men of color.

5-Year Graduation Rates for Non-Selective High Schools
5-Year Grad Rate 2011
National Academy Foundation 86
Baltimore Freedom 82
Renaissance 81
Academy of College and Career 80
Baltimore Talent Development 79
Vivien T. Thomas 79
State of Maryland 79*
Patterson 79
New Era 73
Digital 73
Maritime 73
Baltimore City 71
Heritage High 67
W.E.B. DuBois 65
Forest Park 65
Northwestern 63
Reginald Lewis 60
Augusta Fells Savage 60
Frederick Douglass 58
Southside 56
*for students who receive free and reduced price lunch
Resources for table from Maryland State Report Card:

The Renewal Panel applied a rubric that looked at four-year graduation rates, and developed a scale of effectiveness that was not benchmarked against the available alternatives or success rates achieved in other similar districts (for example graduation rates in Baltimore that put a school on the path to closure, are held up in NYC as definitive proof that the district’s reforms are working). Table 2 applies the Renewal Rubric for graduation rates to all non-selective high schools in Baltimore, as well the state of Maryland, and BCPSS. This shows that according to the graduation rate effectiveness scale used in the Renewal process, the State of Maryland — five-time winner of the best school system in the U.S. ranking — would be rated “Developing” like BTDHS, and the school district of Baltimore, which has made great strides in increasing its graduation rates, would be rated “Non-Effective,” as would the overwhelming majority of non-selective high schools.

4-Year Graduation Rates for Non-Selective High Schools
4-Year Grad Rate 2011 | Renewal Panel Rubric Applied
National Academy Foundation 86.3 Effective
Renaissance 76.6 Effective
Vivien T. Thomas 75.5 Effective
Baltimore Freedom 73.7 Developing
State of Maryland 73.7* Developing
Baltimore Talent Development 73.6 Developing
Patterson 73.6 Developing
Academy of College and Career 70.7 Not Effective
Digital 67.8 Not Effective
Baltimore City 66.7 Not Effective
Heritage High 65.5 Not Effective
W.E.B. DuBois 64 Not Effective
Maritime 63.2 Not Effective
New Era 61.5 Not Effective
Forest Park 60 Not Effective
Northwestern 56.9 Not Effective
Augusta Fells Savage 54.6 Not Effective
Reginald Lewis 54.1 Not Effective
Southside 49.6 Not Effective
Frederick Douglass 49.5 Not Effective
*for students who receive free and reduced price lunch
Resources for table from Maryland State Report Card:

Brief Background on BTDHS as an Innovation High School

BTDHS was launched in 2003, among the second group of Innovation High Schools established by BCPSS in partnership with a coalition of local foundations, including Abell and the Open Society, MSDE, the teachers’ union, and national foundations, most prominently, the Gates Foundation. The purpose of Innovation High Schools was for external partners, including universities and non-profits, to partner with the school district to create new schools. These would be designed to better serve students who would otherwise attend the school district’s then neighborhood non-selective high schools, which faced an overwhelming concentration of students in need of additional academic and non-academic supports. Hence, potential operators were asked to submit school designs to the high school reform review panel that would show how they would address the needs and greatly improve the outcomes for students who, because of their below grade level skills, or attendance and school behavior histories did not qualify for the district’s high schools with admissions requirements, including its vocational schools. Innovation high schools operate as contract schools, in which the operator can provide input into principal and staff selection, and within the resources provided by BCPSS work to implement the school design approved by the High School Reform committee. Innovation schools receive the same funding as BCPSS schools. They are not charters, do not receive the charter school funding allocation, nor charters’ level of independence from BCPSS.

The Role of the School Operator at BTDHS

The Center for Social Organization of Schools is an applied Research and Development unit at Johns Hopkins University School of Education, which has studied and developed interventions and reforms to address the conditions which lead to unacceptable education outcomes for children who live in poverty. It serves as the Innovation School operator for Baltimore Talent Development High School, with a role defined by a contract with BCPSS and the funding currently made available under fair student funding. In practice, what this means is that CSOS, helps implement its evidence-based school reform model, Talent Development Secondary at the school, (for details on the Talent Development school model please visit, provides input into principal selection and annual performance reviews, and directly funds a range of student supports and teacher professional development efforts.

A key fact to note is that CSOS receives no financial support from the school’s budget or the school district for its efforts and the direct in-school supports it provides. Rather through its own fundraising and support of the university, it supports five adults who work in the building on a daily basis, a team of four more who provide supports on a weekly basis, and a host of others who provide on-going assistance to students, teachers, administrators, and programs at the school. In addition, it also provides the funding for a number of student support and professional development programs. Hence, if the recommendation to end CSOS’s role as operator of an Innovation High School, is accepted, the following supports will not be available at the school next year.

  • A full-time math coach, in the building daily, to provide on-going professional development to the school’s math faculty, as well as support and manage the HSA and Bridge programs in mathematics. Both roles are crucial, as unfortunately is the case in most high poverty nonselective high schools in Baltimore, there are high levels of faculty turnover particularly in mathematics.
  • A full- time tutor, in the building daily, for students who are severely behind, (four or more grade levels) in their reading skills.
  • A full-time coordinator, in the building daily, for the school’s Arts and Expressions and after school programs, as well as the funding needed to pay for these opportunities. These programs bring in skilled professionals to teach students photography, dance, spoken word, archeology, pottery etc., and provide the students with critical opportunities to both broaden their horizons and experience success.
  • Full- time support, in the building daily, from a Talent Development school transformation facilitator, who helps the administrators and staff implement the Talent Development design. She also provides direct support to teacher teams and teaming (the Chicago 5 essentials survey rate the school as excellent and above the school district average for teacher collaboration) and assistance with the design and delivery of the schools on-going teacher professional development program. The school transformation facilitator also runs the schools new teacher induction, training, and support program, and organizes the additional week of professional development for the entire staff, which CSOS funds every year.
  • Daily assistance with the schools award-winning drama programs.
  • Weekly teacher coaching from CSOS math and English facilitators, on-going support of science teachers and the schools science program, through a web of partnerships formed and coordinated with the JHU physics, biology, and chemistry departments, and financial and human assistance with school efforts like attendance campaigns, student recognitions, and field trips.
Addressing Weaknesses

The renewal report stated three areas of weakness: academic achievement, chronic absenteeism and parental satisfaction. BTDHS has room to improve in all these areas. However, a key mitigating and correctable variable, which greatly impacted all three of the reported weaknesses, did not receive sufficient attention in the report. For reasons beyond the control of the operator (personnel issues and Family Medical Leave) , BTDHS for three years in a row, from 2009-10 to 2011-12,did not have an active principal in the school for essentially half of each school year. Details are provided in our renewal application. The result is school leadership suffered as the assistant principals in the building had to do their jobs plus the principal’s, and slipped into survival, not improvement, mode, and the teachers were left leaderless.

The impact of this can clearly be seen in the data. 2009, the last year the school had a principal in the building for the full year, was the high water mark for the school, and demonstrates more accurately, what it can achieve when at full strength. In that year, the school was recognized by the school commissioners as one of the few high schools in Baltimore that made AYP for two years in a row, a year after it was the subject of a four-part front page series in USA Today, as a success story. Its mathematics achievement level in 2009 would have earned an effective rating from the school renewal rubric and its English achievement a developing rating. This is also significant, because 2009 was the school’s fifth year of operation, when its contract should have gone through the renewal process. Instead its renewal was delayed by BCPSS for three years, which led to the key data year for renewal lining up with the point when the school was maximally stressed — the end of its third year without a principal in the building for the full year.

BTDHS current achievement levels are not where they need to be, but as demonstrated in our renewal application, they are still better, or as good as, the alternatives available to BTDHS students in other non-selective high schools. We, however, do not accept these levels, and like BCPSS are continuing to search for means to improve them. Over the past three years, in this regard, we have participated in every pilot improvement program BCPSS has offered, including this year’s common core pilots. A core strength of the partnership between BTDHS and CSOS, is that CSOS is able to bring to bring its research capabilities to bear to help solve challenges the school faces. In this regard, we are currently partnering, for example, with Agile Minds and the Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin, to develop solutions for an unmet need — supporting students who enter high school more than two grade levels behind, as most BTDHS and many BCPSS students unfortunately do, to meet Common Core ninth grade expectations.

We believe, moreover, that the straightest path back to the higher achievement levels obtained by BTDHS when it had consistent strong principal leadership, is to secure a strong, stable leader for the school. Working with us, to insure this happens, seems like a much more effective and sure path to obtaining higher outcomes for BTDHS students than to scattering them to other schools many with lower outcomes.

The same is true for chronic absenteeism. The irony here is that both CSOS and BCPSS are viewed as leaders in building awareness of the importance of focusing on reducing chronic absenteeism, and in developing strategies to combat it. However, neither CSOS nor BCPSS or others involved in the effort to  understand and combat chronic absenteeism, has been able to fully understand the forces at play for high  school students in the highest poverty communities. BTDHS’s rate of chronic absenteeism is no better or worse than other non-selective high schools serving the highest needs students, as seen in the table below. That said, BTDHS will not rest until we have figured out how to help all our students attend on a regular basis. This year we are running focus groups to gain a deeper understanding of the causes behind chronic absenteeism and conducting a Count Me In campaign to help students finish the year with strong attendance.

Chronic Absenteeism 2012
Augusta Fells Savage 47.7
Forest Park 55.1
Frederick Douglass 59.3
Heritage High 62.6
Maritime 58.9
Northwestern 54.8
Patterson 56.6
Reginald Lewis 39.1
Southside 56.3
Vivien T. Thomas 48.4
W.E.B. DuBois 52.9
Baltimore City All High Schools 45.6
Resources for table from Maryland State Report Card:

The renewal panel also found BTDHS to be non-effective in terms of parental satisfaction. We do not believe that this was measured in a valid manner. BTDHS parent satisfaction index shows that 77 percent of parents are satisfied with the school. The renewal rubric says that satisfying three out of four parents is not effective but it does not base this on an evidence based benchmark or how much parental satisfaction is required for a high school to be effective. Rather it is derived by creating arbitrary cut points and comparing, the results of BTDHS to all other schools in Baltimore, elementary, and middle, selective and non-selective, even though it is well establish that parental satisfaction is higher in the elementary grades. We were also informed that having 84 percent of parents say they are satisfied would place a school above the 50th percentile and earn them a rating of developing. Given that the sample size for the high school surveys in particular are low, we leave it to the wisdom of the School Commissioners to decide if an effectiveness rating of 77 vs 84% (which could be influenced by having just a few more of parents out of hundreds responding to the survey) is the difference between a more and less effective school. BTDHS works hard to involve its parents at many levels, but we have also found that large numbers of our students are effectively raising themselves.

Path Forward

In this brief, we have presented data, to make the case that BTDHS like many of the non-selective high schools in Baltimore, faces a high degree of challenge in educating students who enter high school multiple years behind grade level and with histories of chronic absenteeism, but has found ways to mitigate these circumstances and true to its mission change the life trajectories of its students. By enabling at least eight out of ten of its students to graduate better prepared for adult success, it is succeeding at a rate only bested by one school, and substantially better than most other non-selective high schools in Baltimore. Hence, ending the role of CSOS as operator and closing the school would not likely result in BTDHS students attending schools with better outcomes and hence increase their odds of success, and would prevent future students from benefitting from the school’s supports.

We are not satisfied with current outcomes and, if given the chance to continue, will work to bring an expanded level of student and teacher support to the school. We propose to work with the city, to make good on a plan started but then stopped several years ago, to turn the Harlem Park complex into a community center, with city agencies in the building to increase the effectiveness with which the nonacademic needs of the area’s students, as well as their parents and families, including teenage pregnancy, childcare, substance abuse, mental and physical health needs, and homelessness are met. The idea is to bring the full weight of existing supports from the department of social services, the health department, police, the department of juvenile services, foster care etc. to bear, in an integrated fashion working hand in glove with the school to provide students with a strong web of academic and non-academic supports. We would also draw on what we have been learning across the nation with our Diplomas Now program which combines whole school reform with enhanced student supports, guided by an early warning system in partnership with City Year and Communities In Schools, whom we would endeavor to bring to BTDHS as well. The goal, is to work with BCPSS and Baltimore City to create a model, for providing the level of supports adolescents who live in poverty of the magnitude found in the Harlem Park community need to come to school every day and work hard, and be provided a clear pathway to adult success. We envision that this school could operate as a R and D, and teaching and training lab, for leaders and teachers from other non-selective high schools in Baltimore. In short, rather they debate data, we should pool our resources, CS0S, BCPSS, and the City to create a model school to the benefit of all.

Students matter most

We want to close though, not with statistics, but with our students. Students who through the unending support of their teachers and staff at BTDHS were enabled to go beyond the path life’s circumstances seem to have in store for them to achieve remarkable feats. Student’s like Linzy, who introduced himself to us in 2004 as an entering freshman during the summer bridge program, as someone who would be president of the United States. Helped by the school through some difficult challenges, Linzy graduated and is on his way, working on the Baltimore mayor’s staff. Or students like Kevin, who learned that he could debate like few others in the nation when at BTDHS he became the only Kentucky Fellow for Debate from an urban school and now has recently won the West Point Tournament for Towson University. Then there is Indigo, Lakeisha, and Christian who came alive at BTDHS and while there earned a scholarship to go to India and are now in college — one studying to become a teacher. Laura, a current student, who is homeless but thriving at school, wrapped in a tight web of adult support, and will graduate this year has said she did not know any other school where she mattered this much.

Robert Balfanz
Operator, Baltimore Talent Development High School and
The Baltimore Talent Development High School Community

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