School struggles despite No Child law
Associated Press
June 23, 2008

by Ben Nuckols - Jun. 23, 2008 12:00 AM
Associated Press

BALTIMORE - The law is called No Child Left Behind, but anyone who claims it's living up to its billing probably hasn't spent much time at Frederick Douglass High School.
Veteran documentary filmmakers Alan and Susan Raymond did, gathering footage at the historic west Baltimore school during the 2004-05 school year. What they saw left them certain that for inner-city schools to succeed, they need more than standardized tests that measure students' reading and math skills.
Their film, "Hard Times at Douglass High: A No Child Left Behind Report Card," premieres Monday on HBO.
The Raymonds won an Academy Award for best documentary feature for 1993's "I Am a Promise: The Children of Stanton Elementary School," shot at a school in north Philadelphia. They decided to revisit urban education in the wake of No Child Left Behind, the Bush administration's signature education policy that took effect in 2002.
"We realized that this was a very profound piece of policy that was going to change the face of public education in America and that we should go back and look at what's happening," Susan Raymond said. "These are the children who are going to be left behind."
With their unvarnished observations of life inside Douglass' walls, the Raymonds capture the myriad challenges of educating children in impoverished urban neighborhoods. Students show up at school but never report for class, instead roaming the halls. Teachers complain they can't assign homework because they don't have enough textbooks for students to take home. And the principal labors under the knowledge that if test scores don't improve, she'll be replaced.
Established in 1883 as the Colored High and Training School, Douglass is the nation's second-oldest high school built specifically for African-Americans. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall is among the alumni. Yet today, more than 50 years after Marshall successfully argued the case that desegregated the nation's schools, the student body at Douglass remains almost entirely black.
Moreover, because the middle class has long since abandoned west Baltimore, the majority of students at Douglass live in poverty. Two-parent households are rare. "I can't name one person that lives in a house with their mother and their father," a 16-year-old student named Sharnae says in the documentary.
The Raymonds, who got their start with the groundbreaking 1973 PBS documentary series "An American Family," chose Douglass in part because of its history and in part because the principal at the time, Isabelle Grant, was accommodating. The husband-and-wife team, plus a sound recordist, were given unfettered access. The filmmakers captured fights in the hallways. They watched as teachers struggled to maintain discipline, then vented to each other about the lack of resources. And they were in the locker room after Douglass' basketball team was knocked out of the state playoffs.
In one of many wrenching moments, an English teacher, Mr. McDermott, gets fed up and resigns in the middle of the school year. "Teaching becomes secondary, and discipline is the main thing that goes on," he says. "I don't feel like I'm making a difference anymore."
The film finds rays of hope. Douglass has a well-run music production program, a flourishing debate team and a spirited marching band, and some of the school's best students channel their energy into these outlets. And at the end of the 2004-05 school year, Douglass graduated 200 students - its largest graduating class in 10 years. Fifty of them went to college.
But the story didn't end there. The school continued to fall distressingly short of No Child Left Behind benchmarks. In 2006, 24.4 percent of Douglass students were found to be proficient in reading, while math proficiency was just 11.4 percent.
While those numbers represented an improvement over the previous year, they weren't enough to save Grant's job. The principal was forced to retire.
Grant said it was an "impossible task" to meet the proficiency standards, in part because Douglass began the school year shown in the film with two-thirds of its teachers not considered highly qualified. "It is utterly impossible to have youngsters pass a test when you do not have qualified teachers in those testing areas," Grant said.
Plus, "the class size at the beginning of the school year was huge. There were 40 to 50 kids in a class. ... We didn't have the appropriate funding from the federal government, nor the state."
At least in the short term, the removal of Grant didn't produce the desired results. Scores in the four subjects tested by the state were down in 2007, as was proficiency in reading. Math proficiency remained stagnant. And the graduation rate declined from 56 percent to 43.4 percent.
Principal Clark Montgomery was installed for the 2007-08 school year. While test scores for the recently concluded year are not yet available, Montgomery is confident more students passed. During his first year, Montgomery said, Douglass improved attendance and graduation rates, added more advanced classes and boosted its retention rate for ninth-graders to about 75 percent. In 2004-05, Douglass retained about half its ninth-graders; the rest either dropped out or transferred.
But if Douglass fails to boost test scores dramatically, it could face another leadership shake-up.
Alan Raymond came away from Douglass convinced that reform can't happen overnight.
"These are things that really can't happen easily. It takes work, and it takes resources and qualified teachers and time," Alan Raymond said. "That's what people have to realize, hopefully - these schools need our help."
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