From the Baltimore Sun

Successful school fighting to survive

New Song Academy is left behind while city funds go to failing facilities

By Sara Neufeld
Sun reporter

March 26, 2006

About two years ago, a boy enrolled in third grade at New Song Academy unable to recognize all the letters of the alphabet. In less than a year working with Robin Shay, he was reading nearly on grade level.

Shay is a reading teacher at New Song, an independently run public school in West Baltimore's Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood, one of the city's poorest. She has taught many children to read simply by giving them individual attention.

But the Baltimore school system is not willing to fund Shay's position at New Song. Nor is it willing to pay for the school social worker's salary. Or the eighth-grade teacher's. Meanwhile, the system is sending extra money to failing schools.

New Song, which serves 132 pupils in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, is one of the islands of success in a city grappling with how to successfully educate its impoverished children. Ninety-two percent of the school's fifth-graders passed last year's state reading test, in a neighborhood where about half of the 10- to 17-year-olds have been arrested on drug-related charges.

Although Sandtown's median household income is $15,000 annually, 40 percent of school staff members live alongside the families they serve.

But the school's existence is in jeopardy.

For the past nine years, Principal Susan Tibbels has supplemented the budget she gets from the city school system with private donations of about $500,000 a year to pay for extra teachers and staff - a pace she's finding impossible to sustain. She is appealing to the school board for more money, but city school system administrators say that would be unfair.

David Stone, the system administrator who oversees independently run schools, said the system can't take away from other schools to give more to New Song, but his office is committed to working with the school to help it find more outside funding.

Aiding failing schools
Because of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which requires all children to show proficiency on state exams by 2014, school systems around the country are pouring resources into failing schools, often at the expense of successful ones. Stone said the situation at New Song epitomizes a national "conundrum": "Once you become successful, you lose a lot of resources."

In a recent letter to New Song's board of directors, the system's chief executive officer, Bonnie S. Copeland, said most city schools have class sizes that are "nearly double" those at New Song, which limits them to 15 students. She wrote that if the school system gave New Song additional staff, it would have to do the same for every other school.

Counters Tibbels: "If we won't fund a school like New Song, there's no hope for change in Baltimore City."

New Song's plight comes amid growing concerns about the system's efforts to satisfy the wishes of parents and students who are seeking quality education. Last week, a public outcry erupted with the disclosure that admissions standards had been lowered at Western High School and a substantial number of highly qualified applicants had been turned away from Polytechnic Institute. Both are elite schools that have long served as models of academic success.

Public schools in Baltimore are funded according to a complex formula designating a certain number of staff members for a given number of students. Tibbels says the formula does not give New Song enough money for the small class sizes and academic and emotional support its children need. She has been relying on foundations to make up the difference.

Now, nine years after New Song's opening, the school needs a more reliable source of income, Tibbels said. Foundations are all too happy to fund something tangible such as a new playground, she said, but they don't feel it's their role to pay a teacher's salary, year after year.

"When you're starting out as a new school, there's a lot of public support because it's new and innovative and hopeful," she said. "But when you're nine years into it, people say it's time to stand on your own."

Dreams deferred
This school year, New Song received $4,876 per pupil from the school system, according to budget information that Tibbels provided. That compares with $11,944 spent per pupil citywide, though much of that latter amount goes toward central administrative costs and initiatives.

While New Song needs money for 23 staff salaries, this year the system paid for 16 positions. Copeland announced late Friday that next year the system would cover 17.5 positions, which would add one full-time and one part-time salary.

To keep New Song operating, Tibbels says she needs a funding increase amounting to $355,740 over this year's budget. That budget, which amounts to $7,571 per pupil, would pay for only staff salaries, not the computer lab and library that Tibbels would like to have. Not the high school she dreams of opening nearby.

In Copeland's letter to New Song's board of directors, she said the school and others like it were "challenged to offer innovative programs while receiving the same level of staffing and funds as other traditional schools. Implementing a program that is more expensive than a traditional school, even if it is successful, defeats the purpose ... and is not sustainable."

But Tibbels points to $22 million in Copeland's proposed budget for the 2006-2007 school year that would provide failing schools with extra resources and lower class sizes. Why, Tibbels asks, can't the system also set aside money to help successful schools stay that way?

"The schools that are rewarded are the failing schools," Tibbels said, arguing that the system has a tendency to throw money at new initiatives without addressing the root causes of low student achievement. "There's no point in having a public school system that is in the business of [running] perpetually mediocre or failing schools."

State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick visited New Song this month and said she will try to find state aid independent from the school system to keep it afloat.

"I just love that place, and I'm so concerned about its future," said Grasmick, who has sparred with the city for control over Baltimore's schools. In general, she said, "there needs to be some incentive" for schools that overcome obstacles to produce high student achievement.

The city school board is scheduled to vote April 11 on the budget for next school year. Until then, New Song staff, parents, pupils and supporters are bombarding board members with letters appealing for more money.

Fourth-grader Kashai Galloway, 9, wrote that the thought of losing her school, particularly its program that teaches children to play the violin, "makes me want to pour down in tears."

It was a desire for justice for the urban poor that drove Susan Tibbels and her husband, Allan, to move to Sandtown from Howard County with their two young daughters 20 years ago. They are a religious couple who subscribe to the theory of Christian community development, which says you can best help a community by living there, understanding your neighbors' needs and working in partnership with them.

Susan Tibbels recalled that when they moved in, their neighbors were curious about why a white family had moved into a black neighborhood. "There were two assumptions," she said. "One was that because my husband was in a wheelchair, we were poor and didn't have any choice. Others thought we were working for the police as undercover drug agents."

Steady growth
In 1988, about a dozen people formed New Song Community Church, affiliated with the Presbyterian Church of America. By 1989, Allan Tibbels, who has been in a wheelchair since he broke his neck in a basketball game, had founded the Sandtown Habitat for Humanity, which has since built more than 225 homes. Then came a health clinic, which serves insured and uninsured patients. Then a job training center, which has placed more than 1,000 people in jobs. Then an arts program, which trains neighborhood youth in music and performance. Then Martha's Place, which temporarily houses women overcoming drug addiction and helps them make the transition to independent living.

In 1991, Susan Tibbels started a preschool and after-school program, and three years later, with a mail-order curriculum just out of the box, Tibbels secured a three-year grant and opened a private middle school for 12 children.

Three years later, the grant money ran out just as the city school system was asking for proposals for independently run schools to serve as models for educating special-needs students alongside their nondisabled peers, the result of a long-running special-education lawsuit.

That's how New Song became a public school. Tibbels said the proposal that the city school board approved in 1997 specified that New Song's maximum class size would be 15. So it's unfair, she argued, for the system to fund only enough staff for larger classes.

New Song started in cramped quarters in the preschool building, but Susan and Allan Tibbels and another Sandtown couple raised $5.4 million to construct a 30,000-square-foot building across the street. That's on top of the $4 million raised over nine years to operate the school.

The building, which opened in 2001, is brightly lit with high ceilings and soothing pastel colors. Pupils who have seen other schools know the difference.

"The other school that I went to, I was having trouble," explained Shaquana Williams, 7, a second-grader. "The last school didn't have no heat, and in the summer when it was hot, it was real hot."

There are many ways in which New Song operates differently. Its school year has the usual 180 days, but the days are spread throughout the year. It also has a longer school day. On Monday through Wednesday, classes go until 5 p.m., with after-school programs until 8 p.m.

"It keeps us in here so we won't get shot," 13-year-old Niko Hall-Brown, an eighth-grader, said of the after-school offerings.

The gym teacher starts his workday late, at 10 a.m., so he can coach basketball after school without being paid extra.

By meeting children's needs, Tibbels argues, many remedial expenses are avoided. New Song hasn't had a special-education violation in nine years. It doesn't need school police officers or the central office's suspension and expulsion services. Because it has met state goals for test scores, it is not required, as many city schools are, to pay for pupils to receive outside tutoring.

New Song's emphasis on college preparation has inspired at least 15 parents of pupils to pursue college degrees, Tibbels said.

First-grade teacher Kelly Freitag, 22, grew up in Timonium and started volunteering for the Sandtown Habitat for Humanity when she was in seventh grade. She went on to college to become a teacher, just to teach at New Song.

Third-grade teacher Shelley Munger initially went to work at New Song as a consultant, but as soon as she walked in the door, she knew she had to teach there.

"When you come in, you just feel it," she said. "Everybody is happy to be there and everybody believes that these kids can succeed. And because you believe it and you expect it, they do it.

"It really concerns me that you have a school that's showing success with a very difficult group of children, and people would be willing to just let it close."

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