It’s hard to believe but the cookouts have been given, vacations are winding down, and students are sitting in class…
In this episode of Inside Maryland Schools, host Debra Garner describes how students and educators prepared for the opening of school throughout the summer. Many educators spent the summer in professional development training while others taught summer school and facilitated other student programs.
Garner takes a look at innovative programs across the state, including Jumpstart to Graduation at a Prince George’s County high school, where many rising ninth graders prepared to take on the new challenge of high school.
Garner also visits the family of Khalil Pixley, the spotlight student for Inside Maryland Schools, and hears how they have been preparing for the new adventure of middle school.
Khalil is upbeat and expectant, and he makes a promise to himself and his parents about the new school year.
Hear his parents explain how they have made radical changes to ensure that Khalil and his brothers have the opportunity for an excellent future.
It’s a brand new year for everyone and a brand new chance to make sure that Maryland’s public schools stay number one.
Listen to the latest as we go Inside Maryland Schools.
Episode 1 Transcript
Welcome to the first full episode of Inside Maryland Schools, brought to you by the Maryland State Education Association. I’m Debra Garner, your host.
It’s hard to believe, but the cookouts have been given, vacations are winding down, the crabs have been eaten, the sails have sailed and now your children are back to school. The first bells of the 2011-2012 school year began ringing on August 22 in Prince George’s, Dorchester, and Somerset counties, and by August 30, all of the over 850,000 students enrolled in Maryland’s public schools are sitting in class. Gone are the days of waiting for the Tuesday after Labor Day. In today’s competitive world, it seems the earlier the better.
It’s a brand new school year and we are looking forward to going around the state and getting an inside look at what is going on in our schools and how educators are working hard to give students the quality instruction and service they deserve.
Weeks before school began, some educators and students were in school buildings working to prepare for a successful upcoming year. I visited Crossland High School in the Temple Hills town in Prince George’s County, where many incoming freshmen and educators committed four weeks of the summer to participating in the Jumpstart to Graduation program. This national program was first possible three years ago in Prince George’s County and is only available in five schools—Duval, Oxon Hill, Potomac, Suitland, and Crossland. The goal is to provide a bridge to allow a smooth transition from high school to middle school. The students were able to able to get used to bigger halls and a greater demand on self-discipline and personal responsibility. And—they were able to make new friends and have a little fun in the process.
I visited days before what was known as Presentation Day, the closing event of the program. I walked through the halls and saw students-turned-artists sprawled on the floor diligently creating colorful posters celebrating the beauty of the environment and promoting recycling and other green habits.
I was amazed at the high tech projects the students were doing, and going into the computer lab, I could quickly see which students were excited about the upcoming school year and the few who saw Jumpstart as somewhere to be to beat summer boredom. Yet the majority of students were eager to show me the creative projects they would be presenting in a few days and were glad they had the opportunity to experience high school before the school year began.
Statistics have shown that the ninth grade year can be a challenge, especially for students who have struggled all along and even for some who found elementary and middle school to be a breeze. It’s the gateway that sees adulthood on the horizon, and not all stay on a straight and successful path. In fact, many educators say that ninth grade is the time when many students consider dropping out. But with programs like jumpstart to graduation, ninth graders are getting tools to help them get focused and serious about high school and the future. We’ll check on these excited freshmen later in the year to see how they are faring, but congratulations to the parents and educators out there who committed to help making graduation a possibility in 2015 for these young men and women.
I visited a few teachers who are so committed to their students that they reported to school a week early to get their classrooms room ready so the students would come in motivated and ready to learn.
Jennifer Berkley from Holly Hall ES in Cecil County was busy getting ready for her first graders by transforming a classroom with desks and chairs into a colorful, lively haven that welcomes the little ones and their parents. She is strategic about where to place her alphabet chart and has meticulously gathered books for a classroom library using her own resources. Like most teachers across the nation, Ms. Berkley wants to make sure her classroom spells success, so each year she reaches into her own pocket and spends hundreds of dollars on posters, crafts, books, and supplies. She makes sure there are extra school supplies for the fraction of children who show up empty handed and to replace what children have depleted throughout the year.
Ms. Berkley has an obvious passion for what she does and is looking forward to helping her students walk the path of learning discovery. When I asked her what she hoped for the upcoming school year, she said what I have heard from many teachers—more involvement from the parents. That means making sure students come to school prepared and developing a structure of discipline at home so that when they come to school, they won’t be surprised about order and expectations.
Ms. Berkley: I would like to see my parents get more involved with the kids, as far as maybe volunteering in the classroom. Last year I didn’t really have any parents volunteer to help out. Doing homework with them—not even just doing homework, but just reading with them. If I had them to just sit down and discuss the day with the students. Sometimes kids say, “My mom didn’t have time to read with me.” Just making their job here at school just as important as their job bringing home the money.
Kids can say that they are glad and happy to come to school to learn, and not think that this is a playtime. We’re expecting a lot of these kids to read by the time they leave first grade, and when they get to second grade, they’re doing a lot more. We have skills they have to learn and things they have to do by the time they leave here.
Yet Ms. Berkley is quick to point out that she has seen many concerned and active parents throughout her career and that has made all the difference. She is looking forward to a school year of watching her students grow, and with a small class of about 17, when necessary, she’ll be able to give the individualized attention that is so important in the early years.
Ms. Berkley: It takes a village to get back to those roots that our grandparents taught us. When we get back to that I think kids will be successful at school.
I spoke with fifth grade teacher Steven Luthulz at Holly Hall who was busy setting up his classroom with a brand new audio system that will work with his smart board to help the students with public speaking presentations. He’s looking forward to the new school year and says the fifth grade is the perfect time to teach students about maturity and greater responsibility. I asked him his thoughts on how he would keep the students engaged while competing with the inevitable reality of adolescent hormones.
Mr Luthultz: First of all, I really like fifth grade. I think 5th grade is a great grade. It does take them from still being somewhat of little people in fourth grade to that point where now they’re middle school students. What I do with my students is tell them that part of our responsibility this year is to learn how to middle school students. And so I give them a lot of additional responsibility through the year. We treat our classroom as a community. There are a lot of things that we discuss, vote on, I let them make a lot of choices about how the classroom is going run, and then I hold them to a higher expectation. With those privileges of making decisions like where you’re going to sit, what’s your locker going to be, how we’re going to approach certain subjects, with that privilege comes responsibility. Some of them just aren’t mature by the end of fifth grade, but most of them are learning that intrinsic or internal motivation, so that hopefully when they go to middle school, they’re better able to control their behavior than when they were here in third and fourth grade.
I run my classroom according to what’s called love and logic, which basically says, feel free to do anything, as long as it doesn’t cause a problem for somebody else. And if it causes a problem, I’m going to ask you to solve it. If you can’t solve it, I will. And this is sort of a way for them to learn responsibility. “It’s my problem; I’ve got to solve it. If I’m talking in my group and it’s causing a problem, Mr. L’s going to ask me to solve it. If I can’t, then I know somebody else will have to, and he will do something, like move me or whatever.” So I guess the way I would answer that question in the smaller sense is: We give them opportunities to mature into responsible, good decision-making young people by the time they get to middle school. The hormones haven’t kicked in yet so it’s not so hard.
Debra Garner: Not quite so hard.
Mr. Luthulz: I think that what we’re trying to accomplish are three things with our students. The first is that they master fifth grade content area. We want to know that they’re leaving fifth grade, going to sixth grade having learned what they should have. The second is that they become lifelong learners. That they not only go into sixth grade ready for sixth grade, but they go with a sense of the importance, or the value, or the interest of continuing to learn. And the last is that they go away affirmed. We want them to recognize that they’re good people. And hopefully, I tell my kids in the beginning of the year, and I’ll repeat it throughout the year, my view is if we’re not having fun we’re not doing it right. And that we can have difficult days, and you might have a subject you don’t like, but I want you to understand that learning can be fun. And it’s something you should look at as something you’re going to do for the rest of your life. Not just for 12 years or 16 years or however many years, but become lifelong learners.
At Barack Obama Elementary School in Prince George’s County, I was delighted to see the sparkling new facility of a school that is only entering its second year. When you enter the building, you see a display case with lots of pictures of President Obama and the smiling first family. You get a sense of pride and great anticipation, seeing the high ceilings, airy hallways, and polished floors. I sat down with Talaya Ferguson and a few of her colleagues to talk about the new year. I asked Harold McCray, a sixth grade math and science teacher, what he wanted to see from his students.
Mr. McCray: I want to see them take more ownership of their learning. I’m going to try to slide back as a facilitator a little more to allow them to dialogue more. On a lot of standards-based projects I’m looking forward to them asking each other questions. I’m looking for them to be excited about learning just like the educator is. I want to make sure I’m transferring that energy to them so that way we can have a very decent class.
McCray also tells parents to take advantage of Back to School night.
Mr. McCray: I think that’s something that every parent should take advantage of, coming to back to school night to meet your child’s teacher.
Keena Buggs is a reading specialist who takes pride every time she sees the light bulb of understanding ignite in her students. She has a special passion for the struggling reader and believes that support and consistent motivation are the best tools to help a child succeed. Here’s what she is hoping for this school year
Ms. Buggs: I’m really hoping that everyone is a lot more motivated. Not that they weren’t last year, but I hope they come with a fresh motivation.
Debra Garner: You’re talking about the educators?
Ms. Buggs: Educators and students. And that everyone is just ready pitch in and do they’re best for these students. I bring it halfway, but bring it the whole way.
She gives this advice to parents.
Ms. Buggs: No matter what grade level your child is in, stay abreast on what they’re doing. Don’t just assume that in sixth grade if they have homework they’ll handle it. Make sure you know what your child is doing every day, that they’re doing their homework, that you’re taking an active, participatory role in your child’s education. As students get higher in the grade levels, there tends to be less participation because they’re older. You should always know what your child is doing, 100 percent of the time.
Thomas Wait, a physical education teacher at Barack Obama, is looking forward to launching a new program.
Mr. Wait: This year we’re launching the fitness gram testing program in Prince George’s County, so we have to test kids on the pacer test, pushups, sit-ups, and the sit and reach. It’s going to be all in the computer system and they’re going to get a sheet printed out at, I believe either mid-quarter or at the end of the year, just to see how they improved from the beginning of the year to the end of the year. It’s a new system they’re piloting. I think it’s good for the kids and it will push kids to get healthier and be active.
Like her colleagues, Ms. Ferguson is passionate about the success of her students and is determined not to let any obstacles keep them from becoming high achievers.
Ms. Ferguson: We did not make AYP last year due to our two subgroups of FARMS and special education. So that was a big blow, because I think for many of us who have been doing this for a while we kind of have things down. We know how to reach certain kids. I won’t say it’s easy but we’ve become acclimated to what we need to do. And I think when we got the scores, it was like, Oh my goodness. It’s been hard. The last time, I heard, was in 2004, for reading, for special ed, but I think that this really gave us the opportunity to push past our comfort zone. So we’ve been planning intervention groups already. We’re each going to do that for specific kids, and really dissect the data that we do have. Because we want the kids to be successful. It’s not about us, it’s about the kids, and they need to be prepared for college and career. So it’s—what are we going to do?
Finally, my colleague Casey Newton and I went to visit Khalil Pixley, our spotlight student who we’ll follow this entire school year to see how he adjusts to middle school. He left Mt. Hope Elementary in Nanjemoy, Maryland, in rural Charles County, filled with pride at how much he’d improved. The educators there were full of praise of how he had come in as a second grader struggling to adjust to scoring above grade level in math and showing great promise as an accomplished student. They, along with his parents, provided consistent support and this young man has been looking forward to sixth grade. His mother, Jennifer Payne, told me about how much she appreciated the help her son received
Ms. Payne: They took the extra step to find out more and help Khalil. And if accusations came to [the teachers or counselor] that Khalil may have done something, they would know automatically, “No, that’s wasn’t Khalil. Khalil wouldn’t have done it.”
Or if something like that happened, it wasn’t intentional. Because they knew, they talked to him so much, they questioned him so much about himself, they learned who Khalil was. That is really what I appreciated, because everybody, teachers, everyone, took a special interest in him and helped him along the way. And I will always be in debt. I am very grateful to them.
Jennifer and her husband Sam Payne took their five sons from Washington D.C. and moved to quiet Nanjemoy with smaller class sizes and teachers and administrators who noticed the potential their children had for success. Sam spoke of his decision to make such a radical move.
Mr. Payne: Better schools, more opportunities, better neighborhood, better environment of people. I want my kids to be, culturally to know everything and accept every race. Not just be with your own race, I want them to enjoy everything, because all races are beautiful. All cultures are beautiful. And that’s what I want him to have a broader outlook on.
Casey Newton: So when you got here, you [Khalil] having a hard time, and the school recognized that you’re a smart guy, which obviously you guys knew as well. What is it about the environment at school that engaged you, brought you in, helped nurture Khalil, and your comfort with getting more involved, since you came from such a different school culture.
Mr. Payne: Like I was saying, with the school system there, there was not enough nurture. Here I see more of a family-oriented—every teacher pretty much lives in this area. It means a lot because he is seeing his teachers outside of school, someone may run into him in the grocery store, “Oh, hi Khalil, how are you doing?” His classmates, everyone lives around. It’s more of a family-oriented school and that’s what I like. To me it’s more of a Christian outlook. That’s what I like. That’s what I’m looking for.
As far as Khalil, when he was coming out of the city, this whole thing was a new environment for him. I put it like this: If you were in a fire, when you come out you still have the scent of the fire on your clothes. And that’s what he went through. It took a little bit of time to wash that scent, to let him know, it’s ok, that you’re fine. You don’t have to be here. If you’re near the fire, there’s gonna be smoke. You’re going to get a scent. And that’s how it was when he came down. It was hard for him to adjust.
Ms. Payne: I guess he was having problems at the beginning, with adjusting to the students here. It’s a different class of students here than in D.C. He was very defensive. He put his guard up. That was his response. The other child might just have been trying to borrow a book or something simple. But because he was always on guard, he always had his defenses up in the city. And we brought him down here. And his teachers noticed. The counselor noticed. And they all said, “Hm—he’s a smart kid. We need to work with him.” Because he doesn’t understand the Mt. Hope the environment. We need to culture him to understand the Mt. Hope environment. The things he experienced, he doesn’t have to experience here. And they took that away from him. That took that fear, that defense mechanism that he was constantly using.
Khalil: It felt like a big change, because I didn’t have to fight, I didn’t have to have my guards up every time someone was saying something. I was used to down in D.C. I had to adjust here, because there was just a lot of stuff going on. And the teachers were telling me that, but I just didn’t see. I didn’t see it at the time. But now I do.
Ms. Payne: Another thing that I really, really admired about the students was, during the time that Khalil was adjusting to the school (this was second grade when you came in, right?), some of the little girls came to him, and said, “Khalil, why are you always so angry?” And it made him think. It made him think about, “Why am I always angry? Why am I always on edge?”
And I told him, “Khalil, you have to understand that these children are just children. They don’t understand what you went through. And to be honest with you, what you were going through up there was just being a product of the environment.” But as I’ve always taught them since they were little, just because you live in a particular area doesn’t mean you have to be a product of that environment. You have to broaden your horizons and see past that, because that’s just one place. There are many, many places in the world you can go, that you have an opportunity to go to, an opportunity to see. And we haven’t seen half of the beautiful things God has blessed us with. But now he sees—Southeast D.C. is not all that there is. He’s moved from there and now he’s at Nanjemoy. He has many more places to go. So, he’s growing, he’s learning.
Khalil’s first day at General Smallwood Middle School was August 29th, and other than being a little disappointed that recess was not a part of his schedule, he was ready to roll. He spoke with me about how he had spent time preparing in the summer preparing to bring up his reading grade
Khalil: I’m reading my book because I know that in Reading I have a C and I wanted to bring it up.
I took a moment to encourage Khalil about self-control and reminded him that with all the support he has, when he’s in the classroom, he is faced with himself and the choices he makes. This is what he told me:
Khalil: I’m going to start having more self control because I’m in middle school and a lot of people tempt you, and I heard from my friends who have brothers that go to middle school that go to middle school, they said they have a lot of fights. I don’t really believe it, but they said, if you get in a fight, make sure a teacher knows what’s happening and what’s going on in the situation. So I have to go through middle school without having any fights or any arguments or anything, because I don’t want teachers to think that I’m not a good student. Because they can hear from other people that I am, but they would look at me and say, “Ok, so why is he doing all of this?”
I want to have a really good relationship with the teachers and everybody at school.
General Smallwood is in Indian Head, Maryland and is about a 25 minute bus ride for Khalil. The school has over 500 students, 49 percent of whom are African American and 39 percent of whom receive free and reduced meals. There is new principal there, Kathy Perello, who has made the following the theme for the school year: “We believe we will achieve as we race to the top.” The school’s mission statement speaks of broadening learning experiences, elevating aspirations, and enhancing self-image so that students can reach their full potential by becoming productive members of society. That sounds like a good fit for Jennifer and Sam Payne, who have gone to great lengths to ensure their son has the opportunity to get an excellent education.
Khalil wants that too and has made a promise to himself. Many children face peer pressure and are sometimes teased for being good students. I asked Khalil how he would respond to taunts about being smart and here’s what he had to say.
Khalil: I would tell them how I am smart. Because I know that I wanted to change things around, and I want to be a good student. I was a bad student at one time, but then again it was because everybody in the classroom was just throwing chairs out the window. I tried to do my work, but if someone asked me why I was doing my work and hit me or something, then I would get offensive. Then I would put my guard up and all of that. But I came from down there to up here, and I want to change. The community here is not the same as there, so what’s the point of doing the bad stuff? And I want to go to college. If I have bad behavior I can’t go to college.
That’s a really positive attitude from a student who has no intention of ever going back to the struggling and defensive child he once was. We’ll keep up with Khalil over the next nine months and watch how successful he is in his new role as a middle school student.
This school year is a fresh start for all of Maryland’s public schools students, parents, and educators. Let’s make every effort to do our part to support student achievement. If you are a parent or guardian, make it a point to go to Back to School Night, whether your child is in 1st grade or 12th grade. Educators want to see you get involved, and the students benefit when they know someone at home is paying attention. If you are retired or work flexible hours, consider volunteering at your local school, whether you have a child or not. These students are the future of our country, and we owe it to them to make sure every child has the support and resources to succeed. If you are a business owner, contact the school in your community and find what you can contribute this school year.
Maryland’s public schools have been number one for the last three years, and I am convinced that we stay on top as we work together to have great public schools for every child. I’m Debra Garner from the Maryland State Education Association, and you have been listening to Inside Maryland Schools. Stay tuned for our October podcast as we go inside and see how the new school year is going.