Betsy Nelson named Chair of the Board of the Fund for Educational Excellence

On behalf of the Board and Staff of the Fund for Educational Excellence, I am pleased to announce that Betsy Nelson has been named Chair of our Board of Directors. Ms. Nelson takes over the Chair from Jim Mathias who has provided us with both strong leadership and direction for seven years.

Ms. Nelson served as President of the Association of Baltimore Area Grantmakers from 1990 through 2012, leading ABAG to a leadership role in the region and within the Regional Association of Grantmakers movement nationwide. An active and devoted member of the Baltimore community, she has served on many Boards and committees across the city lending her expertise in institutional development, as well as professional and volunteer capacities. All of us at the Fund are thrilled and honored that Ms. Nelson has agreed to share her expertise and leadership with us as the new Chair of our Board.

I also want to express the Fund’s deep gratitude to Mr. Mathias for his many years of service and guidance to the Fund. Mr. Mathias is a Partner at DLA Piper where he serves as Co-Chair, Corporate and Securities Litigation and Chair, Baltimore Litigation. He has been an invaluable advisor throughout my tenure at the Fund, and an active proponent for the development of the Fund’s new Analysis and Engagement effort. Our latest report, Building a Bright Future: Understanding College Readiness in Baltimore City Public Schools, was released earlier this week. I am so glad that he will be continuing to serve on both our Board and Executive Committee.

City Speaks: Community Voices on Baltimore Schools

Today I am very excited to share with all of you our new report, City Speaks: Community Voices on FFEE-Blog03Baltimore Schools. The report documents the results of our comprehensive, citywide listening campaign to engage the community – in all its diversity – in defining priorities for our public schools. The report highlights four key themes we heard from 859 participants across Baltimore City, as well as our recommendations for next steps.

I hope you will take a few minutes to read the report here.

The City Speaks study has been both fascinating and satisfying for all of us here at the Fund. Hearing the voices of our communities, especially their strong commitment to our students and clear desire to help improve our public education system, has been an incredibly energizing experience. I want to thank our more than 100 volunteers – hosts, facilitators and advisors – who made this effort possible.

I want to invite you to visit our dedicated City Speaks website. There you’ll find information on the top ten themes identified by participants, as well as community profiles that detail the priorities we heard in each of Baltimore City’s 55 community statistical areas.

And, be sure to check out both the op ed and article that appeared in today’s Baltimore Sun about the study.

The City Speaks report represents the first public release of the Fund’s ongoing Analysis and Engagement effort to identify and advance interventions that can significantly improve student outcomes. Our goal is to create both community demand and tangible opportunities to build a better public education system for all our students. I look forward to sharing more of this work with you in the future.

City Speaks is all about hearing people’s voices, and I hope you will help us continue this discussion on Facebook or Twitter at #cityspeaks. I look forward to your thoughts and input in the days and weeks to come.


Roger Schulman

Keeping a Promise to Today’s Kindergarteners: Baltimore Campaign for Grade Level Reading

FFEE_3-25-11_0032 - cropWhen our city’s newest students start kindergarten this year, they and their families will feel the same sense of hope and excitement that always comes with the beginning of the school year. What they may not realize is that they also represent a promise that their city will provide them with the educational opportunities they need to reach one of the most important achievement benchmarks of their school careers: reading on grade level by the end of third grade.

This is the goal of the Baltimore Campaign for Grade Level Reading, a citywide coalition committed to doubling the number of students reading on grade level by 2020. To get a sense of the scope of the problem, consider this: only 14 percent of Baltimore City fourth graders scored at the proficient or advanced reading level on the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). That number should compel all of us to join with the Campaign this school year in thinking about what needs to be happening in our city and school district to allow our new kindergarteners, and all our children, to meet this third grade reading goal. For instance:

  • Working with schools and city agencies to offer quality, affordable pre-k options—especially in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty— and reaching out to parents to encourage them to enroll their children in these programs, so that our youngest students enter kindergarten ready to learn.
  • Providing a variety of safe, fun, convenient, and educational out of school opportunities for students during the school year and over the summer.
  • Giving parents the information they need to understand and track what their children should know at each grade level.
  • Asking good questions about what is happening in our schools, and holding teachers and school leaders accountable for student achievement.
  • Encouraging students to read independently and with other adults for at least 15 minutes every day of school and vacation.
  • Communicating the need to attend school every day and on time. A recent study by the Baltimore Education Research Consortium (BERC) found that students who missed 2 or more days in September were significantly more likely to be chronically absent for the year, a clear demonstration of the critical importance of establishing good attendance habits in the first 30 days of school.

Certainly, reading on third grade level is just one of many goals we need to have as we start this school year. Implementing Common Core, focusing on college readiness, improving the value proposition of high school, the 21st Century Building project, and building a stronger pool of teachers and school leaders are other critical district priorities that come to mind. But, think of how much easier many of those goals will be to achieve if we can start by saying that we were able to successfully change the educational experience that these kindergarteners, and all those that follow, had in their first four years of school.

The Fund is proud to serve as the host organization for the Campaign and we encourage all of you to get involved in this effort. Check out the website, and become part of the coalition by registering to receive newsletters, and by following the Campaign on Facebook and Twitter. Remember that the power and success of a collective action initiative rests on all of us.

Expanding Informed School Choice

With just one week left in City Schools’ middle and high school choice enrollment period, families of 5th and 8th grade students across the city are trying to find the right school to meet their child’s unique needs. This year, in addition to school visits, brochures, and recommendations from their friends and families, parents and students now have an interactive, online tool to help them make this important decision – the new school choice website.

FFEE_3-25-11_0148 - cropIntroduced seven years ago, school choice is at the core of City Schools’ efforts to transform itself into a portfolio district that offers students a wide variety of high quality middle and high school options. Families can now choose to attend a specialized college or career focused school, a charter or other operator managed school, a grade K-8 and 6-12 school, or a traditional neighborhood school.

But parents we spoke with expressed frustration that information about these school options was not easily accessible or navigable, leading many of them to focus their selections on a few, larger schools with which they felt more familiar. They also asked for better guidance about the school choice process, and how to interpret the requirements for some schools, such as composite scores. These issues made it hard for families to know if they were making the best choice, with the highest likelihood of success, for their children.

Recognizing parents’ needs for accessible, reliable information to make an informed choice for their children, the Fund joined with City Schools and local foundations to design a robust online system that gives families the ability to easily find, compare and digest the variety of school options available to them. Our goal was to empower parents to take a behind the scenes look at what individual schools have to offer their children, and how well they are preparing students for college and career success.

With the new school choice website, parents and students can now search by multiple criteria to find schools that meet their needs and priorities, such as specific academic or Advanced Placement offerings, career focused programs, support services, or sports. The website also includes key student performance data allowing users to do a side by side comparison of schools’ graduation rates, SAT composite scores, and MSA results. The system even provides bus line information so that parents can understand the all-important location and transportation implications of their choices.

As City Schools continues the necessary, but often difficult, work of closing chronically low performing schools, this website will give parents and students a reliable place to turn to find a new academic home that can offer them higher quality programs and services. It will also provide district leadership with valuable insight into which programs and criteria parents most often search for, allowing City Schools to better tailor new school development.

At the end of the day, this process wasn’t about replacing an old paper system with a new online one. It was about helping parents meet their goal of finding a school that will support their child in achieving his/her full potential. That is what informed choice is really all about.

Common Core Implementation: Standards Matter

There’s a big change afoot at City Schools. No, I don’t mean the search for a new CEO, though that is an important topic for another day. I’m talking about the move to the Common Core Standards, a statewide shift that will significantly impact students, parents, and teachers across our district and state, as well as many other states across the country. The Common Core standards will set the stage for how we deliver and assess teaching and learning in Baltimore City for years to come.

FFEE-Blog01It’s important to clarify what the Common Core is and is not. The Common Core is a set of standards outlining the skills and knowledge students should master grade by grade. It was developed by the bi-partisan National Governors Association with the goal of better preparing U.S. students to compete in the global economy.

The Common Core is not a national curriculum. Individual states and local districts are charged with developing the “how to manual” to get students to meet its new national standards. Flexibility is a fundamental strength of the Common Core which recognizes that different groups of students in various types of districts have unique learning needs that need to be met. For example, one of the reading standards for 1st graders is the ability to “Describe characters, settings, and major events in a story, using key details.” Which stories a child should read, and how they gain an understanding of characters and settings is up to the local district, the school, and ultimately the teacher. Even within a classroom, the stories children read will – and should – be different, but the skills they need to master will be the same.

The move to these new standards will be difficult, and we can predict with almost certainty that our test scores will fall. While Maryland, like much of the nation, will not fully implement the new Common Core assessments until next year, we are already seeing the impact in the early adopter states. In New York, scores dropped from 65% proficient in Math and 55% in English Language on their old state assessments to just 31% proficient on both measures for students in grades 3 through 8. The public and political outcry was huge and unpleasant.

Even before it’s fully implemented here in Maryland, we are already seeing push back from those who perceive it to be a one size fits all standardized test, those who fear a shift away from “schooling the whole child”, and those who believe the new standards will leave little room for exposure to the arts or other non-traditional education tools. A recent story on WYPR powerfully disputes these claims. As Pat Cruz, Young Audiences of Maryland’s education director sees it, Common Core’s flexibility better lends itself to using arts in the classroom than many other standards since it includes “examples of how to teach many of the standards through integrated arts methods, like teaching fractions through dance.” There is nothing in the Common Core that dictates a single teaching approach, and much room is granted for educational creativity towards achieving its standards.

This is not an easy transition, and no one – parents, teachers, political leaders – want their students to look less smart or their teachers to look less competent. But, at the end of the day, continuing to measure students against standards that fail to predict future success makes little sense. We need to stay the course, and use the Common Core implementation as a rallying charge to build a clear roadmap for making our students’ hopes and aspirations a reality. We look forward to being part of that work.