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Daily Record investigation: Principal sees hope in a work in progress

Principal Cathleene J. Miles

The day was “like Christmas” — optimistic, energetic and full of hope, recalls Cathleene J. Miles.

It was Aug. 31, 2009 and the temporary East Baltimore Community School was open for business.

No one was more optimistic, energetic and full of hope that day than Miles. The 53-year-old principal left the prestigious, private Gilman School to bring a new style and quality of education to the school now seen as the catalyst for the next phase of the nation’s largest urban redevelopment project.

Seventeen months later, Miles believes that the school’s budding partnership with the Johns Hopkins University is well on the way to creating what they call a “world-class” community school for students of all socioeconomic backgrounds.

“I saw promise,” she said, explaining why she took on such a daunting challenge. “But I also saw it would take someone to fight for the promise. In my third round of interviews for the job, I asked, ‘Are you for real? Are you really going to do this?’ I didn’t want to be a part of a political ploy.”

A work in progress

The school’s current demographics reflect the Middle East community that was razed to make room for The New East Baltimore project.

Enrollment is 100 percent African-American, and most of the students come from poverty.

Just over 89 percent of the 207 students enrolled this year are on free or reduced meals, the measurement of poverty used by federal school reimbursement data, said city schools spokeswoman Edie House-Foster.

And 74 percent of the students enrolled this year qualify for federal subsidies paid to the school for services such as free tutoring.

The 2009-10 school statistics show fifth-graders struggled academically at East Baltimore Community School. The class failed to meet Adequate Yearly Progress levels, measured annually through standardized tests.

Only the fifth grade was tested last year, Miles said. In March, fifth- and sixth-graders will take Maryland School Assessment tests to gauge literacy, math and science skills.

Miles said she was not fazed by the failure of the fifth-graders to meet AYP levels.

“As a startup small school, it’s not uncommon,” she said.

Miles said she has worked hard to establish a sense of respect amid academic lessons inside the orderly trailer classrooms decorated with student art.

That is a work in progress, the school’s climate survey indicates.

The climate survey is an annual assessment given to parents, students and staff in Baltimore’s schools. The survey from 2009 at East Baltimore Community School shows concerns over fighting and “students picking on other students” as well as the presence of gangs.

But 68 percent of the parents responding said, given the option of transferring, their children would continue to attend the school.

One day last fall a fight between two students over a torn homework paper forced Miles to interrupt her schedule for a 45-minute emergency meeting with a parent.

“What the school has to do is create success and build success — to continue to push toward accountability for behaviors in school,” she said.

‘Education is at the center’

The school receives $9,400 per pupil in public funds — the standard allocation for a charter school in Baltimore. Seventeen percent of the enrollment received extra allocations for special education in 2009.

The school was originally planned as a charter school, said Laura Weeldreyer, who recently left her position as deputy chief of staff overseeing charter and contract schools at city school headquarters.

Weeldreyer said charter schools are not allowed to have geographic boundaries. But East Baltimore Development Inc. officials said they wanted to limit enrollment to the area near The New East Baltimore and to offspring of former residents, she added.

Andres Alonso, CEO of the Baltimore school system, converted the application to a “contract” that allows them to do so.

“In good faith,” Alonso told The Daily Record, “we continued the conversation about how could they create a school that would serve their purposes of serving all kinds in a community that was really coming into existence. They were planning for the long run in terms of the community.”

Alonso said the school will also be open to children of Johns Hopkins Hospital employees who live outside the neighborhood.

The school, which opens at 7 a.m. for activities and breakfast and remains open until 6 p.m. to help accommodate working parents, now serves 27 children or grandchildren of Hopkins hospital employees, Miles said.

Foundations Inc. signed a $554,000 contract with EBDI in late 2007 to help establish the school’s curriculum and hire a principal.

“Most charter schools don’t spend as much time as we did in engaging the community in the concept of the school,” said Julie Stapleton-Carroll, a former consultant for Foundations who now works full time with the firm as director of school services.

“You can throw up a charter school in a year, or you can create a really good school that satisfies the needs of a community,” she said.

The school was given “tremendous autonomy” in choosing a curriculum, Alonso said, noting that officials settled on a hands-on, project-based program used in several other Baltimore alternative schools.

In addition, students in middle school grades at the community school benefit from part of a $12 million foundation grant to EBDI for an array of social programs, including after-school activities, and on-site health and mental health services and mentoring.

As the new venture begins to take shape, David W. Hornbeck is nothing but optimistic.

The former Maryland state school superintendent was hired last summer by EBDI to bring academic and social programs together at the new school while the community develops around it.

“In my view, education is at the center of any community that is thriving and vibrant,” Hornbeck said. “I think we have a remarkable opportunity because of the nature of the partners to put all the pieces together for the children of this neighborhood.”