The Eager Street Academy is a Baltimore public school behind bars, with the most troubled student body in the city. Nonetheless, its staff has the impossible job of complying with the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
Located in the Baltimore City Detention Center, the school's approximately 130 students - ages 14 to 17 - are charged as adults in some of the city's most notorious killings and other crimes.
Many of them had dropped out of school before landing in prison, and about a quarter come in reading at a second-grade level.
No Child Left Behind requires schools to give annual standardized tests to all their students, and all students must demonstrate proficiency in reading and math by 2014.
Schools such as Eager Street that repeatedly don't make "adequate yearly progress" toward that goal face the public embarrassment of being put on a state failure list, with sanctions that can ultimately be as severe as staff replacement. That leads to demoralized teachers and difficulty recruiting.
"It's not that we want to get out of anything, but no other schools I know of have this to contend with," said Eager Street Principal James Scofield. "To look at the data and assess the school, it's just not fair."
Teachers at many other troubled schools also feel that No Child Left Behind holds them to an unrealistic standard, punishing them if they don't make years of progress with ill-prepared students in a matter of months. But Eager Street is in a particular predicament, because most of the student body turns over from one year to the next.
The state uses the scores of a handful of kids to calculate whether Eager Street has made adequate yearly progress. The calculation can be made using the scores of as few as five students, those who were enrolled early in the school year and are still around on testing day. Generally, that means they are the students facing the most severe criminal charges.
100 percent failure
The test results for all students are posted online and printed in the newspaper: a failure rate of 100 percent this year in seventh- and eighth-grade math and high school algebra and government.
"It shows us at zero," said Scofield, a veteran city schools administrator. "It looks as if we're doing nothing."
Eager Street students, all but a handful of them boys, have had extraordinarily difficult lives, Scofield said: A "huge" number have been abandoned by parents. A 16-year-old who recently enrolled hadn't been to school since fourth grade, when his mother pulled him out to support the family by any means necessary, including selling drugs.
Students can leave Eager Street if a judge releases them or lessens the criminal charges and moves them to the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center. Otherwise, they stop school on the day they turn 18, when they are moved to the prison's adult wing.
"If I just got locked up, got my freedom taken away, if I'm facing 10 years and I'm 15 or 16 and I'm worried about turning 18 and going to the adult side and getting raped, I'm not thinking about a test," Scofield said.
No Child Left Behind requires schools to test all students in reading and math annually from third through eighth grades and once in high school. In addition, Maryland requires students to pass high school graduation exams in algebra, biology, English and government.
Eager Street is the only school of its kind in the state. Elsewhere in Maryland, the Department of Juvenile Services, not the public school system, educates incarcerated students. Most DJS facilities don't have enough students enrolled for multiple months to get an adequate yearly progress ranking.
State Education Department officials say the city school system can choose for Eager Street not to receive an annual ranking based on its test scores. Instead, it could count the scores of Eager Street students at the schools they attended before being locked up, something many of the DJS facilities do.
City schools interim Chief Executive Officer Charlene Cooper Boston, who was made aware of Eager Street's predicament by two staff members who spoke at a school board meeting last month, said she is examining that possibility.
But Scofield said it wouldn't be fair to hold neighborhood schools accountable for the scores of students who hadn't been there in months or years.
Instead, Scofield said, he and his staff would welcome the opportunity to see their school evaluated based on students' progress while they are there.
A national criticism of No Child Left Behind is that it discourages teachers from working with the most vulnerable students. For example, if a 17-year-old starts the school year reading on a second-grade level and progresses to a sixth-grade level in six months, a teacher has done significant work, but the student still won't pass the state test.
To judge schools based on progress, though, would require a change in federal law.
No Child Left Behind is up for reauthorization in Congress next year. Boston said several states are urging the federal government to find a way to evaluate schools based on the progress they make with students, not whether the students are on grade level.
Through the cracks
Maryland Deputy State Superintendent Ronald Peiffer said a progress-based evaluation model poses a philosophical difficulty because it assumes students will not meet basic standards.
"We want the schools to get credit for the students making progress," he said, "but we don't want the students to fall through the cracks because at the end they can't graduate or they don't have the skills to get where they need to go."
Last year, the U.S. Department of Education began allowing two states, Tennessee and North Carolina, to measure students' progress in addition to measuring whether they pass their tests. Arkansas, Delaware and Florida will test that model this school year.
The department is studying last year's results from the trial states.
Chad Colby, a federal Education Department spokesman, said U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings is interested in allowing states to give schools credit for progress, but all children will still need to demonstrate proficiency by 2014. Congress will make the final determination, he said.
Maryland schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick has submitted a letter to the federal government saying she would be interested in trying a progress-based evaluation eventually, but the state does not have the technology to implement it effectively.
"We're anxious to see how other states work it out while we get our technical pieces in place," Peiffer said.
At Eager Street, Scofield said much of his staff's work centers on getting students re-acclimated to being in school.
In English teacher Charles Dugger's classroom, a sign above the blackboard reads, "A STUDENT MUST STUDY!" Dugger pointed to it this week as he told a boy that he must start taking books back to his cell at night.
The school occupies two cramped but well-kept trailers in the prison parking lot, locked behind numerous fences and gates. Wearing camouflage pants or green jumpsuits that say "JUVENILE" across the back, students attend classes from 8:45 a.m. to 2:15 p.m. on weekdays, except for the dozen or so in protective custody. Teachers deliver their work to their cells. About six more who are involved in gangs have a separate classroom.
Opportunities for extracurricular activities are limited, though Dugger volunteers after school to teach yoga.
There are two social workers, and staff is lobbying to get a school nurse.
One day last month, Scofield pulled a boy out of class after learning that his mother had died that day.
"A lot of these children are emotionally scarred," Scofield said. "They're socially unprepared. They feel violence is the norm because that's what they've seen. We have to address their social and emotional needs first."