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A new day at Baltimore’s City Springs

After improving, then faltering, they’re striving for changes that will stick.

Above: City Springs principal Rhonda Richetta makes sure to greet every student as they leave the morning assembly.

You might think — seeing the overwhelmingly purple halls of City Springs Elementary and Middle School and the children in uniforms bearing a soaring raven logo — that principal Rhonda Richetta is a bit obsessed with the hometown Baltimore Ravens football team. But you would be wrong.

Rhonda Richetta has only one obsession: the kids who attend City Springs.

Under the purple paint, City Springs is a struggling school in a poor East Baltimore neighborhood, a place that just can’t seem to adequately educate its students, in the eyes of the state.

Despite improving test scores over the past four years, City Springs has still over that time failed to improve enough by the definitions set forth in No Child Left Behind. They’re in danger of being shut down by the Maryland Department of Education and restructured.

What to make of this situation? Does it mean the school is failing the kids? Or that improvements take time? It’s a question that could be asked of any of the Baltimore that just can’t seem to measure up to the state’s standards. (City Springs was one of 57 Baltimore schools on the most recent “school improvement list,” meaning they failed to meet AYP two years in a row.)

“This is what is very frustrating for us and for our staff,” Richetta said. “We have been working so hard and have made excellent progress in the past four years, but when the test scores come out, we are considered a failing school.”

Waking up

The daily assembly at 8 a.m. is the very loud way City Springs starts its day. On a recent morning, hundreds of elementary students seated in the auditorium responded to their principal’s introduction with a chorus of voices screaming “Good morning, Principal Richetta!”

Every teacher was greeted in the same fashion, and by the end of announcements, the once-sleepy children appeared excited to start the day.

Morning assembly at City Springs. (Photo by Oliver Hulland.)

Morning assembly at City Springs. (Photo by Oliver Hulland.)

Richetta explained that when she took over in 2007, the same students were nodding off during morning classes. After the super-charged assembly, the kids appeared anything but sleepy. It is one of the many subtle tactics Richetta is using to turn the school around.

Standing on the stairs outside of the auditorium, the principal seemed to greet every single child by name, as they streamed past her on the way to their homerooms. The smaller children all walked past with their arms crossed over their chest, a rule Richetta implemented to improve behavior by preventing any pushing or touching. Many break formation to give their principal a hug she is only too happy to receive.

During the day, the halls were silent, even when filled with students waiting patiently in line to use the bathroom during a scheduled break. In classrooms, students managed to ignore the visiting reporter (except for the occasional smile or wave) while paying attention to their teacher and responding to prompts in unison.

“When you walk around this school,” Richetta said, “it really doesn’t feel like a failing school.”

One step forward, two steps back

In 1996, a foundering City Springs was taken over by the Baltimore Curriculum Project, a local non-profit that operates several city schools. At that point, City Springs was one of the worst schools in Baltimore, testing 112th in reading, out of 114 schools.

It was 99% African American, with 92% of all students qualifying to receive free and reduced-price school meals. (Those stats are pretty much the same today.) The school is located on South Caroline Street, north of Fells Point and south of the Johns Hopkins Hospital campus.

Under the guidance of the Curriculum Project, City Springs implemented a controversial curriculum known as Direct Instruction (DI), a highly-structured style of teaching that requires teachers to undergo extensive training and then follow a scripted curriculum. After the switch, test scores quickly improved throughout the school, gaining them national recognition.

City Springs principal, Rhonda Richetta. (Photo by Oliver Hulland.)

City Springs principal, Rhonda Richetta. (Photo by Oliver Hulland.)

Still, despite the optimism that improvement engendered at the school, test scores began to falter in 2002. Richetta believes that the scores fell, in part, because the previous administration, satisfied with their past success, strayed from the rigorous fidelity required by Direct Instruction.

For her part, Muriel Berkeley, president of the Baltimore Curriculum Project, believes that improvement is never constant, but instead comes in waves.

“There are limits to what you can do in a school and City Springs, like any school, has its ups and downs,” said Berkeley.

By the time Richetta took over in 2007, the school’s test scores had slipped significantly from their high in 2001, and she explained that the culture and climate of the school had become negative. She was in a position to know — prior to becoming principal in 2007, Richetta worked as a special education teacher at City Springs, from 1998 to 2002.

“When I first came back I had a teacher who, after morning announcements in the auditorium, would leave with this look on her face that said this is the last place on earth she wanted to be,” explained Richetta. “And then I looked at the children in line behind her and every child had the same exact look on their face.”

After being interrupted by a visiting journalist, this fifth grade English class resumed their classwork. (Photo by Oliver Hulland.)

After being interrupted by a visiting journalist, this fifth grade English class resumed their classwork. (Photo by Oliver Hulland.)

While she didn’t fire the teacher in question (she eventually requested a transfer), Richetta said that in the four years since she took over, she has replaced nearly 60% of the staff. It’s a drastic measure she said was necessary to turn around the once-again-struggling school.

Before the start of the second year, Richetta wanted this change to become even more apparent and did so the only way she knew how: she had everything painted purple.

“When the students walked in on that first day of school I wanted them to know that it was a new day for City Springs,” said Richetta.

A fresh coat of paint

Now though, despite Richetta’s efforts since 2007, City Springs is in trouble. Test scores have not risen enough to achieve a measure of improvement known as Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), an index created by the Department of Education to determine a school’s performance based on standardized testing and other factors.

Under AYP’s requirements,  various subgroups have to meet the standards, groupings defined by race, such as black or Hispanic; income, such as children who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches; or special-education students. Another factor is student attendance.

After four years of missing AYP, schools like City Springs are placed in “corrective action” and must adopt strategies outlined by No Child Left Behind. After the fifth year of failing to pass the AYP, the school may have to be shut down and undergo restructuring.

Richetta is particularly frustrated with AYP, and is quick to defend her school’s reputation after not achieving AYP for the past four years. She explains that during her first year as principal, only 4% of 6th grade students were scoring proficient on the Maryland School Assessment (MSA) in math, but that in order to achieve the AYP they would have had to improve that number into the high 70s.

“For anybody to expect that we could make that jump in one, two, or even three years is unreasonable,” said Richetta.

Part of the problem for City Springs is that AYP is a moving target, meaning that every year the necessary scores increase regardless of whether the school failed the year before.

In order for City Springs to achieve AYP in 2011, 85.9% of 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders have to be proficient in reading, and 84.5% in math. For 6th, 7th and 8th grades, 85.6% of students must be proficient in reading and 78.6% in math.

The Curriculum Project’s Berkeley believes that some schools in Baltimore struggle with the AYP because the tests are written for kids who come from relatively well-educated middle-class families.

“It’s not a matter of whether the kids can read, because if you look at the test, there are these tricks,” said Berkeley. “Children in the middle class who interact verbally with parents with larger vocabularies develop an academic vocabulary that these tests are looking for. Children without these words are constantly falling behind.”

Richetta agrees: “It’s really hard to be successful on these tests if a fifth grader taking a fifth grade test is functioning on a third grade level.”

Despite these disadvantages, City Springs has seen consistent improvements over the past four years even in the face of failing the AYP. When Richetta first started, 76% of the students were functioning below grade level. Today, that number is down to 23%, which should mean good things for this year’s test, scheduled to be taken in March.

And while this year’s AYP is important, it appears that change is on the horizon in the form of the Common Core Standard, a nationwide movement to adopt a new set of educational standards that the Maryland Board of Education officially endorsed in 2009. The Common Core Standard, unlike the AYP, does not use standardized testing, but instead relies on growth models that produce individualized tests that can track a student’s development over time.

City Springs illustrates the challenges that struggling Baltimore schools face when they have to play catch-up. They have to balance the needs of the kids with the requirements of the test, and what has become clear in the case of City Springs is that this can take time.

But if walking through the halls of City Springs is indicative of anything, it is that the school may have turned the corner.

Students crossing their arms in the hall, responding in unison at assembly, and taking orderly bathroom breaks may not mean much individually, but to Richetta, these scenes are evidence of a sea-change in atmosphere at City Springs. It’s an upswing that she says actually can be measured, not just by rising test scores but by decreasing reports of disruptive behavior. (In 2008, City Springs had 86 suspensions, in 2009 that number had dropped to 10.)

“For me, the most exciting thing about City Springs is that there is this joyfulness,” said Berkeley.

At a recent assembly, she recalled, principal Richetta announced they would be having Saturday school and the students reaction was to cheer. “Everyone was thrilled!”

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