In Experimental School, Tight-Knit Community Helps Students Succeed

Laura Schultz is principal of the Talent Development High School in Baltimore, which which closely tracks individual students' performance and aims to inspire them to make it to graduation.

Laura Schultz, principal of Baltimore Talent Development High School in Baltimore City, walks the hallways every chance she gets.

On the walls of most of those hallways, right above the words, "We miss you when you're not here, come to school every day" is an attendance chart pinned to a bulletin board. The charts are incredibly specific; attendance for each grade is updated daily for the monthly average, and is calculated out to two decimal points.

"You've got to keep it on people's minds," says Schultz.

The school is in Baltimore's Harlem Park neighborhood, one of the city's most poverty-stricken areas. Graduation rates are notoriously lower than average in such areas, but Baltimore Talent Development has managed to show enviable results, with graduation statistic that dwarfs those of nearby public schools in Baltimore.

They've done it using a specialized program designed by Johns Hopkins University researchers. But more importantly, the school's leaders say, Talent Development boosts kids' graduation potential by building long-term, trusting relationships between students and staff.

A school focused on early indicators

More than 90 percent of Talent Development students come from low-income families. Many live in violent neighborhoods, and, academically, most students start off several grades behind. Yet the school graduates more than 77 percent of its students in five years, which is a rate 20 points higher than that of a neighboring Baltimore public school that serves the same population.

The school focuses on the five-year rate rather than four-year, according to school co-founder Robert Balfanz, because its strategy is to "keep working with kids until they succeed." To that end, the school tackles head on the "ABCs" that can serve as early indicators a student will drop out: attendance, behavior, and coursework. Balfanz, a Johns Hopkins University researcher, first identified the ABCs and he co-founded Talent Development based on his research.

Matching supports with these needs is like designing a "giant engineering puzzle," Balfanz says. "We often keep waiting for the miracle and then we don't do the hard work of putting in place what works," he says.

At Talent Development, there are the charts, which track the attendance competitions, where students win prizes and receive certificates in front of the entire school. The staff believes getting teens in the school door is a crucial step. Then, they can tackle the other challenges these 500 students face.

The school is set up so that when students have to change classes, the rooms are less than three minutes apart, which helps control students' behavior. "Everything is deliberately organized for the least amount of movement or no chance for chaos," Schultz says. "Hall passes, when you can use the bathroom, the uniform."

As for coursework, students at Talent Development have twice as many hours of math and English as students in most high schools. They also have fewer choices of electives; until recently, they didn't even have a sports team.

'Caring adults' inspire students to do better

But of all the supports in place, Schultz says one is at the center of everything this school does: building relationships. Students stay with the same classmates throughout the day. And teachers "hold these students tight," she says.

"If they're not being internally motivated to do something, which many of our students aren't at this time, that relationship with someone that cares about them is what pushes them forward every day," Schultz says.

It's what Talent Development refers to as the "nagging and nurturing" method.

Lamell Powell is a senior at the school, and has a perfect preppy look in his pressed blue oxford shirt and khaki pants. His house is crowded with nine other family members so he spent time on the streets with friends, throwing rocks at cars. He was bullied constantly in middle school.

"I got my notebook taken. Somebody put ketchup packets in my folder. Somebody spit on a glove and threw it at me. I couldn't get away," he says. "I wasn't thinking about going to no high school."

Lamar says his life changed when he came to Talent Development High School. He had adults who followed up when he wasn't in school, teaching him math he didn't understand.

"Everybody watches everyone's back," he says. "You don't just straight leave, you say, 'hi' to the teachers before you leave, talk to them. Baltimore Talent's a family."

High expectations for students and teachers alike

Principal Schultz comes across as extremely capable and no nonsense. But students gravitate towards her, and Talent Development teachers take their cues from her. To create a positive and no hassle school culture, teachers such as Ebony Tyree first agree on clear rules that every student understands.

"So there is no 'I don't feel like it.' You're going to take the hat off, you're going to pull up your pants," Tyree says. "When you create a culture, then the students who don't do as they're told stick out, and they're not at the age where they really want to be different."

Tyree says she feels very supported in this school. It's small, with a student-teacher ratio of approximately 20 to 1. Teachers use specialized curricula created by Johns Hopkins researchers and there's a lot of professional development. Tyree wakes up at 3:30 a.m. daily, and spends two hours preparing her science lesson plans.

It's challenging because apart from what's going on in their home lives, her students have different abilities. Some are reading six grades behind where they should be, and 20 percent of the students at the school have special education plans.

"If you're not overwhelmed you're probably not doing it right," she says, laughing, "so yeah, all the time I feel overwhelmed!"

A practical education along with academics

Talent Development students also learn a range of life skills -- how to manage their time, how to talk to adults, how to disagree with their classmates -- which they may not have learned at home. Because often at home these teenagers are the adults, picking up younger siblings, feeding them, paying bills.

"It's difficult for them to make the transition," says Tyree explaining their thinking: "'When I'm outside the building, I'm an adult, but in here I'm a kid.'"

While most students frequently use phrases such as "education is the way out," it's sometimes very theoretical to them. So Tyree is very, very practical. For example, she tells her students how much more they can earn if they graduate.

" They're quick to say, 'well, I can make this money.' I was like yeah, 'but you're going to look over your shoulder for the rest of your life. How many drug dealers go on vacation?'" she says. "'They don't go to Hawaii for spring break. With a college degree, you could go on vacation and actually get paid.'"

Learning life lessons for after graduation

Back in her office, Schultz's paperwork is piling up. Her to-do list includes returning a call to a parent upset with a teacher, sorting out an argument between students and tracking down a missing purse. But no matter how long that list gets, Schultz spends a good part of her day in the halls, talking to students. Because even with that visibility, it still takes a long time to get her students to trust her and open up.

"Because so many people they've loved in their family, friends, have come and gone, killed," she says. "They're being hardened by life. Their natural defense mechanism is to be tough."

Schultz suddenly stops. Her defenses crumble. Tears pool in her blue eyes and stream down her cheeks.

"The world isn't going to hold their hand, and unfortunately they're going to be in competition with kids who have come from so much more and it's going to be really hard for them to compete," she says, her voice choked up. "You just worry. What happens next?"

Schultz hopes her students remember the lessons they learned at Talent Development long after they graduate, and they have the inner resilience to keep going. But most of all, she hopes that along the way they meet other adults who care enough to, as she puts it, "hold them tight."

This story was produced with help from Ginger Moored and assistance of Natalie Yuravlivker. It is part of WAMU 88.5's American Graduate series. "American Graduate - Let's Make It Happen" is a public media initiative supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.