In a district wrestling with declining enrollment, high teacher attrition, and stubborn test scores, Lakeland Elementary Middle School offers a remarkable case study of growth, success, and achievement. Located in a low-income neighborhood with a growing immigrant community, Lakeland’s enrollment has soared from 516 students nine years ago to a current enrollment of over 900 students. In addition to adding students and teachers every year, Lakeland has also seen a significant increase in its staff retention rate: The number of years a teacher stays at Lakeland has gone from an average of 4.2 years to 8.2 years. And, through all of it, Lakeland’s students are demonstrating eye-popping academic gains.
This spring, over 50% of Lakeland third-graders “met” or “exceeded” proficiency on the PARCC math exam—a 173% increase from the 18.5% of students who achieved those performance levels in 2015. During that three-year period, the percentage of third-graders who “partially met” or “did not yet meet” proficiency in math plummeted from 52.2% to 22.4%. The same patterns are observable in English language arts (ELA), if in a slightly less extreme way. In 2015, only 28.5% of third-graders “met” proficiency. By 2018, 43% of third-graders met the standard, and the percentage that “partially met” or “did not yet meet” proficiency dropped from 46.1% to 34.6%.
Those patterns are continuing into sixth-grade ELA where the percentage of Lakeland students meeting proficiency grew from 17.1% in 2015 to 31 percent in 2018, while the percentage that “partially met” proficiency fell from 37.1% to 11% during that same period. The sixth-grade math scores are edging up too, albeit more slowly. Whereas less than 22% “met” or “approached” proficiency in 2015, by 2018, this number nearly doubled to 40.7%. And the percentage of sixth-graders who “partially met” or “did not yet meet” proficiency dropped from 80% to 59%.
What is happening at Lakeland? How are teachers and school leaders facilitating such impressive learnings gains—gains that are particularly striking because of Lakeland’s high rates of student mobility and the school’s largely low-income, non-native English-speaking population? How are partners supporting their work? What lessons can others in Baltimore—and beyond—take from these efforts?
Lakeland’s success is rooted in the successful implementation of high-quality interventions that empower teachers to bring out the best in students. Unpacking how, exactly, Lakeland does that, requires identifying the frameworks created within the school, the interventions that are brought into those frameworks, and the web of supports that sustain the whole.
Principal Najib Jammal has been leading Lakeland for the past nine years. A former Teach For America corps member who previously taught at Frederick Douglass High School and was a founder of a youth entrepreneurial nonprofit before entering New Leaders’ principal residency, Jammal is laser-focused on data and doing everything he can do to create the optimal learning environment for students and staff.
According to Principal Jammal, one of the driving factors fueling Lakeland’s success is the collaborative staff who is committed to supporting students. Teachers and administrators work as a team and support one another in creating opportunities, supporting students’ needs, and pushing student achievement. “We have a staff of committed adults who do whatever it takes to support our students,” said Jammal.
A key component of that work involves a daily 50-minute “intervention block,” which the leadership team supports by carving out 10 minutes from each standard class period. Every six weeks, each student in the school is grouped into a new team for targeted intervention based on their skills and areas of struggle. Additional staff members, usually a special educator and an English as a second language instructor, are assigned a group of students during each block to maximize the number of instructors and create the smallest student groups possible.
“The intervention block allows us to get in right away to help a student who is stuck,” explained Jammal. “If we can do that, we prevent them from falling behind. And because we re-group every six weeks, we are always re-evaluating where students are and what they need most.”
Jammal also credits the departmentalization of teaching staff with facilitating higher quality academic instruction. “Very few teachers are equally great teaching every content area,” explained Jammal. “And, frankly, there’s just so much to learn about each subject and how to teach it most effectively, that we wanted to let teachers develop more mastery.”
So, a few years ago, Lakeland moved from having all classroom teachers teach all the subjects to having teachers in grades three and up “specialize” in either ELA, math, or social studies and science. Now, Jammal explained, “teachers can go deep” in a content area and become real experts in the curriculum and how to deliver it.
In-school frameworks like a departmentalized teaching staff and, to a lesser extent, a daily intervention block are not unique to Lakeland; other schools have made similar moves. But the way those frameworks support other interventions is unique and enables these other interventions to achieve greater impact.
For example, Lakeland has partnered with instructional coaches who work with the teachers and support instruction in the intervention block. Jarrod Bolte, who leads Improving Education, and Josh Michael, from UMBC-Zone Math, provide in-house coaches who “are extremely competent and highly skilled experts,” according to Jammal, who credits their support of continuous improvement and data-driven interventions with helping teachers maximize their work with students.
Additional academic supports are also brought in whenever possible. Loyola University Maryland and UMBC have made Lakeland a professional development site for student teachers, and UMBC also provides a steady stream of interns and tutors. In addition, Lakeland serves as a site for Literacy Lab, which provides targeted literacy interventions to pre-K students.
Other programs provide push-in supports to students and families. Lakeland has a Judy Center, a food pantry, and an evidence-based parent education program called the Chicago Parent Program. Northrop Grumman and UMBC have provided significant, multi-year funding that has enhanced the school and what it can offer students. The Northrop Grumman-supported Lakeland STEAM Center transformed the former Lakeland Recreation Center into an academic resource for students and families, and PeaceWorkers receive stipends from UMBC to lead Lakeland’s community engagement work.
Listening to the thoughtful way Principal Jammal has assembled Lakeland’s many partners, knowing the specific roles they will fill, is like listening to an orchestra whose conductor had searched far and wide for the right musician for each seat in the ensemble. Jammal is also not one to be deterred. He described instances of wanting a program for Lakeland, being told the program was not accepting additional schools, and attending the meetings anyway (for a year and a half) until another school dropped out. When that happened, there he was, making Lakeland the obvious next choice.
If it’s a great program, we are going to fight to get it for our students. Urban education isn’t impossible, and it doesn’t have to be too expensive. There are great people doing great work, and part of my job is to bring that work here and then show that our students can achieve at high levels.
Funding great work is never easy, though, and Lakeland has benefited from a good deal of outside funding over the past few years. A four-year grant from the George and Betsy Sherman Foundation and UMBC provided $250,000/year, with the district providing an additional $50,000. Lakeland also secured a 21st Century Learning Center grant for four years at $210,000/year to support after-school and summer programming, and a $1.4 million grant from Northrop Grumman to support the STEAM Center renovation and kickoff programming there.
While those grants are all winding down, a new $348,000 grant from the Baltimore City Youth Fund to support youth and community programming at the STEAM Center on evenings and weekends will continue to move the work forward.