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Educationby Danielle Sweeney4:48 pmAug 11, 20150

Teachers work hard to ready Gilmor for students, despite lack of a principal

Tonight’s School Board meeting will hear recommendations for 6 of the 10 principal vacancies in the school system

Above: Gilmor Elementary in Sandtown, where teachers say they’re making sure students aren’t hurt by having no principal.

Gilmor Elementary School may not have a principal as the academic year commences, but the West Baltimore school is holding its own despite the lack of leadership, says Steve Skeen, a math teacher.

Having read coverage of the Sandtown school’s dilapidated playground and how a school secretary seemed to be holding things together, Skeen reached out over the weekend with a heartfelt email to say that Gilmor “has not been completely neglected over the summer.”

“Myself and other staff members have been working hard to make sure we are fully staffed (minus a principal) for the start of the school year and that we have all of our community partnerships in place for the upcoming school year,” he wrote to The Brew.

Skeen identified some of the partnerships.

He cited Arts Every Day, a group which provides occasional arts workshops in the school; Continuous Growth, a company which provides mentors to work at the school every day; and another group which will run Gilmor’s recess as well as mentor students.

“We are also working on picking an after-school program that will provide students with extra instruction, and enrichment as well as an after-school snack and dinner,” he wrote.

“We may not have a principal yet, but we certainly love our kids and are looking forward to a very productive school year.”

Struggle and Shakeups

Gilmor Elementary is one of 10 city schools currently without a principal, but its location gives the lack of leadership an extra poignancy.

The building, at 1311 North Gilmor Street, is just two blocks from where Freddie Gray was arrested. Gray’s subsequent death in police custody set off a shock wave of protest and rioting, and drew international attention to the plight of Baltimore’s poor, predominately black neighborhoods and to excessive use of force by city police.

Like those long-simmering issues, the struggles and shifting leadership at Gilmor Elementary go back many years.

It was an operator-managed school for nearly a decade, run by the New-York-based Edison Learning company, and in 2009 it was returned to management by Baltimore City Public Schools.

Former Schools CEO Andres Alonso pulled the plug, saying Edison had improved the school’s “climate,” but failed to meet achievement goals.

Principal turnover has been even more severe than the school-management overhauls, online records suggest.

Felipe Jackson was principal at Gilmor from 2011-2013 and now teaches in Georgia.

Tiffany Cole was listed as Gilmor’s principal on the school’s effectiveness review for 2013-14. The report says Cole, who is now listed as interim principal at Harford Heights Elementary, had been at the school for one year.

Mark Bongiovanni, who worked in the city school system for 18 years and now works in another school system, is the last Gilmor principal on record.

He contacted The Brew after reading our story.

“I resigned on June 11 and it saddens me that a replacement hasn’t been found yet. The staff and students of Gilmor are the best and they deserve better.”

 A Turnaround School

Aside from leadership turnover, Gilmor students have faced their own struggles, particularly academically.

Gilmor’s Maryland School Assessment (MSA) scores for 2013 and 2014 show that more than 70% of students in third grade and 75% of students in fourth grade scored at the basic level in reading.

Nearly 70% of third and fourth graders scored at the basic level for math on the MSA tests for the same years.

“Basic level” for reading, according to the MSA, means “students are unable to read and understand literature and passages of information that are written for students in their grade.”

For mathematics, it means students have only partially mastered skills required at their grade level.

The school’s and students’ failure to meet objectives are well documented.

Along with nine other city schools, including Frederick Douglass High School, Gilmor was designated a Turnaround School for the 2014-15 school year.

Turnaround schools are identified “as low performing and may be eligible for special assistance and funding to ‘turn around,’” according to the City Schools web site.

“Over a three-year period, these turnaround schools receive school improvement grants or Title I, Part A, Priority funds to implement changes such as a new principal and extra support staff, an extended learning day, new and more technology, increased mentoring and professional development for teachers, and specific programs and after-school activities to help students develop skills and interests.”

The Brew contacted the school system to find out how much grant funding Gilmor receives as a Turnaround School. We have not yet received a reply.

Principal Recommendations

Tonight, the School Board is slated to make hiring recommendations for six of the 10 principal vacancies.

Lisa Grillo, of the Office of Human Capital, did not identify which schools. “In a few cases,” Grillo said in a statement, “the recommended appointees are currently principals at other schools in the district, so these appointments will cause vacancies to open at the current school.”

She added this: “Due to our increased focus on building a leadership pipeline, we have a strong pool of principal candidates to offer  for consideration.”

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