Better Times at Douglass High

Logo of Frederick Douglass High School featuring Frederick Douglass' face and an open book.

Image credit: The Academies at Frederick Douglass High School

Two years ago, fifteen-year-old Miquel Green put on an earnest face and prepared himself to stand the consternation of his older brother, Andrew. Miquel had decided to transfer from his current high school in Baltimore, Md., to Frederick Douglass High School, the Charm City school from which Andrew had graduated just five years before.

“He was mad,” recalls Miquel with a chuckle, yet he couldn’t fault his brother for the concern. During Andrew’s time at Frederick Douglass High, truancy, violence, and underachievement were rampant, and Andrew counted himself lucky to have graduated on time. But Miquel knew something that his brother didn’t—Frederick Douglass High had become a turnaround school.

A Storied Past and a Brighter Future

A 2008 HBO documentary, Hard Times at Douglass High, filmed in 2004-2005, declared, “America is in the midst of an educational crisis.” At the center of this struggle was a disorganized, academically dilapidated Frederick Douglass High, where less than 25 percent of students graduated and hopelessness pervaded the halls.

But the school had not always been this way.

In 1883, Frederick Douglass High, then called the Grammar School for Colored Children, opened its doors. By 1889, the institution became the first in Maryland—and only the third in the nation—to award high school diplomas to African Americans.

Born out of the “separate but equal” era, the school quickly established a reputation for educational excellence among African Americans, and built a powerful alumni base, including Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, jazz entertainment legend Cab Calloway,  and “mother of the civil rights era” Lillie Mae Carroll Jackson.

But decades of financial and administrative struggles at the school and the challenges of a city dominated by urban poverty gradually disintegrated Frederick Douglass High’s academic foundation.

When the school’s current principal, Antonio Hurt, arrived from Georgia two years ago, the school was, in his words, “an education cemetery … people couldn’t take pride in our programs.”

Fast forward to today and Frederick Douglass High has reinvented itself. The entire school community has come together—the staff and students recommitting themselves to a learning environment based on the values of “pride, dignity, and excellence,” the school’s motto. The work is not yet done, but hopelessness has left the building.

The School Turnaround

In 2010, recognizing the depths of institutional failure at Frederick Douglass High, the Baltimore City Public Schools (BCPS) embraced the challenge of reversing the school’s cycles of underachievement. Supported by Maryland’s multimillion-dollar federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) awarded from the U.S. Department of Education, school leaders and educators seized the opportunity not only to restore the school to its storied stature, but also to reclaim its status as a pioneer in education.

The federal SIG program provides grants to states, which make competitive subgrants to local educational agencies that demonstrate the greatest need for support and the strongest commitment to substantially raising student achievement in their lowest-performing schools. BCPS elected to implement a school turnaround effort at Frederick Douglass High that included replacing the school’s principal and more than 50 percent of its staff.

Through this reform model, Frederick Douglass High agreed to prioritize staff recruitment and development to better meet the needs of teachers and students. The school also increased planning time for teachers and learning time for students. New supports for the social-emotional needs of the school community also were provided.

Hired in late July to lead the turnaround as school principal, Antonio Hurt had little over a month before the start of the academic year to unveil a completely different Frederick Douglass High.

To ease students into the experience of a transformed school, Frederick Douglass High hosted a summer open house and staggered start dates for students. “You had to hit the ground running,” Hurt explains.

In accordance with the SIG turnaround plan that BCPS developed, Hurt established two learning “academies”—one for innovation studies and the other for public policy—with each student required to enroll in one.

In addition to classes in core academic subjects, Frederick Douglass High’s academy-specific programs empower students to customize their course of study with hands-on classes, such as advanced simulation gaming and global leadership.

Miquel is enrolled in the public policy academy, which aims to prepare high school graduates to “unite people under the banner of public service.”  The values of the academy read like a job description for a CEO, among them, “acute listening and motivational skills,” “a positive bias toward action,” and “an unmatched ability to generate support for creative solutions.”

The innovation academy emphasizes a holistic perspective on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education, aiming to impart “keen powers of observation” to students in addition to concrete subject matter knowledge.

The Importance of School Leadership

Hurt likens his first year at Frederick Douglass High to “being thrown in the middle of a war.” In staring down a frontline of adversity in his first year, Hurt’s direct leadership style, requirements for procedure and order, and boundless dedication to students and staff may have been just what the institution needed.

“Our doors [used to] open every day, but it was not a place where education was alive,” he recounts. Frederick Douglass High lacked even the basics. There was no handbook for teachers or students. Hurt remembers that in his early days, no one at the school even knew where to find printer paper.

Recognizing the need for standard procedures, Hurt rapidly instituted systems for everything from storing supplies to a new program called Operation Graduation, which includes color-coded metrics in red, yellow, or green to indicate if each student is on track to earning a diploma.

This basic change resulted in a fundamental shift as students previously didn’t know their status. Explains assistant principal Tricia Hunter: “They didn’t know their attendance rate. They didn’t know their GPAs. They didn’t know if they had passed the state assessments … Adults didn’t know either.” Now, students’ meetings with their teachers and counselors have become a dialogue in which all parties understand the students’ standing and are equally invested in positive outcomes.

The Early College Program

Miquel is now in his senior year at Frederick Douglass High. He plays basketball for the school team, but when he graduates in June, his definitive experience will have been participating in the school’s early college program, also known as the “Douglass Achievers Academy.”

Designed in cooperation with EDWorks—an organization specializing in school design and Frederick Douglass’s partner in its School Improvement Grant—the Douglass Achievers Academy offers students a challenging, yet supportive program that combines the high school curriculum with the first two years of college. Each student receives a personalized learning plan, including college and career exploration, internships, and service learning.

“I didn’t want to be in early college at all,” Miquel confesses with a smile, shaking his head at the prospect of potentially missing the opportunity. The chances of that were slim, however, since teachers at Frederick Douglass High work tirelessly to maximize opportunities for every student. Hurt puts it playfully, “We find out your performance, we find out your potential—and then we stalk the heck out of you.”

Douglass Achievers Academy courses are taught at nearby Baltimore City Community College (BCCC). SIG funds provide for transportation to and from the community college, and individual student schedules are adjusted to align with their BCCC classes.

The Future for Frederick Douglass High

With a year remaining in the three-year federal SIG grant, the final verdict on turnaround efforts at Frederick Douglass High has yet to be delivered. But the changes have resulted in measurable progress.

For the first time in 18 years the school achieved its academic targets, with all students scoring proficient in English and mathematics. Over the past two years, the school has posted significant gains, with 20 percent increases in both English and mathematics. The school also has surpassed its targets in attendance, which is up to 80 percent.

Though challenges persist, Hurt remains focused: “When you talk about shifting the trajectory of a child, of a community, it’s about relentless effort.”

Word of Frederick Douglass High’s success is spreading. Hurt often balances his duties as turnaround leader with fulfilling requests to speak to other city principals about the revolution underway at his school.

Assistant principal Hunter also can attest to the metamorphosis at Frederick Douglass High. Nine years ago, before becoming assistant principal, she returned to her native Baltimore to become a teacher at Frederick Douglass.

Hunter’s mother, ever supportive of her daughter’s choice to become an educator, helped Hunter move into her new classroom. But she still felt compelled to ask her daughter, “Why, of all places, would you want to work here?” Hunter remembers confidently replying, “Because I see what it could be.”

That vision—of what a turnaround school can be and what it can do for its students—is made real through Miquel’s example. This year, he became the school’s first early college student to score “college-ready” on the College Board’s Accuplacer academic achievement test. As Miquel aptly sums up, “Everything’s changed.”