'Every child is so special' Teaching firm bound for Baltimore gets rave reviews

June 14, 1992|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,Staff Writer

MIAMI BEACH -- Forget the curriculum's mysterious name -- "Tesseract" -- or the slightly chaotic atmosphere.

What's going on at South Pointe Elementary School -- and what Baltimore officials hope to bring to nine city schools next fall -- is a celebration of educational common sense.

There are two teachers in every classroom, scores of volunteers working with students, computers for everybody, an enthusiastic principal, a hand-picked teaching corps and a brand-new building.

"Everything that you read about what is right for children is what we're doing," says Principal Patricia A. Parham.

South Pointe, a flashy neo-Art Deco school at the run-down south end of Miami Beach, is thought to be the first public school in the nation to be run by a private company.

Education Alternatives Inc. (EAI) will bring Tesseract to nine Baltimore schools in September.

It will be one of the grand experiments in privatizing public schools in the nation's history. And it will take some getting used to.

OC It's morning "center" time in a kindergarten classroom, and the

room is vibrating with activity.

Each child has chosen a work center. Five-year-old Jeffrey Brun draws on a chalkboard. Two little girls do a puzzle on the floor. Two boys work on their alphabets and spelling on computers in (( one corner. Six students draw at a table. Nearby, a teacher works on reading with another five children.

"You won't find many children off-task," says Mrs. Parham.

Into the controlled chaos comes a visitor: Yanick Brun, Jeffrey's mother, who has stopped by to hug her son. A native of Haiti, Ms. Brun is thrilled with South Pointe.

"They make them feel like every child is so special," she says. "He says my teachers love me. He never used to say that."

Her daughter, Sandra, a fourth-grader, has shot ahead in math, and Jeffrey is thriving, she says. For the first time, she says, she knows just what is going on at school. "The teachers let you know every little thing that's going on."

In the library, which is crammed with books, magazines and computers, fourth-graders are working on reports about constellations. There are plenty of reference books to go around. The kids draw copies of Cancer and Pisces, but they also create their own constellations, complete with a story.

A couple of dozen smaller children peer at computer screens, working on spelling. Some who can barely read work without words, trying to figure out which computerized lollipop they want.

Abe Paul, a 74-year-old retiree, sits at a table reading "The Missing Tooth" to first-grader Tamaso Fonseca, a twinkly boy with a mane of brown hair.

Mr. Paul volunteered at South Pointe after his wife died, he had a stroke and his support group kicked him out, telling him he needed to do something else.

"The school is strange to me," he says. "Right now, the way things are going, we have to try something.

"It remains to be seen if it will work."

Some 2,000 visitors have trooped through South Pointe since it opened in September, all eager to see the future.

Dade County made history when it signed an agreement with Minnesota-based Education Alternatives Inc. to run the new school for five years. Under the deal, the company provides the curriculum, trains the staff and raises extra money for the school. It was also supposed to take a fee for itself. So far, it has made nothing from the project, except for the enormous good will generated by dozens of glowing newspaper and television reports.

The company ran two private schools in Minnesota and Arizona. South Pointe is EAI's first public school.

The company grabbed Pat Parham and her 32 years of schooexperience. EAI gave her and an assistant a year to prepare and sent them to Minnesota to work at the company's private school.

With the first year almost finished, the tangible results are stilout. Students have finished their standardized tests, which will measure their progress against more traditional schools. There is nothing magical about Tesseract, the school's teaching style, which takes its name from a form of travel through dimensions in a children's book by Madeleine L'Engle.

Its creators borrowed some of the directed activities from Montessori schools and the freedom of open classrooms. Teachers rarely lecture. Students are given freedom to plan their days.

Parents meet with teachers before the beginning of school to figure out student goals for the year. For fourth-grader Lana Labrousse, for example, this year's goals were "to improve in math" and "to excel at a higher level."

There are no traditional grades to stigmatize students, nor are there gold stars.

About the only textbooks the students use are for math. Even then, each child is on a different page. There are few traditional work sheets, and students read real books, not Dick-and-Jane primers.

Teachers encourage students to write. They discuss reports, but in the early years refrain from marking up the mistakes. "Spelling comes later," says Mrs. Parham.

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