WASHINGTON -- Imagine a school where children do not receive grades in math, science and reading, but are assessed on how well they apply that knowledge in real-life situations.
A school where students aren't put in classes according to their age, but in loose groupings according to their interests.
A school that serves as a community center: welcoming new families into the community, teaching parents how to read to their children and advising parents on where they can seek health services.
A coalition of educators and corporations wants to make such progressive programs the rule, rather than the exception, in U.S. schools.
To that end, the New American Schools Development Corp., part of President Bush's America 2000 educational reform plan, announced yesterday the awarding of $50 million in grants to 11 educational teams, two of which will operate in schools in St. Mary's and Prince George's counties in Maryland.
The grants will be used in pilot schools in 21 states altogether. The experimental phase will end in 1996 and after that schools must manage the programs on their own.
Four elementary schools in St. Mary's County and an as yet unknown number of elementary schools in Prince George's County will participate in the experiment.
"Roots and Wings," the program to be implemented in St. Mary's, was developed by Robert E. Slavin, a Johns Hopkins University specialist in educating disadvantaged children. Much of the program is based on his "Success for All" project, which started in Baltimore elementary schools and is now being used in 13 other states.
"Roots and Wings" emphasizes "WorldLab," a technique in which students learn about a given subject, such as the disappearing Brazilian rain forest, and then apply their learning in science, math and social studies to try and solve problems.
The WorldLab technique, in which computers are used extensively, "has been promoted for years among gifted children," said St. Mary's Superintendent of Schools Joan Kozlovsky. Students in participating schools -- Green Holly, Lexington Park, George Washington Carver and Ridge elementary schools -- will not receive regular grades, but comprehensive assessments. They will be assigned to classes according to their accomplishments and interests, rather than by age.
"Roots and Wings," in addition to giving kids the "wings" of knowledge to reach their goals, is designed also to nurture their "roots" -- basic skills and a healthy attitude for approaching life. Establishing stable roots involves getting the whole family involved, Mr. Slavin said. He envisions the school as a community center where families come to fill a number of needs.
Several Prince George's elementary schools -- it has not yet been decided which ones -- will participate in an "Atlas" program, which stresses cooperation between school officials, parents and the community in developing a program that fits the needs of the particular school.
A board made up of parents, teachers, school administrators and support staff would be responsible for developing the school's social activities to make all students feel
comfortable and included, said Yale University Professor James Comer, who helped develop "Atlas." New students would participate in an orientation program and departing children would be counseled on how to adjust, he said.
Mr. Comer, an associate dean at Yale's Child Study Center, has been working with Prince George's schools since 1984 in a program that has expanded from 10 schools initially to 35 schools today.
The "Atlas" curriculum emphasizes child development, focusing on the interests of children at different ages. Elementary school children are interested in themselves and their bodies, middle school children want to know about the world outside themselves, and high-schoolers are beginning to focus on adult life, Mr. Comer said, but traditional schools tend to ignore these developmental differences.
"Atlas" also educates teachers about children who develop differently. "Some teachers see students as bad or dumb, rather than underdeveloped of differently developed," Mr. Comer said.
"Atlas" also emphasizes problem-solving techniques and assesses childrens' learning on how well they can apply what they've learned to real-life situations.