Key High School innovations spell success in writing scores CARROLL COUNTY SCHOOLS

November 16, 1992|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,Staff Writer

When the school system releases the results of the Maryland State Performance Tests today, Francis Scott Key High School's writing scores will look very good.

That was not the case six years ago, when only 58 percent of the school's ninth-graders who took it passed the test designed to measure basic writing ability.

Maryland students are required to pass the test before they can get their high school diplomas.

This year, more than 98 percent of the Key ninth-graders who took the test passed it, said Kathleen Heslin, chairwoman of the English department at Key.

The low passing rate six years ago prompted Mrs. Heslin, special education chairwoman Rose Mattavi and David Booz, then the school's principal, to embark on an aggressive, two-pronged plan to teach students how to write, especially those who don't like to write.

After one year, 78 percent of those who took the test, including the ones who failed the first time around, passed it.

By the second year, 96 percent were passing. The rates have been above 95 percent ever since.

Superintendent R. Edward Shilling uses the Key High School turnaround as a prime example of what school improvement should be all about.

"I'm trying to institutionalize that," Mr. Shilling said of the combination of teacher initiative and raised expectations for students.

The two-pronged approach that Mrs. Heslin led began with involving teachers in all subject areas. They learned how to prompt students to write in all classes, not just in English. The social studies teachers required more essays and reports. Science teachers asked for written lab reports. Even math teachers had their students writing.

The other part of the plan was to use "collaborative learning" -- pairing an English teacher with a special education teacher -- and getting students to work in groups. That method brought together some students who could write well and others with learning disabilities, hearing or vision impairment, or other special needs.

The collaborative learning method already was being used in math classes at Key six years, ago when the writing scores were low.

"Kathy [Heslin] and I looked at each other and said, 'We can do this,' " Ms. Mattavi said.

Jimmy Kreit, 14, a freshman, said the collaborative groups have helped him in math and reading. Jimmy is articulate, but his trouble with spelling interferes with putting his thoughts on paper, he said.

"They set us all up in groups, then they more or less teach us and let us do our work as a group," Jimmy said, explaining the collaborative learning method. "We go over our answers, and it really helps. We all help each other."

One day last week, the students in a freshman English class were assigned to write about a time when someone helped them do something. As an example, Ms. Mattavi told them how her sister taught her to make chili.

One boy raised his hand to ask why the students couldn't choose some other topic.

"You need to get ready to take the writing test, and that's what they're going to ask you," Ms. Mattavi said.

Actually, the test question may not necessarily be about the time someone helped someone do something, but it always requires the students to write about something that happened to them.

Students who fail the test have to repeat it until they pass, or they don't graduate.

"We have got to get this out of the way," Mrs. Heslin tells the students.

Once they learn the mechanics of writing this semester, she said, the class will embark on the fun stuff -- such as reading and watching an unabridged performance of "Romeo and Juliet."

"Teaching the test" is often discouraged when it means students are being taught something only for the purpose of passing a standardized test. But Ms. Mattavi and Mrs. Heslin believe such an approach is appropriate here.

"If the outcome of the tests is good, then why not?" Mrs. Heslin said.

The two teachers said the Maryland writing test lists specific "outcomes," or standards, that it measures. For example, students must be able to use details to elaborate and tell a story that has a beginning, middle and end.

They must be able to explain something in clear and correct terms. Their spelling and punctuation doesn't have to be perfect, but it must not be so bad that it interferes with the meaning of their writing.

"It really is hard work for them," Mrs. Heslin said of the students. "The idea of working in cooperative groups is that everybody has to work."

For students with learning disabilities, the group work and team teaching helps them learn their material in the context of the rest of the class, Ms. Mattavi said.

She said that many times, with one-on-one tutoring outside of class, the student will understand a concept but not be able to apply it back in the classroom.

As for team teaching, other schools in Carroll and other counties are following the model set up by Ms. Mattavi and Mrs. Heslin.

Mrs. Heslin is the "content" person who knows English best, and Ms. Mattavi is the "process" person who knows best how to make learning easier for some students.

"It made both of us better teachers, because we learned from each other," Ms. Mattavi said. "You can't have a special education teacher who is qualified in all content areas, especially on the high school level where it gets so intense."

"When it works pretty smoothly, you shouldn't be able to tell which is which," Mrs. Heslin said.

The two teachers have provided training sessions on their methods for teachers at other Carroll high schools and have held seminars in Harford County and Baltimore.

Most high schools in Carroll have started using the methods from Key, but it is not something the administration is mandating, said Gary Dunkleberger, director of curriculum.

"It's something that people have to decide they want to do," he said.

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