A city school's dramatic climb toward excellence

November 24, 1993|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,Staff Writer

A 3-year-old partnership between a Baltimore elementary school and an elite private school has surpassed even the most optimistic expectations -- raising test scores to record levels, improving attendance and shrinking class sizes.

The Abell Foundation, which provided $300,000 for the collaboration between the Calvert School and the city's Barclay School, said an evaluation released yesterday is so encouraging that the program may be expanded to all grades at the elementary-middle school. Now, only students in kindergarten through fourth grade participate.

"What this partnership shows is what is possible for the children of Baltimore City, not just for Barclay, but for more than 100,000 children of Baltimore City schools," said Robert C. Embry Jr., president of both the Abell Foundation and the state school board.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke took the opportunity to praise the partnership -- and deliver a message to state lawmakers as they debate changes in school financing that could give the perennially cash-strapped Baltimore more money.

"I don't want to in any way underestimate a strong, strong message coming out of the Calvert experience, and that is that additional resources can make a big difference in the academic achievement of our children," Mr. Schmoke said.

The nonprofit Abell Foundation began financing the partnership in the 1990-1991 school year, when Calvert brought its teaching methods, support staff and curriculum stressing mastery of the basics to the school on Barclay Street in the Charles Village area.

Mr. Embry said that while Abell would be willing to expand the program to the eighth grade, and finance it for four more years, the foundation has yet to talk about specifics with Calvert officials or the city school system.

The effort began with kindergarten and first-grade classes, and Calvert took on second-grade classes in the 1991-1992 school year, third grade last school year and fourth grade this fall.

Mr. Embry, Mr. Schmoke, Superintendent Walter G. Amprey, and local lawmakers visited the school yesterday as Sam Stringfield, principal research scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Center for the Social Organization of Schools, presented a 34-page report on the experiment.

The report was based, in part, on how students performed on two different standardized tests before and after the new curriculum was instituted at the Barclay School. Students who had the benefit of the new program did much better than their counterparts.

The report found that students in the program:

* Scored well above the national average in reading on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills (CTBS), while those who had not participated scored well below the average.

* Averaged more than 20 percentile points higher than those who did not have the Calvert curriculum on the reading and writing portions of the Educational Records Bureau Tests, which are given to private school students nationwide.

* Scored above the national average on the language arts portion of the CTBS and in writing on the private school test. The first Barclay-Calvert class to finish third grade scored 20 percentile points above any of its predecessors that had not been in the program.

* Scored at the 60th percentile on the private school math tests, while their predecessors were around the 20th percentile. On the CTBS math test, those in the program averaged 10 percentile points higher than students who were not.

"The students of Baltimore proved they are eminently capable of scoring above the national average on standardized tests," Dr. Stringfield said. "These are very dramatic differences. They're very hard to achieve, and rarely have I seen them in my professional life."

In addition, attendance at Barclay has improved to nearly 99 percent daily for children in the program, referrals to special education programs have declined, and referrals to the gifted-and-talented program have risen.

Everybody who gathered at the school yesterday realized that the partnership never would have become a reality but for the persistence of the 65-year-old Gertrude Williams, who, at 4 feet tall and 85 pounds, has been the biggest presence on Barclay Street for years.

A decade ago, the Barclay principal stood inside a storage room at the Calvert School and eyed the orange boxes with more than a little bit of envy. Each contained luxuries she and her students never had at Barclay -- a year's worth of books, pen

cils, paper and time-tested curricula the Calvert School sends to more than 10,000 homes as part of its worldwide home-study course.

She had walked its corridors and peeked into its classrooms, desperately searching for ideas when her public school began a slide marked by declining test scores, huge and ever-growing classes, poor attendance, endless experimental curriculums dictated by school headquarters, and a continual shortage of basics, like textbooks.

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