An Inner City School Gets a 'Rich Man's Curriculum'

December 12, 1993|By GARY GATELY

A decade ago, while visiting the private Calvert School in North Baltimore, Gertrude Williams found just what she was looking for inside orange boxes stacked in a storage room. Each contained a year's supply of textbooks, crayons, pencils, paper and detailed, proven lesson plans the Calvert School sends to more than 10,000 homes as part of its worldwide (and world- famous) home-study course.

Trudi Williams, the principal of the city's Barclay School in Charles Village, vowed then that she would somehow bring Calvert's curriculum to her poor public school. Her quest ignited a passion that would keep her up nights and place her and her school at the center of a civic war.

She believed in Calvert and its curriculum. She had peeked into classrooms at the private school and marveled at first-graders writing complete sentences in perfect script. She had seen third-graders reading and writing better than many of her seventh- and eighth-graders. She had watched fourth-graders absorbed in the study of works of art.

Back at Barclay, test scores sank, and attendance dropped. Class sizes mushroomed to more than 40 children. Students, even the some of the brightest, seemed bored, inattentive, listless -- or lost. North Avenue headquarters responded repeatedly with yet another new, experimental curriculum, often six months after the last new, experimental curriculum. Too often, though, the textbooks and materials came later, when they came at all. Students shared books. Teachers fashioned them by assembling mimeographed pages or pasting together pages from different books.

The contrasts between Barclay and Calvert troubled and infuriated and charged Trudi Williams with a tenacity bordering on obsession. An idea ignored by one superintendent and rejected outright by the next launched an intensely public fight to bring Calvert's curriculum, coordinator, teaching methods and expertise to Barclay in a unique pairing with a private school a mile away.

The outspoken Mrs. Williams recalls a conversation with Superintendent Richard C. Hunter toward the end of his tenure. "He told me, 'That's a rich man's curriculum that won't work and doesn't belong in a city public school,' " she says. "I told him, 'We don't want any poor man's curriculum for our children at our school.' "

Trudi Williams and her school on Barclay Street near Greenmount Avenue got their Calvert curriculum at last in 1990, with the Abell Foundation bankrolling a four-year experiment that has cost about $300,000 thus far. The collaboration began with kindergarten and first grade classes and now includes all students through fourth grade at the elementary-middle school.

Today, nobody questions whether the curriculum belongs in a poor, urban school. Standardized test scores at Barclay have soared -- and now exceed national norms for private schools. Attendance has improved dramatically. Class sizes have been capped at 25, leading to a waiting list of more than 50 parents who want their children in Barclay. Referrals to special education and Chapter 1, the federal program targeting poorly performing children, have declined, while more kids have landed in special classes for the "gifted and talented." Stop in any classroom, and you see a roomful of attentive children, clearly enthralled by the learning at hand.

Three years after the collaboration began, its success poses a question whose answers provide vital lessons for ever more desperate urban schools: Why has the Calvert partnership succeeded when so many educational "reforms" have failed or produced much less tangible results?

The answers are nothing too fancy: the structured curriculum itself, adequate materials, parental involvement, high expectations clearly spelled out for teachers, their assistants, parents and children.

For teachers, the lessons begin in the heat of August. Before the first child arrives, teachers and their assistants take their places at desks and practice their cursive script, write lesson plans, watch videos on teaching methods, crack open textbooks and study for two weeks. When school begins, they're ready. No wondering about what headquarters will decide they'll be teaching -- or whether they'll have textbooks.

The intensive training immerses the teachers in the Calvert way, which leaves no doubt about what's expected of teachers, their assistants, parents and students. All of them know, for instance, that first-graders will write in script, and do it perfectly. Not the first time, but sometimes the fifth, sometimes the 10th. Then, after they've corrected their mistakes again and again, their work goes on the wall. The moment never fails to thrill.

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