Opportunity for success takes hold at P.G. school

April 23, 1995|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,Sun Staff Writer

As Baltimore County and other subdivisions consider a smorgasbord of experimental school reforms, Prince George's County has quietly pioneered one approach based on the old notion that the whole village raises the child.

The result is increased student attendance and rising test scores in schools that were well below state standards, educators say.

At the elementary level, the same teacher stays with a class for several years. Traditional letter grades on report cards are out. Classes have children of varied ages, and older students teach younger children. Parents, businesses and community groups all play a part.

"I've never been in a school so involved," said Ronnie Singer, the reading specialist at Langley Park-McCormick Elementary in Hyattsville, one of the five participating Prince George's County schools.

The Prince George's school system was chosen three years ago as one of three districts in the country to take part in the ATLAS Communities project sponsored by the New American Schools Development Corporation. The other school systems are in Gorham, Maine, and Norfolk, Va.

"They were looking for different profiles. They wanted an urban-suburban, multicultural look," said Bill Ritter, coordinator of Prince George's ATLAS, an acronym for Authentic Teaching, Learning and Assessment for All Students.

Prince George's, a Washington suburb of 750,000 with predominantly nonwhite population, was a perfect match. Langley Park-McCormick Elementary School's 515 students, in grades four through six, are mostly black, Hispanic and Asian, represent 38 countries and speak 25 languages from Urdu to Dutch to Spanish.

The population is transient. Almost two-thirds of the students who start the school year are gone by June. More than 90 percent receive free or reduced-price lunches -- one of the highest proportions of low-income students in the county.

"It was an opportunity. How could you refuse?" said Langley Principal Patricia A. Kelly, who hugs every student as they leave school each day.

Collaboration among teachers, parents and the community, along with intensive staff training, are key components of the ATLAS plan. So is a "pathway" of schools with similar philosophies that provide continuity in education from kindergarten through 12th grade.

The Prince George's pathway includes Langley, two other elementary schools, a middle school and a high school. Collectively they're referred to as the Challenger campus, and there is even a pathway bus that shuttles between the schools to allow students and faculty to mix.

"The purpose is to promote school as a learning community," Mr. Ritter said. "It requires teachers to talk across disciplines and integrate curriculum."

The ATLAS program is one of nine school "designs" put forward by the Development Corporation, a nonprofit organization formed in 1992 by business leaders to fund school reform projects that do not require large, continuing expenditures. Educators from around the state will get a chance to look them over at a "design fair" from 3:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. May 1 at the Timonium Holiday Inn.

If a school picks a model and decides to make itself over, a design team of professionals financed by the corporation works with principals and teachers to plan the program. The corporation also provides financial help for teacher training and technical assistance.

This year, Prince George's received a one-time $500,000 nest egg to get the programs going after two years of planning.

"The underlying message is not to pour tons of money into it," Dr. Kelly said. "What you need is desire."

is up to a school's principal, parents and teachers to decide what will work. "You have to be creative," Dr. Kelly said. "And I have a staff that really cares."

At Langley, teachers, counselors and administrators make frequent home visits. A trilingual parent liaison is on staff. Grades are called "neighborhoods," and every staff member is involved in a student club to give the children another stable adult in their lives.

"It's hard work, but you reap the benefits," said Mrs. Singer, who has taught 23 years in the county. This is her first year at Langley.

School counselor John Haslinger agrees. "We work like crazy, but you know everyone else is, too."

On Friday Mr. Haslinger was monitoring the 100 Percent Club's extra recess. Every student who attends school for the whole month gets more play time and a token gift, such as a tiny pad of note paper.

"It's fun. We get prizes and stuff," said 9-year-old Tanuja Mehrotra, a fourth-grade student. Tanuja has perfect attendance far this year.

"It's very gratifying," Mr. Haslinger said. "You see kids turn around."

The school's overall attendance rate, now 96 percent, has improved markedly over the past two years, Mr. Ritter said.

Fifth-graders also have improved their reading and science scores on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program test.

"They've doubled and tripled," Mr. Ritter said. And though scores are still low, he said, "By the year 2000, we'll be ahead of schedule."

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