A fight against failure Low scores: At Holabird last school year, no third-grader met minimum statewide standards in science or reading, and no fifth-grader achieved a satisfactory score in reading, social studies, writing or science.

January 26, 1996|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,SUN STAFF

Margaret C. Wicks is the principal of a Baltimore elementary school that the state of Maryland says is a failure.

According to results of the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program test, not a single student in last year's third grade at Holabird Elementary met minimum statewide standards in science or reading. In the fifth grade, no one achieved a satisfactory score in reading, social studies, writing or science.

Every single one of those students was passed on to the next grade.

And that was enough to prompt the state to list Holabird Elementary among 35 schools that it says must be improved or removed from the city's control.

Trying to explain her predicament yesterday, Ms. Wicks said her staff was out sick a lot last year -- "We had to call in substitutes for the substitutes," she said -- and that she wanted to see the graded tests before she would believe that her students had done that poorly.

"We didn't expect the scores to go through the roof, but we had TTC improvement last year and were hoping to build on that," she said. "Right now, I don't know what the problem is. I take it personally because our kids are not as bad as that."

The veteran city educator, who began her classroom career in 1956, said that it was no small feat training children to learn in the Baltimore public schools of the 1990s.

Holabird's student body is largely made up of poor children -- 358 students this year under the instruction of 15 teachers -- who face nearly every social ill the United States has to offer.

Holabird Elementary is sandwiched between the O'Donnell Heights public housing development and the St. Stanislaus Cemetery, just inside the city-county line across from Dundalk.

Within four blocks of the school yesterday -- a Drug-Free Zone, according to city signs on utility poles -- a visitor was flagged at least a half-dozen times by drug dealers.

"Those people you see standing around on the corners aren't waiting for the bus," Ms. Wicks said.

Inside the depressing, 40-year-old building, which could pass for abandoned from the outside, the atmosphere was brighter. Little appeared new, and Ms. Wicks complained of furniture "breaking down," but the place looked clean and colorful in spots. Many children looked eager and happy.

As Ms. Wicks counted off teachers and aides assigned to Holabird, she mentioned a part-time social worker, sighed, and said she could use several more.

She said many of the students come from families that move two and three times a year (in 1994, 58 students left before the end of the year); that home environments are often beset by drug abuse; and that even the parents who try to help their children are hampered by their own limited educations.

As a result, Ms. Wicks said, the school had to simplify monthly activity packets sent home for parents to do with their children.

Patricia Vitale, the mother of a Holabird first-grader, said, "When I put a book down in front of her, she tells me all she can do is look at the pictures. The school should be teaching her to read."

Janet Wilson, two of whose children have graduated from Holabird and who has a child in the pre-kindergarten program there, said that if the school was taken over by the state, "the kids might have something to look forward to. They're not learning now."

On the school's second floor, Heather Rogers teaches a class made up of third- and fourth-graders. A second-year teacher considered one of the best at Holabird, Ms. Rogers denied that any of her students were illiterate. Nearly all of them, she said, read somewhere between first- and second-grade level. A few manage at the fourth-grade level, she said.

"They are able to read," said Ms. Rogers, adding that pairing weak readers with stronger ones for "peer tutoring" seems to help. "They come to school with problems, but these kids are fighters," she said. "They'll struggle with something until they get it. I can't see them looking at the [MSPAP] and saying, 'I can't do this.' "

On the MSPAP tests, students are asked to solve problems by applying their knowledge of reading, writing, mathematics, social studies, science and language use.

Although Ms. Wicks disputes the test scores as the true yardstick of how children are learning at Holabird Elementary, she concedes that something has to change. Exactly what, however, she couldn't say yesterday.

"There are things we're going to do -- to be sure we do," she said, adding that the Calvert program, a private school curriculum used successfully at Barclay Elementary, might do some good.

"We're going to revise the reading program. And I'll make sure the staff are trained in the correct administering of the test. That they stay consistent in making sure the children are taught to think, not just to ask what color the dog is. Today's child is not the same as when I was in the classroom."

In a neighborhood such as O'Donnell Heights, there's not much chance for a child who can't think.

Staring out a window at Holabird Elementary -- hard between public housing and a graveyard -- Ms. Wicks said, "On one side these kids can see people shooting each other, and on the other they can see where they end up."

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