Once-troubled school is on the move Targeted: Parents, teachers are baffled by state threat to take over Eastern Shore's Woodson Middle, believing recent changes have brought marked improvement.

February 17, 1996|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

CRISFIELD -- Principal Ann F. Lewis stands in the hallway of Woodson Middle School, watching the end of lunch period. The cafeteria is full of noise, the chatter of students, the clatter of trays.

A teacher standing at one end of the lunchroom raises his hand but says nothing. In less than a minute, students stop talking and raise their hands in response. Lunch is over, and the students go back to class.

That smooth shift from cafeteria to classroom is one sign of change at Woodson, and there are others, too. All of them make it hard for parents and school staff to understand why Woodson was the only Eastern Shore school to turn up on a state list of 37 schools that must improve or face state takeover.

Student scores on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests, a battery of tests given to third-, fifth- and eighth-graders, were below passing, and the school thus was put on the state's "reconstitution" list last month.

At Woodson, a troubled school that Mrs. Lewis began overhauling 2 1/2 years ago, the news was devastating. Change for the better had been taking place, and the test scores didn't reflect what parents and administrators could see every day -- improvement in state-administered functional test scores, a dramatic fall in suspensions, improved attendance.

One of Somerset County's two middle schools, Woodson carries both the minuses and pluses of a rural community. The school system does not have much money, administrators say, and that can affect student test scores because teachers don't get the training they need. On the plus side, parents, many of whom attended Woodson themselves, are involved in their children's education.

"Our students are affected by the pressures of a poor and rural county," says Mrs. Lewis. Last year, 54.7 percent of Woodson students received free or reduced-price lunches, one measurement of a school population's poverty. What the school lacks in money, it makes up in less tangible assets: parents and teachers whose commitment to the school is measured in time and effort, rather than dollars and cents. It also is midway through a five-year improvement plan put in place by Mrs. Lewis when she became principal 2 1/2 years ago.

"The advantage of a rural county is the kind of parent support you get," says Mrs. Lewis. And that parent support seems unlikely to be diminished by last month's test scores.

"We couldn't be more pleased," says Debbie Tawes, whose daughter Jayna is a seventh-grader at Woodson. "If you do have a problem, Mrs. Lewis is right there.

"As far as turning the test scores around, I say give her just a little more time."

"When I first came here, the school was ripe for change," Mrs. Lewis says. "There were discipline problems."

Parents are less diplomatic.

"Woodson was considered one of the worst schools you could send your kid to," says Mrs. Tawes. "There was a lot of fights, a lot of everything. The police were there all the time."

"Prior to Ann's getting there, there were a lot of problems," agrees Jack Paul, whose daughter Alyson is also a seventh-grader at Woodson.

Now, say both parents, it's a new day. Sure, the test scores are discouraging, but Woodson is a work in progress and should be allowed to continue to improve.

"My goal was to help Woodson Middle become a more appropriate environment for middle-level learners," Mrs. Lewis says. The discipline problem came first. There had been 521 suspensions at Woodson the year before she took over. In 1993, her first year, that number fell to 190. The second year, it was 122. So far this year, her third, it's 35.

Next, she says, she reorganized the school. Middle schools are the places where children become adolescents, and the school needs to be able to ease that transition.

"They're just breaking away from their parents," Mrs. Lewis says. "It's an age when they're starting to roll their eyes at their parents. Social relations with peers become very important."

So she subdivided the school, creating two "schools within a school." Under that system, each student is in a smaller "school," which is easier for them to handle. Each group has its own core curriculum and study area. A third subdivision teaches music, art and physical education to both groups.

And the results are beginning to show. Functional testing scores, which measure students' reading and math abilities, rose slightly last year in reading, stayed the same in mathematics and fell slightly in writing with a slight gain overall.

More visible, if harder to measure, is the school's atmosphere. Classrooms are active but not unruly as students and teachers work on projects and lessons. Student interest is engaged.

"We have been able to create a learning climate here that seems rare," Mrs. Lewis says. "My belief is, you don't make any progress academically until you change the way kids see learning.

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