A 'can do' at Canton Education: With test scores and attendance rising, Canton Middle School provides a success story for a beleaguered public system.

March 13, 1996|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,SUN STAFF

Test scores and attendance are up at Canton Middle School. Class size and expulsions are down.

The hulking school south of Eastern Avenue in Highlandtown boasts a homework hot line, a neon-lighted cafeteria and a day care center for teachers' youngsters.

It's a new day at the old school.

Despite a large number of at-risk students and a school system riddled with failure, Canton Middle works.

"We came a long way in a reasonable amount of time," said Craig E. Spilman, who became Canton's principal in 1990.

Now the city's power-brokers want others to learn from Canton, too.

Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke held his Cabinet meeting there Feb. 6 and touted it before the state legislature last month.

And Superintendent Walter G. Amprey will show it off tomorrow to other city middle school principals.

"It's the way that we want our schools to be," said city school board member Kathleen Shapiro, whose two children attended Canton Middle. "It's a wonderful school."

The attention is just fine with Dr. Spilman, who jump-started Canton's rejuvenation. "It was a very, very traditional school where parents and kids had little expectation."

The school's technology consisted of "a dozen beat-up Apples in the closet," the library was all but closed, student writing scores were abysmal and youngsters with disabilities were segregated and often disruptive, he remembered.

Now, Canton has a hand-picked staff "committed to urban kids"; classes that let students move at their own academic pace; a $1 million state grant invested in technology and teachers; a core of active parents, and a school improvement team that calls the shots.

The ad- ditional teachers "drove class size down to 30," not a goal in most school systems, but a definite improvement from the high 30s at Canton, Dr. Spilman said.

"You can't come into Canton and just sit," said eighth-grader Kelvin Dillingham.

"The teachers will make you work. They want you to learn something," added the 13-year-old, who transferred from a Roman Catholic school this year.

Eighth-grade scores on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests are up 17 points from 1993 to 1995 for a 23.7 percent "satisfactory rate" the largest increase among the city's 24 middle schools.

By comparison, the average rate of "satisfactory" scores in Baltimore County is 44.5 percent and 39.7 percent statewide. In the city, it's 13.2 percent.

The number of seventh-graders passing the statewide functional mathematics test the first time has more than doubled in two years, from 22.4 percent to 46.6 percent, Dr. Spilman said.

The attendance rate rose from 79 percent to 87 percent since 1990-1991, and about one-fourth of Canton's graduates now go on to citywide high schools where students compete for places.

Canton has 800 students, about 60 percent of whom are white, 35 percent black and 5 percent Hispanic and Native American. Nearly 83 percent qualify for free lunch, well above the city's middle school average of 61 percent.

"Looking at the success in the light of the 83 percent high-risk factor, it means my teachers are doing very fine work with very fragile children," Dr. Spilman said.

How did all this happen?

"I believe in not asking, and being scolded later," Dr. Spilman said of his leadership style. He also believes in taking risks and hustling money, supporters and partnerships for the school.

With a $30,000 grant from the Carnegie Foundation, he set up the school improvement team, which has met weekly for four years. Dr. Spilman is a member, but not the leader, he points out.

After the team put together its game plan and Dr. Spilman started building his staff, Canton went in search of more money. Through the Maryland State Department of Education, he got $1 million after being designated a low-achieving "Challenge School." The money, doled out over three years, is to help the school improve student achievement.

That breaks down to $5,994 per pupil per year. It's still more than $100 below the state average of $6,106, but considerably better than other city schools, which operate more than $500 below the average. Classes mix sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders together. Unlike at many city schools, children with disabilities are fully included in all classes.

Some students gave mixed reviews to the mixed-grade classes, saying teachers often repeat lessons and even the same handouts from year to year.

Still, the teachers' enthusiasm is not lost on the students. "They're not here just to teach and get the money," said eighth-grader Jessica Lewandowski.

Her principal agreed: "They know 8 to 3 doesn't cut it. You need committed, energized people who are willing to go beyond that." That's why Dr. Spilman looked for and found nontraditional teachers who came to the classroom after years in the Army, the Peace Corps or careers as insurance agents and architects.

"A lot of teachers had been here 20 to 30 years," he said. "I began to see who wanted to move forward and reinvent the school with me and who wanted to go somewhere else." Only about seven teachers remain from the staff of 40 working at Canton when Dr. Spilman became principal.

Dr. Spilman is confident that Canton's achievements can be replicated. Money helps, he said, but it's only effective after a plan is in place. "You need a process and a plan, moral support from above, the right personnel and leadership," he said.

Pub Date: 3/13/96

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