Small-group method aids in reading Phelps Luck school hopes new approach lifts test scores

'Tailor to our needs'

Commitment of staff largely unheard of in an elementary

March 16, 1997|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

The answer to Phelps Luck Elementary School's low test scores might lie in the small reading groups being enjoyed by students like Prashanth Challa. "We're getting more attention," says the 9-year-old fifth-grader. "We're learning more."

At the east Columbia elementary -- struggling to rebound from a precipitous decline in test scores-- the new emphasis on small-group, directed reading instruction offers hope to administrators, teachers and, most important, parents.

It's an idea Phelps Luck unapologetically copied two months ago from Bryant Woods Elementary in west Columbia's Wilde Lake village -- one of the most successful elementaries in Howard County at turning around a record of low achievement.

And Phelps Luck's staff members believe the new approach can produce similar results at their school.

"We have to look at what's working elsewhere and tailor it to our needs," says Phelps Luck Principal James Weisner. "That's one of the benefits of being in a system -- we can all share ideas."

Spending an hour per day on small-group, directed reading instruction is an unheard-of commitment of staff time for a Howard elementary. But as more county elementaries are tending to receive more children in need of additional emphasis on academics, more of them are turning back to such basic approaches -- including, at some schools, a renewed emphasis on phonics and small-group instruction.

At Phelps Luck in particular, this school year marks a critical period.

It's a time when the 580-pupil elementary on Oldstone Court can bring up its lagging test scores -- or perhaps face the possibility that middle-class families will begin moving so they can enroll their children in other Howard elementaries.

"It affects everything -- the value of our neighborhood, its reputation, even our property values," Ruth Hughes, chairwoman the school's parent involvement committee, told more than 250 Phelps Luck parents who gathered recently at the school to discuss its problems.

Phelps Luck slipped badly on the 1996 Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, the exams given each spring the state that are used to judge the performances of all schools.

An analysis by The Sun of the 1996 test results found that Phelps Luck posted the largest decline in Howard -- most noticeably in reading -- and its overall score was next to last among all county elementaries.

No one at Phelps Luck is ignoring the results, though it's still a painful topic for some. "It was hard -- really hard -- to see those scores," says Nancy Koza, the school's first-grade team leader.

School staffers aren't offering excuses, though some are available. School achievement generally tends to correlate with students' socioeconomic status. About a third of the school's students come from low-income families -- the product of a demographic shift that's taken place in the neighborhood during the past three years. Also, about the same proportion of its enrollment changes during the course of a school year. Both percentages are among the highest in Howard.

When Weisner oversees the school's early morning, free breakfast program, he can't help but notice the changes.

Three years ago, fewer than a dozen Phelps Luck students qualified for free breakfast; today, about four dozen come through the line for cereal, milk, juice and muffins. Weisner greets every one by name. "Those things aren't excuses -- they can't be," Weisner says. "We just have to make changes to better instruct our kids."

Still, the demographic shift has meant that the decline in achievement wasn't entirely unexpected. Moreover, Weisner says, discipline problems last year cut into the time spent on academics in classrooms.

The low test scores prompted parents to arrange the parents meeting at the school one night last month. Every Phelps Luck parent was called, and more than 250 packed the cafeteria to hear teachers, administrators, schools Superintendent Michael E. Hickey and County Councilman C. Vernon Gray tell them what's being done to improve the school's performance.

The biggest change at Phelps Luck can be seen at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. every school day. At 11, the four fifth-grade classes split into eight groups of about a dozen students each for an hour of reading, and at 1 the school's third-graders form reading groups of similar sizes.

In fifth-grade team leader Marti Bowen's group, 14 students push desks together to discuss the previous night's reading assignment -- chapter 2 of "From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler."

She asks questions to make sure students read the work and to explain things they might not have understood, such as that an electric percolator is a 1960s version of the coffee-maker.

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