Test scores highlight city's shining schools Successes: Elementary exam results show that parental involvement, strong curriculum can overcome challenges.

November 15, 1997|By Liz Bowie and Stephen Henderson | Liz Bowie and Stephen Henderson,SUN STAFF Sun editor Michael Himowitz contributed to this article.

In the thousands of scores churned out by the recent tests of Baltimore's elementary school students are these predictable conclusions: Schools in stable, middle-class neighborhoods scored close to or above the national average. Schools that grapple with poverty issues such as low attendance and high student turnover scored worse.

But there are notable exceptions to that rule -- exceptions that provide a road map to improvement for all city schools.

Carter G. Woodson Elementary in Cherry Hill faces as many challenges as any city school, but with the help of the Calvert School curriculum, boasts remarkable results. Students at Sarah Roach Elementary -- most of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunches -- posted comparable math scores compared to their peers at wealthier Roland Park and Mount Washington elementaries.

Common among the exceptions were characteristics: a high level of parental involvement and a focused curriculum.

The results of the California Diagnostic Test, given to 96 percent of elementary school students in the city two months ago, showed that the longer students stayed in the public school system, the further they fell behind their peers nationwide. By fifth grade, students on average were reading a year and a half behind the national average.

Even at the schools that scored well below the city average, the students did better in math. In 108 of the city's 120 elementary schools, students' math scores were better than their reading scores.

When ranked by fifth-grade test scores, the best schools in the system were Woodhome, Mount Washington, Roland Park, Hamilton and Glenmount. The average student at those schools scored at or above the national average. Mount Washington's fifth-graders, for instance, were reading six months above the norm and doing math above the sixth-grade level.

Roland Park's principal, Mariale Hardiman, said her students have been helped by the introduction of a new curriculum. "I do believe our very strong focus on skill development in phonics is very helpful," she said.

Administrators from Sarah M. Roach Elementary did not return phone calls yesterday.

On the other end, Gilmor Elementary, on Gilmor Street in West Baltimore, had fifth-graders who were reading at a second-grade level and performing math at a third-grade level.

New curriculum cited

The most successful experiment in the system so far is at Carter G. Woodson. The school adopted the Calvert School curriculum four years ago in the kindergarten and first-grade classes, said -- Susan Spath, the principal there.

"We can clearly see there is a difference in the children," said Spath. Each entering class has received the Calvert curriculum since then. Second-graders and third-graders are now reading at the national average, while the fourth and fifth grades, which have not had the new curriculum, are reading below a third-grade level.

Spath said it shows what happens when children are given a curriculum with high expectations and a lot of structure. "We don't expect poor work from children," she said.

Calvert is a private elementary school in Baltimore with a curriculum that stresses basics and is highly structured; students are not allowed to move on to a new concept unless they have learned what comes before.

"There is a big emphasis on phonics and reading and writing," Spath said.

Reversals taken in stride

The same good results were seen at Barclay Elementary School in North Baltimore's Charles Village when the Calvert program was instituted there eight years ago.

Since then, however, scores have declined. Principal Gertrude Williams is at the same time disappointed and hopeful about her school's scores.

Barclay has seen rapid improvement among most of its students, Williams said. But in September the school received 100 new students who had never been exposed to the Calvert curriculum.

Many of those students scored much further below grade level than the city average, Williams said; some scored zeros. Their scores lowered the school's average significantly.

"I think our scores exposed individual weaknesses rather than schoolwide problems," Williams said. "We're working with our new children to try to bring them up, giving them individual attention and working with them in small settings. But they're new, and it will take time."

Williams said she looks forward to the re-tests in February, and to progress.

"Come back and see us then," she said. "Those kids won't be at zero by then."

Community support crucial

At Woodhome Elementary in the far northeast corner of the city, Principal Ronne Lippenholz is not surprised by her students' strong performance.

At Woodhome, where only 10.8 percent of the students qualify for a free lunch, the PTA raises money for teachers, books and materials the school could never afford on its yearly allocation from the school board, Lippenholz said. The school also boasts a strong phonics curriculum, which Lippenholz said has a lot to do with Woodhome's high reading scores.

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