A new curriculum brings renewed hope to city school Structure: City Springs Elementary has turned to a strict program. For some children, it's working. But can it keep the street out of the classroom? A look at two Baltimore elementary schools continues.

November 20, 1997|By Debbie M. Price and Stephen Henderson | Debbie M. Price and Stephen Henderson,SUN STAFF

By lunch on Friday of the first week of school at City Springs, new first-grade teacher Robin Shaw is in tears.

She hasn't taught one lesson yet.

She came to Baltimore, fresh from Direct Instruction training in Oregon, with her bag of tricks and her bright posters, her extra books and enough energy to power downtown. And nothing she does with these children works.

Phonics and language drills are futile. Few know their letters or how to write their names. "Positive reinforcement" -- a hallmark of Direct Instruction -- is a joke. Cartoon stickers handed out for good behavior, instead of encouraging more good behavior as they're supposed to do, end up plastered all over faces and desks.

The morning has been awful. Seven students have been sent to time out. Three boys got into a fight. A 6-year-old girl called her a "white-assed bitch." And to top it all off, a boy ordered to sit in the corner peed on the floor, right there in the middle of the room.

"They're frustrated," Shaw says. "The work is just too hard for them."

Her students are more like City Springs students of years past than those across the hall in Harriet Brown's first-grade class, who had the Direct Instruction program last year in kindergarten. Some of Shaw's children are transfers. Some were in the kindergarten class that lost its teacher at midyear and never got another. And others, who knows?

Even at a school where order rules the day, a child's temperament is still the wild card. Shaw's hand is full of jokers.

During a bathroom break, Shaw looks across the hall into Brown's classroom. Brown's students are sitting at their desks, reciting facts about the continents. "Asia is the largest continent. North America is our continent."

The tears well up. How is she ever going to get her students to do that?

The mistake

Two weeks into the school year, the Direct Instruction coordinator, Anayezuka Ahidiana, knows she has made a terrible mistake.

She has given Brown, a teacher with 28 years in the Baltimore school system, the best students. She has given Shaw, who is teaching her first class ever, the most challenging students. All of them.

Brown's class is clicking along ahead of schedule. Shaw's class is in a shambles.

Ahidiana blames herself.

And blame barely begins to cover everything she feels. A white woman who took a Swahili name when "Margaret Brown" no longer fit her life, Ahidiana knows better than anyone the agony that comes from struggling to decipher words. She did not learn to read until she was 17. Everything about her is focused like a laser beam on preventing other children from suffering as she did.

"I am the teacher," says Ahidiana, "but I'm also the kid. This is my history, my passion, my reason for what I do."

Ahidiana discovered Direct Instruction almost 30 years ago and has been practicing it since. She has seen children, drilled the DI way in phonics and reading, change before her eyes.

Ahidiana thought Shaw's Direct Instruction training would equip her for a job that most teachers would find impossible. "I stacked the deck on her," Ahidiana says ruefully. "I knew she wouldn't write these kids off."

Shaw, 26, picked City Springs after visiting the school and another elementary where the students were largely middle class and white. "How could I go to that other school when I felt like the children at City Springs really needed me?" she says.

She, too, believed that Direct Instruction would see her through, but these 27 children write their own rules. "I was so confident in my behavior management," Shaw says. "I really feel like I've failed at that."

The question now is how to fix the damage before it gets any worse. Nights, Ahidiana lies awake. Days, she is in Shaw's classroom every chance she gets.

A reedy woman with an air of fragility about her, Ahidiana doesn't so much walk as glide along the floor, her flat-soled shoes skimming the linoleum tiles. A quick glance here, a light touch to a cheek there, a whispered word, and children who were turning cartwheels, jumping about, babbling to themselves are suddenly still. It's as though Ahidiana flipped a switch.

Shaw is at once awed and frustrated. Why won't the children do that for her?

The drills

Across the hall from Shaw's room, Harriet Brown's first-graders are into the routine by the second day of class.

"But you promised yesterday we would have take-home!" a plaintive little voice pipes up from the back row of the reading circle.

The "take-home," or homework books, aren't ready. Most students would be glad for one more day without homework. But for these children, the coloring-book pictures, the mimeographed work sheets are like surprises pulled from a Christmas stocking.

Brown divides the 28 children into the Eagles, the Rockets, the Jets. While the Eagles read with Brown and the Rockets practice language arts with Shirley Anderson, Brown's teaching partner, the Jets will work quietly at their desks. And then they'll switch.

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