At 2 city schools, improving scores spark celebration MSPAP: At City Springs and Lyndhurst, the scores are still below state standards, but the improvement delights both elementaries.

December 12, 1997|By Debbie M. Price and Stephen Henderson | Debbie M. Price and Stephen Henderson,SUN STAFF

At City Springs Elementary School in East Baltimore, Principal Bernice Whelchel wheeled out the bottles of sparkling cider yesterday. Across town at Lyndhurst Elementary School, Principal Elaine Davis pushed aside a portable chalkboard to reveal a table set with eggnog and Christmas cookies.

The results from the 1997 Maryland School Performance

Assessment Program test were in, and the news was good. The MSPAP scores at both schools were far below the standard set by the state and below the city average, but they were better than the rock-bottom showings last year.

For the moment, that was cause enough for celebration.

"Sparkling cider today, champagne next year," said Whelchel, whose usually steely reserve melted into happy tears as the meeting with teachers ended.

For Davis, the poker face she had worn all week since getting the news gave way to a grin. After keeping the scores under wraps, she couldn't stop talking about them. "This is what we've been waiting for," she said.

At City Springs, no students reached the satisfactory level in third-grade reading in 1996; this year, two, or 3.4 percent, passed.

It was a far cry from the goal, set by the state of 14 third-graders scoring satisfactory on the reading portion of the MSPAP.

But, like a cellar-dwelling ballclub that finally begins to win, the City Springs principal and teachers toasted the end of a string of steadily declining scores and replayed the highlights.

Whelchel passed out charts, going over the numbers: This is where they are; this is where they must go. They will get there with a team effort.

"We look at third- and fifth-grade teachers as if to say all the responsibility is on your shoulders, but it isn't," Whelchel told her staff gathered in the school library. "It is up to all of us."

Attendance at City Springs, as at Lyndhurst, reached the satisfactory level for the first time. The city as a whole has yet to accomplish that.

The best news for City Springs came with the fifth-grade reading scores. Five students, or 9.3 percent, scored satisfactory or better (one child reached the excellent mark), up from 3.2 percent last year. Of the same children, 1.5 percent scored satisfactory on the reading portion of the test they took as third-graders.

"We put the stress last year on the reading and the math," said third-grade teacher Lelia Newkirk. "And you can see we're moving up."

At Lyndhurst, third-grade reading scores rose more dramatically, from 2.7 percent satisfactory last year to 8.8 percent. Fifth-grade reading scores also improved, rising from 1.6 percent satisfactory last year to 5.9 percent satisfactory.

Fifth-grade teacher Margie Smith was so pleased with the reading and math scores that she left the meeting to telephone her former students who took the test in May.

"I'm going to go call my little love bunnies," Smith said. "I'm so proud of them."

Recently, Smith and other fifth-grade teachers took their classes to a fancy lunch after learning that the students did not grasp the relationship between a cup and a saucer, which they must understand for the coming MSPAP.

Both schools still have their work cut out for them. The state requires that 70 percent of the third- and fifth-grade students score "satisfactory" on the MSPAP in two years.

Both principals know that if their schools do not keep improving, the state could take over and they and their staffs could be replaced.

Both also see the improving scores as validation of choices they made two years ago when the state put them on notice.

Whelchel, who arrived at City Springs in 1995 to find a school in chaos, turned to Direct Instruction, a rigid phonics-based curriculum sponsored at the school by the private Baltimore Curriculum Project and the Abell Foundation.

In the year that Direct Instruction has been used at the school, the number of children reading at grade level has gradually increased.

A citywide diagnostic test in September found that first-graders, many of whom who had received Direct Instruction in kindergarten, were reading almost at grade level. Fifth-graders were two years behind, the test found.

According to the school's tests, those fifth-graders are reading at or above grade level halfway through the school year, Whelchel said.

"We really don't need [the MSPAP] to let us know we're growing each and every day," Whelchel said. "You see growth in the lights in the children's eyes."

At Lyndhurst, Davis was offered a chance to participate in the Direct Instruction program but declined after teachers and parents rejected the curriculum as too rigid. Instead, she and her staff wrote a 114-page plan that emphasizes reading instruction and Core Knowledge, a program that stresses basic cultural literacy. (City Springs also uses Core Knowledge.)

Davis said she sees the progress every day, in the children who read morning announcements over the public address system and in the school papers with perfect grades that are put up for display.

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