For school, division is adding up nicely Improvement: Early indications are favorable for Featherbed Lane Elementary's novel approach to dealing with its classroom disruptions -- splitting into two schools.

December 29, 1997|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Trying to improve a school known more for unruly behavior than high achievement, Baltimore County educators have tried a novel approach at Featherbed Lane Elementary this year: splitting what was the county's second-largest elementary school into two.

The approach -- which could become a model for the county's largest elementaries -- turned the 788-student school into Featherbed Lane Primary for preschool through second grade and Featherbed Lane Intermediate for third-, fourth- and fifth-graders.

Parents, students and teachers say the Woodlawn school's long-standing problems with classroom disruption are on the decline, enabling them to focus on improving the school's academic standing, in the bottom 20 percent of county elementaries.

"We've divided the students in half and now we're able to conquer the discipline problems and concentrate on specific students to improve achievement," says Leonard Massie, principal of the intermediate school. "It hasn't been easy, but the important thing is that I believe we're going to see results."

If the split proves successful -- and early indications are favorable -- it might become a model for some of the district's other large elementaries, says Baltimore County school Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione.

"I think that when our elementary schools get too large, one principal and one assistant principal just can't do it all," Marchione says. "With the expectations we have for student achievement, principals need to have the time to work with their teachers and students."

The move has required juggling teachers' schedules and creative planning for such common areas as the cafeteria and library.

The art and music classrooms had to be moved near an outside door so children from the intermediate school don't march through the elementary school when it's time to sing and draw.

Some days, the split has required the school's front lobby to be covered with tumbling mats for use as an auxiliary gym.

Still, the unconventional approach to shrinking one of the county's largest elementary schools draws praise from the school's teachers, parents, administrators and students.

"The kids aren't just seeing the principal when they're in trouble," says Craig Goss, who has a daughter at the primary school. "The administrators seem to have more time to be around in the classroom and out talking to parents, rather than only being able to run from one discipline problem to the next."

While several other Maryland districts have primary schools -- and many systems have mixed-grade arrangements such as ninth-grade wings in high schools -- this is the first creation of two separate schools within one, Baltimore County educators say.

The Featherbed primary and intermediate schools have their own principals, assistant principals, teachers, school improvement teams and school nurses -- all with extra personnel provided by the school system.

The primary school has taken over the main building and the intermediate school meets in two sprawling modular complexes, each of which contains eight classrooms. The 16 modular classrooms were added to the school in the spring, replacing a handful of trailers that had provided much less space for teaching.

"We have the space for just about every teacher to have his or her own classrooms," says Karen Cordell, principal of the primary school. "We still have tutors working in the halls, but it's a lot better."

Cordell and her administrative staff have the benefit of being based in the main building's office.

Massie and his team work from a trailer parked off the Featherbed bus loop. The office -- generously described by some as "cozy" -- has electricity but lacks running water.

During the day, third-, fourth- and fifth-graders must leave their modular classrooms and cross to the main building to eat lunch, use the library and take classes such as art, music and physical education. A canopy is expected to be built between the modular classrooms and main building to protect students from the weather.

"Fortunately, our scheduling has worked out pretty well between the two schools," says librarian Anne Goethe, who works with children from both schools and says she has not had two classes show up at the same time. "The only tricky part has been the surplus number of students in third grade, which forced some of us to adjust what grade level we would be teaching."

Classroom teachers say the split has given them more time to focus on instruction and the children's needs while they receive more attention and help from school administrators.

"With the number of children we had, it was overwhelming for bTC one principal," says second-grade teacher Charlotte Soracoe.

One added benefit has been that no teacher has quit this year, Soracoe says. By this time last year, at least three teachers had left Featherbed Lane.

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