Officials credit faculty, courses Baltimore principals' efforts linked to better school test scores

70% passing by 2000 is goal

December 30, 1997|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

Although recent statewide test results showed once again that city schools lag far behind those in suburban and rural counties, some schools continued to make steady gains even in neighborhoods with intense poverty.

Those schools that have made progress do so by the energy and force of an exceptional principal or the focus a new curriculum can give to a struggling school, administrators say.

"Whether we meet the year 2000 goal is not the issue, but whether we make good progress is," said Zelda Holcomb, head of testing in city schools.

The state's goal is for 70 percent of students to pass the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program test by 2000. But 13.8 percent of city students scored satisfactorily.

Statewide, 41.8 percent of students passed.

The tests were given in May, the school system points out, before a new city school board was appointed and before a major reform of schools had begun.

The hope is that city schools will progress more quickly and that schools where test scores have climbed can become models for the system.

One of those models might be Pimlico Elementary School, at 4849 Pimlico Road, one of the highest drug-trafficking areas in the city, said Principal Sarah Horsey, who came to the school two years ago.

Since her arrival, test scores have risen at least 10 points in most categories. Only 5.1 percent of third-graders passed the reading test in 1996, while 22.1 percent passed in 1997. She has produced similar results for fifth-graders, moving writing scores from an 11.3 percent passing rate to 23.5 percent passing.

She attributes the improvement to a variety of sources, particularly a campaign to get parents into the school -- sometimes in unorthodox ways. She hired 28 parents to work part time in the school, using extra state money given to the city's worst schools.

"We tried to get parents of children who have behavior problems," she said. "We trained them for a week on how to help in the classrooms" and other jobs. She has held fashion shows, basketball games and numerous other social events, which she acknowledges have nothing to do with learning but everything to do with making the school the social center of the community.

If the school is a refuge, she believes, parents will take a greater part in their children's education.

Pimlico doesn't have a new curriculum, she said. She is implementing the Baltimore school system's curriculum.

Curriculum appears to have made a difference in the learning at some schools, however, said Gary L. Thrift, assistant superintendent for the city's southern area schools. Three schools in his area -- George Washington, Thomas Johnson and Curtis Bay elementaries -- have made steady improvement using the core knowledge curriculum.

"None of them are where we want them to be, but they had the strongest showing of the area, and the coincidence is that they are using core knowledge," he said.

The core knowledge curriculum is based on the idea that every child should know certain concepts to be literate. The principles of a curriculum are detailed, but not how it will be taught.

"I have seen some positive trends," Thrift said. But he cautioned against drawing conclusions about the effect of a new curriculum.

Another curriculum experiment being played out in six schools is called direct instruction, a structured way of teaching that scripts what a teacher will say. It relies heavily on phonics and discipline in the classroom.

Of the six city schools where direct instruction has been used for more than a year, three showed drops in test scores, but several showed improvement. Administrators have said in the past that the program should not be judged for three to five years, however.

One of the direct instruction schools, Roland Park Elementary/Middle, had significant gains this year even though it was considered one of the city's bright stars. About 40 percent of its students are passing the MSPAP, about the statewide average. In the third grade, 46.4 percent of students passed the MSPAP reading, 60.7 percent passed the language usage and 50.8 percent passed the writing test.

Charlene Cooper-Boston, assistant superintendent for the northern area, said Roland Park has been concentrating on training for teachers and she believes the work has paid off. She said another school in her area that made the same significant gains is Woodhome Elementary/Middle.

Other schools that have done well include Highlandtown Elementary, a school that was being "reconstituted" after the state judged it one of the worst performers. The school, with a relatively new principal, has shown three years of steady gains. This year, 23.3 percent of its third-graders passed the reading test.

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