Similar schools find few successes shared School's out: Nine months of effort behind them, two Baltimore elementaries must judge the results of their widely different approaches to reading instruction. a yearlong journey concludes.

June 29, 1998|By DEBBIE M. PRICE AND STEPHEN HENDERSON | DEBBIE M. PRICE AND STEPHEN HENDERSON,SUN STAFF

Principal Bernice Whelchel promised City Springs Elementary students that if they read 1,000 books, she would dance on the school roof. They read 1,997.

And so, with pre-kindergarten through fifth grade assembled on the new playground below, Whelchel scrambled through a trap door and collected herself. Not just any dance ` she would do the Macarena.

Across town at Lyndhurst Elementary, as the year wound down, Principal Elaine Davis all but disappeared. The last day of school she missed even the morning announcements - once an inviolate ritual.

This year would be her last. The struggle to raise reading scores and turn around a declining school had convinced her of that.

She had seen small steps forward, if not great leaps, and felt good about what she had been able to do.

But small steps were not enough.

When the final day came, she let the children leave without saying goodbye.

Two schools have finished another year.

They began in similar straits - terrible reading scores, heavy pressure to improve from the state and school headquarters - but the routes they chose toward recovery were as far apart as they could be.

City Springs, on Caroline Street in East Baltimore, spent its second year with the phonics-based Direct Instruction program.

It is a different school in June than it was in September - still struggling, but confident of its progress.

Lyndhurst, which continued teaching students to read by immersing them in words and stories, as most Baltimore schools do, is much as it was before.

Soon the schools will receive scores from citywide skills tests that will tell them in cold, hard numbers how much progress their students have -- or have not -- made.

In the meantime, they can see other evidence of their success or failure, less empirical than test scores perhaps, but just as irrefutable.

At year's end, one principal is dancing on the schoolhouse roof; the other is not coming back.

Lyndhurst

On the last day of school, Lyndhurst first-grade teacher Betty Pierce used the easiest of math problems -- what number comes before 22? -- and short sentences of single-syllable words to occupy those children who actually showed up. (Only about half the class did.)

"Tom got a fat lip from Jim. The pig bit the hog in the lip." Jasmine and Michone rattled off the sentences. Darnetta stumbled but she finished. Keiyhanna was stumped from the start.

In that 20-minute exercise was a snapshot of the entire year's progress.

Children who already knew how to read in the fall led the class. A few who came to school not knowing a thing learned to pronounce first-grade words. But several of those who couldn't read nine months ago still can't.

Those results - mixed at best - came from efforts at Lyndhurst that likewise were mixed.

Teachers "don't see that we've jumped any great leaps," says principal Davis. "But they see an improvement in how the children are doing."

Last year, Davis added a master teacher and specialists to develop the math and reading curriculum.

She also added teacher-training sessions every week, as part of the school improvement plan. Those extra training sessions meant that students were in class only a half-day on Wednesday - a trade-off many city schools have made.

The school's scores on the Maryland State Performance Assessment Program test went up slightly in December, after declining in recent years. This spring, watching the children confidently take this year's test, Davis felt her own shaky optimism rise.

That uptick in the scores last year, however small, gave Davis enough of a boost to feel that the school had turned a corner, that she wasn't leaving it in shambles.

"I didn't want to leave when they were down, and jump ship," Davis said.

In many ways, Lyndhurst, a West Baltimore school in the middle of the Edmondson Village neighborhood, was Baltimore's "everyschool" - led by a principal with decades in the system, staffed by teachers with 20-plus years in the classroom, doing business pretty much as business has always been done.

Schedules were lax. Discipline was light. Energy was low. And teachers were left to use the standard reading curriculum, the whole-language Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Treasury of Literature, or not.

Pierce admits she felt handicapped by the lack of a coherent phonics-based curriculum. Early in the year, she patched together a kit with plastic animals and flashcards to teach children letter sounds and names.

But even after phonics books arrived in December, Pierce taught "reading" in the morning and "sounding out" in the afternoon. And thus, many children never understood that this strange "sounding out" drill could help them decipher new words.

This fall, every school in Baltimore will get new phonics-based readers. And that, Pierce knows, will help. "There is only so much I can do by myself," she says simply.

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