Laurel Woods educators seek strategies to improve student scores on state exam

Proficiency test numbers are lowest within Howard

February 07, 1999|By Erika D. Peterman | Erika D. Peterman,SUN STAFF

The test scores arrived just before Thanksgiving, and hopes were high at Laurel Woods Elementary School.

Last year, 40 percent of third- and fifth-graders at the North Laurel school had scored at least satisfactorily on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests -- relatively low for top-ranked Howard County, but up 7 percentage points from 1996.

Then the bad news: Not only had the MSPAP scores not improved from the previous year, they had slipped almost 5 percentage points to 35.1. It was the lowest score in Howard, far below the county's 60.1 percent composite score, the highest in Maryland.

"We really thought the scores were going to go up," said Principal Rosanne C. Wilson.

Achievement has long been a concern for the school. In one of the nation's most affluent counties, Laurel Woods Elementary wrestles with such issues as a high level of transience, a significant number of pupils who speak English as a second language, and poverty. Last year, almost 30 percent of the students received free or reduced-price lunches.

Despite its overall prosperity, the county has small communities of comparatively low-income residents. Some live in apartments near the school, which is west of U.S. 1, not far from Laurel racetrack.

"They probably have one of the toughest demographic situations of any of the schools in the county," said Howard County schools Superintendent Michael E. Hickey. "That, I think, is one of the biggest challenges that they have."

The county is increasing its investment in Laurel Woods and other poorer-performing schools sprinkled through eastern Howard. And the staff isn't giving up.

Laurel Woods teachers and the school administration are enthusiastically pitching new ideas, drafting long- and short-term "action plans" to help their pupils achieve, circulating inspirational poems and trying their best to make the steady trickle of new children feel comfortable.

Supporting the school are parents such as Pat Flynn, a self-described former "Catholic school snob" who has had two children attend Laurel Woods. "If parents are willing to work their kids will get a good education here," said Flynn, an instructional aide whose youngest child is a fourth-grader.

"I don't even pay attention to the test scores anymore. I see what my children are doing and they can hold their own against any other child in the county."

Most agree that the school is on the right track to improve its test scores, but no one is certain what caused the decline.

"I would say if any of us had the magic bullet, we would have fired it long ago," Hickey said. "I'm not sure what the real answer is, except stabilize the population."

School has good start

On a recent day at Laurel Woods, seven kindergartners, hopping with energy, flutter their limbs as their teacher instructs them to "wake up" for the school day.

"Wake up, brain," the teacher, Kelly Callaway, says.

"Wake up, brain," they squeal back, shaking their heads.

In this small group, children of Asian, Hispanic, African-American and Indian descent are represented. A set of wall decorations has English and Spanish descriptions, so that a flamingo is both pink and rosado. A pumpkin is orange and naranja.

"I think the fact that our population is diverse is a positive," Wilson said. "It gives children a picture of what the real world is. It's a great mix."

Laurel Woods has one of the highest concentrations of children of color in the county; they represent more than half of the school's 483 students. In recent weeks, a girl from Ghana and a boy from India have transferred to the school.

The children in Callaway's class attend extended-day kindergarten, designed to accelerate students who haven't been exposed to preschool. Laurel Woods is one of seven schools in Howard with a full-day kindergarten program, one of the many achievement-oriented programs at the school.

"It's to catch them up so that they see success when they get to first grade," said teacher Rebecca Oates.

Special programs help

In a small office near the library, Eddie Samoza is spelling out words with magnetized letters under the watch of teacher Dominique Butcher. He is one of four pupils in Reading Recovery, a daily, one-on-one tutoring program for first-graders in its first year at the school.

Eddie, who struggled with reading at the beginning of the school year, is breezing through a storybook and spelling words such as "recess" with relative ease.

These programs and others are made possible through Laurel Woods' status as one of the county's nine "focus schools" -- schools that receive extra resources because of lower academic performance. This includes extra staff and funding.

Laurel Woods has a part-time social worker who offers free counseling for the school's parents and children.

"I think being at the school makes counseling and therapy a lot less intimidating and a lot less mysterious for people," said the social worker, Bev Gonce.

Turnover a problem

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