Volunteer's journey to the head of her class

Third-grade teacher brings dedication to job

February 14, 1999|By Daniel Valentine | Daniel Valentine,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

The sound of children's voices spills from Phyllis King's third-grade classroom, audible nearly 40 feet down the hall of Baltimore's City Springs Elementary School.

But it is not the rambunctious chaos of children at play. Like 25 small Marines, King's pupils are shouting out answers to their classwork in unison as King paces among their desks.

"What is the subject?" King asks in a booming voice, punctuating the question with a snap of her fingers.

"Mrs. Jones!" the children yell.

The energy and dedication are driven by King, who shares those qualities and encourages the children not to be afraid to be confident in their answers.

"I'm a very loud person," King said. "I like them to be loud so everybody will join in."

King, 36, has had a long journey to the head of her class at City Springs. After joining the school as a part-time volunteer 10 years ago, King -- with the help of the Notre Dame-AmeriCorps program -- worked her way through college and was hired as a full-time teacher last year.

A graduate of Baltimore's Carver Vocational-Technical High School, the city native was a retail clerk before marrying her childhood sweetheart when she was 20 and having two daughters.

As her children grew older, King began volunteering at the school and fell in love with the job. "I really liked what I was doing," she said. "I saw a need at the school. We always need more teachers in Baltimore."

Three years after she began helping at City Springs, King returned to the student ranks at Sojourner-Douglass College -- studies partially funded by the elementary school. In 1995, she enlisted in the Notre Dame-Ameri-Corps program, which provides educational grants to literacy volunteers across the country.

"If it wasn't for AmeriCorps, I would not have been able to make it," King said of the Notre Dame program, a public-private partnership organized by the Baltimore-based Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. It is an arm of the national program for which President Clinton, in a visit to the University of Maryland, College Park last week, announced he would seek a substantial increase in funding.

King's work took her to the White House in 1997, when she was one of three volunteers chosen to meet Clinton and Vice President Al Gore because of their work on classroom computers.

"Phyllis is a shining example of how the AmeriCorps program helps both the volunteers and the community," said Sister Katherine Corr, head of the Baltimore-based Notre Dame Mission, which operates AmeriCorps teaching programs with 134 full-time volunteer members in eight communities across the country.

Looking back at the four years she spent tutoring at City Springs by day and attending class at night, King sighs: "It was hard. I was tired a lot, but it was very rewarding."

Immediately after she graduated from Sojourner-Douglass, she was hired as a full-time teacher at City Springs by Principal Bernice Whelchel. "There were no ifs, ands or buts about it," Whelchel said. "I told her that this was the place she was going to be."

Whelchel said King's hard work makes her an asset to the staff. "She has some of the toughest children in her class, but you wouldn't know it by the way she handles them."

King's approach is simple: Keep the children busy.

"Not a minute goes by when we're not working on something," King said. "The children are looking for structure. All children can learn if given a prepared and positive classroom."

The approach also applies to her reading program. Each day, King's class spends three hours on reading assignments, and she requires that her pupils spend at least 20 minutes a night reading at home.

That emphasis has paid off. Last year, City Springs' scores on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) tests rose, and individual tests have identified King's class as the highest in reading achievement among its third-graders.

King is not letting her children rest on their laurels. The class has been spending an hour each day in preparation for the next round of MSPAP testing in April, and King says she isn't going to stop expecting the most from her pupils.

"They're my babies from 8 to 3: 28. Sometimes they love me, sometimes they don't," she said. "A lot of the time they don't. But we're about working, getting the job done."

King also demands help from parents. "Parents need to volunteer. There should be a law that says parents have to volunteer," King said. "We need volunteers. Anybody can do it, and everybody should."

Pub Date: 2/14/99

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