City Springs pupils show newfound skills


Pride: Working with Direct Instruction program, Principal Bernice Whelchel has seen her pupils gain in reading and is convinced the school will succeed.


IN SMALL GROUPS of two, three, four and five, they clustered around the microphone, clutching their books as though a bird were about to swoop down and fly away with them.

It was billed as the Second Annual City Springs Elementary School Readabration, and Thursday afternoon the kids at Caroline and Lombard in East Baltimore strutted the stuff of reading.

Kindergartners read "The Cowboys Have a Jumping Meet." First-graders intoned "The Bug Wants to Stay in the Ball." And it went on up the line to fifth-graders reading poetry and "The Wizard of Oz." Several times, Anayezuka Ahidiana, the watchful supervising teacher, had to adjust the microphone upward, toward the surrounding blue and white balloons.

Afterward, there was cake and punch at the back of the auditorium for visitors -- parents, teachers, faithful tutors from Bell Atlantic and Colliers Pinkard, a commercial real estate firm.

Pride all around. One of the pupils who read fluently Thursday was virtually illiterate a year ago, says Principal Bernice Whelchel. Some of City Springs' kindergarten kids are reading at the beginning of the second-grade book. Special education pupils performed admirably and got loud applause.

There were also success stories among teachers. Phyllis King, for example, sent five of her third-graders for an excellent reading of a story titled "End of the Trip." Nine years ago, King was a City Springs cafeteria worker.

City Springs is completing a third year of Direct Instruction, a heavily scripted, phonics-based reading program. And now that the city has expanded "DI" to 18 schools, City Springs, the granddaddy, has become something of a showcase.

Visitors are common. Debbie Price, a Sun reporter, spent much of the 1997-1998 school year at City Springs, and so did a video photographer. His work, titled "The Battle for City Springs," opens with a shot of a tattered flag flying over a tattered school.

"It wasn't until I saw the video from last year that I realized how much progress we've made this year," says Whelchel, 51.

Progress at a city school is always difficult, especially at one with as much working against it as City Springs, surrounded by poverty, drugs and violence.

No sooner is a teacher trained in Direct Instruction than she leaves for better pay in Baltimore County. Another teacher has a nervous breakdown. Qualified teachers for tough jobs such as those at City Springs are hard to come by.

Then there's the seemingly intractable task of pushing up those MSPAP (Maryland School Performance Assessment) scores. Direct Instruction people were bitterly disappointed in the school's 1998 MSPAP reading performance. Worse, word among principals is that the 1999 test, given this spring, was more difficult than in previous years.

Maybe it's the test, they think. The kids seem to have improved academically, more kids are reading at grade level, and there's certainly a changed attitude at the school. "See that gray hair?" says the principal, pointing. "That's what I got four years ago when I came here, and the place was out of control."

Whelchel came home then. Born at nearby Johns Hopkins Hospital, she remembers her mother reading to her in City Springs Park. Now here she is on a lovely spring afternoon, celebrating her pupils' accomplishments in reading.

She sees silver linings where the rest of us don't look. For example, families are leaving the high-rise Flag House Courts public housing project, due for razing by the city. That will allow for smaller classes at City Springs.

Maybe there'll be space for a dream of Whelchel's: a family reading room where parents read to and with their kids. Whelchel wants to call it FAR -- Families Are Reading.

For now, though, there's preparation for the standardized basic skills tests this week and summer school for "rising" first- and second-graders.

Does Whelchel think City Springs eventually will succeed?

It's the wrong question. "I don't think it," she insists. "I know it. It's too urgent a matter for us not to succeed. On the other hand, there's no quick fix that will make us succeed immediately.

"The path to success is a long one."

Pub Date: 5/30/99

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