City school's pupils improve in reading

Test scores up at Thomas Johnson

August 26, 1999|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

Ask teachers at Thomas Johnson Elementary School what magic they performed on pupils last year, and you don't get a simple explanation.

"Something just came over the whole school," said Cathy Stachura, laughing.

That something produced a rise in pupil achievement not duplicated in many other city schools last year.

It wasn't just that Thomas Johnson got new reading textbooks, teachers said, or the help of a new school-reform program called Achievement First, or even a two-hour block devoted to reading each day.

Instead, they say, it was a combination of factors that started with a strong, organized principal, who set high standards and focused all the talent and money he could scrape together on achieving one goal: 70 percent of their children would read at or above grade level by the end of the school year. It was talked about constantly and posted everywhere -- in classrooms, faculty rooms and even bathroom stalls.

That goal required an enormous leap, since only 37 percent of pupils read at or above grade level last fall.

So teachers were happy to learn this week that the school hit 67 percent -- just shy of their goal.

"The main thing is that our expectations are very, very high. We push and push and push our kids. If you think, `They live in the city, so I can't expect miracles out of them,' then you won't get them. But if you expect miracles, you will get them," said Stachura, a first-grade teacher.

Thomas Johnson is a school in South Baltimore, just off Light Street, within walking distance of the Inner Harbor. About 47 percent of its pupils qualify for free or reduced-price meals, compared with the city average of 68 percent. The school's pupils had always scored better than the average city pupil on state tests, but far below the state average.

But results from the past school year show a marked increase. Every grade showed significant progress in reading, and every grade but third grade showed progress in math. The school is beginning to score just below the city's best schools.

Principal Tom Bowmann credits the school's improvement to a change in culture that extended from the janitors to the parents.

"It is not a reading program. It is not a parent issue. It is a cultural issue. We placed a value on student learning," Bowmann said.

In essence, Bowmann tried to get pupils and their families to value reading at home and at school. Two pupil surveys, at the beginning and end of the school year, showed that attitudes toward reading had changed. By the end of the year, more pupils thought of themselves as good readers and liked to read.

Bowmann says many incentives and programs helped, including after-school and summer school programs paid for by Christ Lutheran Church, more parent involvement, new reading textbooks and a challenge from the Orioles in which the school's pupils read a total of 11,000 books to get 500 free tickets to a game.

But other, less tangible changes occurred as well.

Second-grade teacher Jennifer Grinath said teachers worked together more closely than in the previous year. Teachers in each grade formed teams. They were given time to talk and plan together, and they worked with other grade levels. Grinath said she never felt that she was alone in her teaching job.

"We definitely bonded as a faculty," said Grinath.

Jill Riley, a third-grade teacher and 27-year veteran of Thomas Johnson, said the teachers were constantly assessing which skills their pupils lacked. Each month, teachers had to give a report to the principal detailing which pupils were having problems and what those were.

It helped teachers recognize exactly what needed to be done, Riley said.

Teachers said their principal is a hard-driving man, singularly focused and always visible in the school. He visits classrooms often.

While he demands a lot, he also hands out praise easily. He calls each teacher on the night of the first day of school to thank them. He writes notes of praise and sends them to his boss. All that is appreciated, Stachura said.

He also has gotten parents to take more responsibility for their children's education.

If a pupil didn't show up for school, he would go to his or her home and ask why. If a teacher didn't show up, he called him or her at home to see how they were doing. When he saw a "child of his" on the street at 10 p.m., he called the parents the next day to report what he had seen. He drives through the neighborhood, and when he sees a child playing in the street, he asks if homework is done.

"The parents knew if a student wasn't here, then Mr. Bowmann would be there" at their house, said Riley.

The result was 95.7 percent attendance and the large improvement in reading.

Wayne Lowe, president of the Thomas Johnson Parent Teacher Organization, said parents are more involved in the school now because they see the changes. "We [have] a bunch of parents now seeing that the school is making a difference and want to help," he said.

What the school might not have expected this year was an increase in math test scores, since the focus had been so firmly set on reading.

But teachers said they believed that when pupils began to read better they gained a new self-confidence that transferred to their ability to do everything well.

Pub Date: 8/26/99

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