Pupils' improvement is too little, too late

Performance: Despite small changes recently at Templeton Elementary, the dismal academic results have prompted the state to intervene.

February 03, 2000|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

Principal Carmen Holmes didn't see this one coming.

She knew her elementary school, Furman L. Templeton, had a history of failure, but she was confident that it would escape a state takeover. Holmes, brought in six months ago to try to turn around the school, thought she was seeing early signs of progress: better teaching, more parent participation.

Last week, she found a group of second-grade teachers working together until 7 p.m. "Everyone was working hard and pulling together," Holmes said.

But then the call came Tuesday afternoon from her boss: Templeton was one of three city schools the state had chosen to be given over to a private company or a nonprofit partnership next year.

After the children had gone home and the teachers had been informed, Holmes sat next to her boss, Barry Williams, and thanked him for helping her get through the day. Then she put her head in her hands and her eyes teared up.

Suddenly, everything about the future of her West Baltimore school had changed.

The present came rolling through the doors yesterday morning with its usual force. The children were in their seats, and Holmes was in the classroom observing a first-grade teacher. She was marching misbehaving pupils down the wide halls. She was answering questions. She was finding a lunch box for a child who had just lost it, and self-control, at once. "I really think it is unfair to hold the new administration responsible," said Ronnie McNeill, an instructional support teacher for math and science. "As long as there is progress."

McNeill was standing in his laboratory -- a large room where he has helped fourth- and fifth-graders put together large tanks containing African species of fish. McNeill, who is new to Templeton, has an after-school club with 50 children who work on the tanks, breed exotic fish and learn about science.

Larger picture

He, Holmes and teachers may see progress, but the state Department of Education sees a larger picture of failure dating to the beginnings of the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program.

In 1994, no third-grader at Templeton could pass the statewide MSPAP exam in reading. Last spring, 6 percent of the school's third-graders passed, and no fifth-grader did. The state expects 70 percent of the children in third and fifth grades to pass.

In 1995, Templeton was the third school put on the state's list of failing schools and in the inter- vening years, it had a two-year upward blip in an otherwise flat line.

Advocates for Children and Youth, a nonprofit group, estimated that at its current rate of improvement, Templeton's fifth-graders would reach the state standard in 104 years.

Templeton hardly looks like a failure inside. It is a well-kept building that sprawls by way of an overhead walk across Pennsylvania Avenue. It has a large auditorium and a kitchen, two things many suburban schools don't.

In a first-grade class yesterday, pupils were reading simple sentences, some with little difficulty. And their novice teacher, Michelle Brant, said, "I really enjoy it here."

High turnover

But over the long term, the school has few of the attributes found in successful schools -- in particular, a faculty with years of teaching experience and working together. Templeton's staff has turned over regularly.

Despite Templeton's obvious needs, the school system failed to fill all the teaching vacancies by the beginning of the school year. Five of the 23 teachers are new this year; most are provisional, uncertified by the state because they haven't passed the required exams or taken enough education courses in college.

As hard as Holmes has worked to support her new teachers with outside mentors and regular classroom visits, they are still beginners faced with pupils who would be a challenge to veterans.

Many children are new to the school or come from disadvantaged backgrounds. One first-grader who had never been to kindergarten was struggling to identify the letter "d" yesterday.

Veteran teacher Judy Geisler, who came to Templeton last year, said she was angered by the state's action. "I believe every student in this neighborhood can perform," she said.

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