Schools savor improvement on test scores

Common-sense measures of reform are drawing credit

May 18, 2000|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

It didn't take a standardized test for Frances M. Parks to know something extraordinary was going on in her elementary school in the heart of one of Baltimore's disintegrated neighborhoods.

She knew because of all the times she had visited classrooms and heard proud little boys stage whisper to her: "Let me read to you."

She knew because of all the times she had stood in the hall and felt eager little girls tug at her sleeve: "Ms. Parks, do you want to hear me read? Please? I can read!"

Then the Westside Elementary School principal saw that all five grades had scored significant gains in reading and math exams this spring. Her first-graders were not just reading at grade level - they ranked in the 92nd percentile nationally - by far the highest in the city. They had exceeded her hopes, fulfilling a steadfast ambition for children from a tough, drug-torn area that has kept her going for 13 years.

"I felt such jubilation," Parks said yesterday, a day after the exam results were made public. "Everyone knew we were working to make a difference in our scores, and our efforts and strategies had paid off. I think the teachers really wanted to show the school could do it."

In elementary schools across Baltimore yesterday, principals, teachers and parents who had grown accustomed to expecting failure were savoring their children's remarkable improvement on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills. Higher scores were seen in nearly every one of the city's 122 elementary schools, in nearly all grades, in both math and reading, school officials said Tuesday.

Though city test scores as a whole remain below state and national averages, pupils from working-class Hampden to economically depressed Cherry Hill proved that they could perform as well as their peers in better-off suburbs. Principals handed out treats, and teachers spoke of a renewed sense of pride and purpose.

Baltimore is experimenting with several high-profile instructional initiatives with names like Achievement First and Success for All in a small group of its underachieving schools. Yet progress can be measured throughout the system, especially in the early grades - the first clear sign of a payoff for the city's ambitious, multimillion-dollar reform efforts begun three years ago.

It was in schools that did not get extra help from outside experts - such as Hampden and Westside where veteran teachers tell stories and hug their pupils and give out gold stars for perfect attendance - that the test results were out of the ordinary.

Hampden has steadily improved over the past three years to the point where 50 percent or more of its students scored above grade level in four of five grades. Westside had foundered last year and ranked near the bottom nationally, but it bounced back with a determined effort. Although several of Westside's grades are still below the 50th percentile - the average of pupils across the country - the first- and second-graders scored close to the top.

Kathleen Healy, who has been teaching first grade for 20 years at Hampden Elementary School, took a 30-second break yesterday from reading aloud to her class to glance at the scores. She let out a whoop.

"This is fantastic. I'm so proud of you," she told her class.

She and other staff members at Hampden and Westside credited the common-sense measures of school reform: smaller classes, more teacher training and, above all, the introduction of citywide reading and math curriculums.

Teachers said they especially like the heavily phonics-based Open Court reading program used in all city schools from kindergarten through second grade.

Having the same curriculum and textbooks in every elementary school makes all the difference, they said, in a city where large numbers of students move during the year.

"I think we're making gains because we're unified in what we're doing," said Cecil Ramsey, an area executive officer in the school system. "Everybody is working toward the same goals, and we're in the same place as a system.

"It means that it's not such a big deal if children transfer to another school and then come back a few months later," he said. "That used to be a big disruption.

"Now they come in and they're in the exact same place, they're learning reading the same way, in a classroom that has the same books, even the same posters up."

Westside teacher Sandra Chincarini agreed. She has taught first-graders for 16 years at the Fulton Avenue elementary school, not far from Druid Hill Park.

Many of her students live with their grandparents. Last year, 55 percent of the school population of 622 turned over, as students moved around in foster care or with their families in search of a safer neighborhood.

Chincarini and Westside's other first-grade teachers - Joyce Harriott, Sarah Fleet and Marie LaGuerre - share their principal's belief that all children can learn if given the chance. And, they say, the parents and grandparents want their children to succeed to have a better life.

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