Never losing a moment to learn

Time: At Howard's Bushy Park Elementary, teachers and pupils race the clock.

Schools that Work

May 30, 2000|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

When Amy Green's second-graders go to the bathroom, she makes sure they carry along books - for reading in line while they wait their turn.

"It seems like a waste of time to wait, not doing anything," says second-grader Emma Horoszczak as she reads a story by Beatrix Potter while waiting her turn. "It's more fun to read."

In the race to teach children how to read well, particularly by the end of third grade, time is precious. So when teachers at Bushy Park Elementary School began really examining how they use their 6 1/2 -hour school day, they were shocked.

Every month, they were losing 240 minutes of teaching time to inefficient class schedules - the equivalent of almost six days of classes a school year.

Every week, some students in the school band were pulled out of such basic academic lessons as reading and writing for music practice. And every day, as many as 20 minutes were wasted by students as they stood in line for bathroom breaks.

So this western Howard County elementary school made some simple changes.

It changed students' schedules. Band practice and other extras were timed to coincide with the less academic portions of the school day. And the bathroom-line reading began.

"Every minute is so important to their success," says Bushy Park special education teacher Linda Rosetti. "We can't afford to waste any time."

Bushy Park serves children from the affluent, predominantly white Glenwood area, where expectations for school achievement are as large as the suburban homes that sprawl across the once rural landscape. Yet the school delivers on those expectations - and more.

In a statistical analysis of the effectiveness of all of Howard County's elementary schools at teaching reading, The Sun found that Bushy Park does better than all other county elementaries when student demographic factors are held constant.

The analysis also found that many elementaries in less well-off Columbia also are very effective at teaching their children to read, despite public criticism in recent years for their relatively low student achievement and older facilities. These Columbia elementaries appear to be making better than average strides with a relatively diverse group of pupils.

Better than very well

With few, if any, of its students coming from impoverished homes, it's not surprising that Bushy Park would do better than its peers on reading tests. But to be considered the county's most effective school at teaching reading in The Sun's analysis, it had to perform even higher than its demographics would predict.

And Bushy Park - the wealthiest school profiled in this series on schools that are highly effective at reading instruction - did exactly that. On state reading tests, 79 percent of its third-graders and 66 percent of its fifth-graders scored satisfactorily.

In that sense, the school is most unusual, a school that should do very well and does even better than that. Such schools are fairly rare.

"In a way, the deck is kind of stacked against the school," says Geoffrey D. Borman, the Johns Hopkins University researcher hired to perform The Sun's analysis of effective reading instruction. "It has to be scoring a lot better than just about everyone else."

Like the other schools in this series, Bushy Park finds its success in a handful of consistent practices: phonics, teaching in small groups, a principal who takes charge of instruction, and treating time like a treasure that can easily slip away. But, above all else, Bushy Park is unusual in its devotion to using time well.

This is no accident.

Questioning everything

Two years ago, the school's staff went through an exercise rooted in the "total quality management" philosophy that swept through the business world in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They examined everything they were doing and asked if it was directly related to producing higher achievement.

"Schools do lots of things that they do just because schools have always done them," says Bushy Park Principal Nancy Kalin, who initiated and led the effort. "We decided to question everything and ask how it affected student achievement.

"If we couldn't come up with a clear answer," she says, "then we stopped doing it."

As a result, many teacher committees were streamlined or eliminated. One such group devoted to coming up with energy savings was handed over to students.

Faculty meetings are no longer filled with countless announcements about pizza days and ordering chalk. Those can be handled by memos - more work for the principal, but it frees up teachers' time to plan better instruction.

When Bushy Park's "school improvement team" gathers, the group doesn't waste time haggling about school fairs, as it would at many other elementaries. Instead, the teachers examine what each grade is doing to improve its reading or math skills - including looking at specific test-score goals and whether classes are moving to meet them.

"It gives everyone else a lot more time to focus on teaching," Kalin says. "That's the way schools should be."

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