Elementaries in city show marked gains

Across income levels, scores up on state, national assessments

`We are terribly proud'

Progress perceived as result of reforms instituted in 1997

January 01, 2001|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

For the first time in years, Baltimore can say that its elementary schools are getting better, not just in middle-class neighborhoods but in its poorest corners.

State and national standardized test results show that city pupils are making steady progress, including significant gains during the past two years in the core subjects of reading and math.

Although the celebration has been muted because the school system has so far to go before it can say its children rank at the state average, Baltimore is beginning to gain national attention.

"The progress Baltimore has made in the past three years has been greater than I have seen elsewhere," said Mark D. Musick, president of the Southern Regional Education Board. "There are lots of school systems across the country whose scores are just as low who are not making this kind of improvement."

The gains are only a beginning. And educators say they could stall if the city does not continue to pursue further training and support for teachers and principals, and more financial help from Annapolis for basic needs, such as books for libraries and summer school for all failing children.

But city school officials see hope in the more than a dozen elementary schools that are in poor neighborhoods and have made exceptional progress during the past two years. During the mid-1990s, at some of these schools few children met state standards. Today, these schools are scoring as well as the average schools in suburban counties.

Many boarded-up houses surround Dallas F. Nicholas Sr. Elementary School near North Avenue and Calvert Street, but the children are performing at nearly the state average in all subjects. Children walk around syringes to get to Pimlico Elementary School, but once inside, they see their work displayed on the walls and their parents helping in classrooms.

Pimlico's composite score on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program was 20 points above the state average - the same as the top dozen elementary schools in Baltimore and Howard counties. And Pimlico pupils' performance on national standardized tests has improved, too.

About 93 percent of Coldstream Park pupils qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, but the school's scores have risen from a cumulative index of 16.2 to 34 in three years. Among the other elementary schools making large gains are: Cherry Hill, Thomas Johnson, Arlington, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Armistead Gardens, Alexander Hamilton and John Eager Howard.

The myth that students from poor neighborhoods can succeed only in extraordinary situations has been shattered. People are beginning to look at the academic achievement of these schools, said school board member Patricia Morris Welch, and say: "`Who? That neighborhood? Those families?'"

`Our congratulations'

Not only has a group of schools shown sharp improvement, dozens of other schools have made steady, significant gains during the past two years. State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and Del. Howard P. Rawlings say this shows that the seeds of reform planted almost four years ago in a bold state-city partnership have sprouted and grown into seedlings system-wide.

"We are terribly proud of Baltimore City and offer our congratulations for the enormous progress being made there," Grasmick said. The $254 million reform was begun in 1997, when the city gave up part of its control to an independent school board appointed jointly by the governor and the mayor. The new school board immediately made a series of changes in the schools: it reduced class size, adopted a citywide, phonics-based reading curriculum and purchased new reading and math textbooks for every elementary pupil.

In a significant policy change last year, officials decided that children who read more than three months below grade level won't be passed to the next grade. The school system also has spent millions training teachers and helping failing children in after-school and summer-school programs.

These reforms have been tried in many other cities with some success. National education leaders say Houston, Chicago, Hartford, Conn., and Seattle have shown gains using similar initiatives.

"In this short period of time, Baltimore has done as well as any in improving," said Christopher T. Cross, a former president of the Maryland State Board of Education and current president of the Council for Basic Education, a nonprofit organization based in Washington.

`Long, long way to go'

Cross and other national and state educators caution that the reform of the city elementary schools could falter without good leadership and sufficient funds. They say it's easy for school systems to become complacent or to move on to solving other problems - such as failing middle and high schools - and lose focus. Grasmick and other state officials view the current gains as a beginning. "We really have to keep in mind that we have a long, long way to go," said Ronald A. Peiffer, assistant state superintendent for school and community outreach.

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