Welcome signs of improvement

Education: In this struggling elementary school, progress, though measured in varying increments, has been noted.

January 16, 2001|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

In September, during the first few weeks of the school year, Shannon Flowers would hand out homework assignments to the 20 fourth-graders in her class, and about six would complete them.

Now, almost all do.

"All you can see is improvement, right?" she says. "That's what I'm looking toward. All this [effort] I'm putting in right now, there will be a light at the end of the tunnel."

It is a new year at Furman L. Templeton, one of three elementary schools in Baltimore being run by a for-profit company, Edison Schools. Templeton is on the front lines of an experiment in public school privatization, all but forced upon the city by state officials frustrated by the pace of reform.

The children had been so unruly and lagged behind so much academically that progress can be measured, realistically, only in small increments. Flowers' class offers signs that changes are slowly taking hold.

She can see them in the way her children walk quietly and without incident to the auditorium for an assembly, and in the way some of them recite the school pledge - "Today is a new day" - without pause. She also can see them in the way some of her reading pupils read ahead for extra credit.

"I knew this school would be challenging," says Flowers, who also has taught at nearby Harlem Park Elementary School.

But a strong incentive system supported by Edison - pupils who finish homework or behave well are rewarded with computer time or permission to attend a holiday party - has helped to chip away at a culture of failure.

"Now, they're like, `OK, they're willing to do work for me,'" she says. "I guess they need people to come in to show that they care."

`That's progress'

The West Baltimore school has virtually nowhere to go but up: 4.4 percent of pupils performed satisfactorily on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program exam given last year, making Templeton the second-lowest-scoring school in the city. Not a single third-grader scored at grade level in reading or math.

Some of those kids are in Flowers' class now.

It's not uncommon for them to struggle to read aloud a number like 260,931. Some don't know that the comparative of big is bigger and that the superlative of mean is meanest. One boy misspelled all 10 words on a recent spelling test that included the words busy, careful, worried and wise.

But the news wasn't all bad: Several children spelled all of the words correctly.

Flowers doesn't measure success solely by whether a child gives all of the correct answers. For some kids, she says, "If they get five right, that's `100' for them, because that's progress. That's what I'm looking for, progress.

"Right now, I see that they are developing," she says. "They're like a flower; they're blooming. They're moving toward mastering certain skills. ... A lot of our kids are lacking basic skills."

`I've seen it work'

Flowers, 30, grew up in Connecticut, the oldest of four children, with a mother who didn't graduate from high school and couldn't read. Flowers studied social work at Western Connecticut State University and planned to pursue a master's degree at the University of Maryland in 1997, but instead took a teaching job at Harlem Park Elementary.

After teaching second grade for two years, she joined Chamberlain Charter School in Washington, also managed by Edison. When the opportunity arose to teach again in Baltimore, she took it.

As part of its five-year contract with the state, Edison also is running Gilmor and Montebello elementaries, which were among the lowest-performing of the approximately 80 failing city schools.

"This will be a good chance for me to move up and give people some ideas about the Edison idea," Flowers remembers thinking when she returned to Baltimore. "I believe in this design because it works. I've seen it work."

Her background in social work has helped her relate to pupils. Some are in foster care or live in shelters; others have parents in jail.

"I have a good rapport with my children, and my children have a good rapport with me," she says. "I use most of my social-work skills with my children in the classroom.

"I'm the social worker, I'm the doctor, I'm the psychologist," she says. "I'm everything at this point."

Beyond the classroom

To make learning exciting, Flowers, who is Templeton's science coordinator, and another teacher, Michael Rest, started a Science Club. On weekends, Flowers has taken some kids to the National Air and Space Museum. She also is planning a trip to Fredericksburg, Va., where they will have lessons in outdoor education.

It's a logical activity for Flowers, who spends her summers as an Outward Bound program instructor. Many of the kids at Templeton don't know life beyond the inner city.

"They don't know what it's like to be in the woods," she says.

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