School rebuilds learning curve

Hope: Once-struggling Westport is beginning to show signs of a major rebound.

September 21, 2001|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

The concrete front steps of the once impressive brick school were crumbling. The grounds were trampled, the children undisciplined and the 25-year-old carpet inside too far gone to clean.

For years, Westport Elementary-Middle School's building decayed and its low test scores stagnated, until last March when state education leaders chose it from a list of 96 failing schools in Maryland as the one most in need of a takeover.

By the time pupils returned on Sept. 4, the city had completed $300,000 worth of building renovations, including painting the outside trim a cheerful butter cream and putting down shiny floor tiles inside.

"It has been a real transformation here," said Marjorie Miles, a former city school administrator who is now helping to manage the southern Baltimore school. "It is like going from an ugly duckling to a beautiful swan."

More than just the building has changed since the city schools signed a $4 million contract with New York-based Victory Schools Inc. to manage Westport, negotiating their way around what would have been a full state takeover of the school.

Victory has instituted stricter discipline in the halls, parents say, and rehired only about half the staff. Forty percent of the elementary teachers and 80 percent of the middle school teachers are new to the school.

About 90 percent of its teachers are certified - they have passed the teaching exam and have taken the required courses - a rate higher than in most city elementary schools.

But Victory didn't do the total overhaul that is typical in other takeovers around the nation. It kept the principal, Ernestine Lewis, who had arrived two years before. And it kept the curriculum largely the same.

The school, renamed Westport Academy by Victory, has been able to attract some teaching veterans from within the system, including social studies teacher Edgar T. Smith, who has 12 years' experience in city schools.

Smith was teaching third- and fifth-graders at Holabird Elementary and decided to apply to teach fifth- and sixth-graders. "I love it. I absolutely love it," Smith said. He said his pupils seem eager and motivated. "I've had them say they enjoy the teachers, and they like the way the building looks," he said.

Some parents were at first wary about the takeover.

"Many parents wanted change, but they wanted input in the change," Miles said. "At first, there were a lot of questions, a lot of concerns about what was going to happen."

But today, parents tell her they can feel the difference in the building.

"It's a dramatic change compared to last year," said Brenda Carroll, who has had a 17-year association with the school as the parent of four children and a former substitute teacher. She is impressed with all the improvements made to the building, but wonders why they took so many years.

Carroll is taking a wait-and-see approach before she declares the school turned around. "You can't really say how it is going to turn out," she said. But she says discipline is far better since Kennedy Krieger Institute of Baltimore, which is known for its care of and research on disabled children, took charge of 45 special education pupils.

"It is zero tolerance. They aren't putting up with the silliness," Carroll said.

The greatest changes, according to school officials, have been in the learning environment and structure of the school.

Each grade is assigned to a floor of the three-story building. The floor tile matches the uniform color of the students in that grade, so that teachers will immediately know if a student strays from their grade and floor.

"There is structure here, and you have everyone on the same page at the same time," Miles said. The school has more resources, including a new second assistant principal who is in charge of the middle school. Children will have music and art for the first time in years and a second physical education teacher so that the subject can be offered more frequently.

There have been some changes in the curriculum. Last year, the school was one of a dozen in the city that used a highly structured, phonics-based model called Direct Instruction.

Carmen V. Russo, the chief executive officer of the city schools, expects academic achievement to rise this year at the school.

"In three years, you are going to see some dramatic results at Westport," she said.

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