Giant leap in learning

School: Teachers at City Springs Elementary attribute pupils' success to hard work, smaller classes and a new instruction method.

January 31, 2002|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

The sounds of "Pomp and Circumstance" and the rap song "#1" filled the auditorium at Baltimore's City Springs Elementary School yesterday as pupils and teachers celebrated the end of an ugly notoriety.

After posting remarkable gains on Maryland's latest student achievement tests, the East Baltimore school has been removed from the state's list of failures, and is no longer in danger of being taken over.

Few city schools have accomplished a greater turnaround. In the 1996-97 school year, only 6.5 percent of children at City Springs performed satisfactorily on the Maryland Student Performance Assessment Program exams.

Now, after a 23.5-point gain announced Monday, the percentage of children meeting the standard is 42.4 - just below the state average. The city average, while up for the fifth straight year, is 22.5.

Pride was on display yesterday, the first day pupils were back in class since statewide MSPAP results were released.

"You, boys and girls, proved to everyone that you know how to read, that you know how to write and that you know how to do math," Principal Bernice E. Whelchel said during the morning assembly.

City Springs got here the way education reformers like best: slowly but surely. Those who work there attribute its success to a combination of hard work, a highly scripted and sometimes controversial teaching method known as Direct Instruction, and a small school.

City Springs' latest increase was driven in large part by its fifth-grade scores, which rose sharply in all six content areas. In reading, the percentage of children meeting the standard jumped from 10.9 to 50. In math, it leaped from 16.4 to 75.9.

Third-graders improved, too, increasing their reading score from 9.3 to 17.9 and their math score from 5.7 to 38.5.

Success at City Springs hasn't been limited to the MSPAP. On last year's national Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills, first-graders had one of the highest reading scores in Baltimore, with 82 percent performing at or above the national average.

Muriel Berkeley, president of the nonprofit Baltimore Curriculum Project, which runs City Springs as part of the city system's New Schools Initiative, said that the school probably benefited from its smaller size.

The school's population fell to between 270 and 300 children last year in part because a nearby housing project was torn down. Only 38 third-graders and 29 fifth-graders took the May exams. (The year before, 47 third-graders and 50 fifth-graders took the exams.)

But she said size alone doesn't explain the success.

"There are plenty of small schools - smaller than us - that didn't score as well," Berkeley said. "I think the scores went up because of hard work and good instruction and kids learning."

City Springs was more aggressive last year in moving children in the upper grades through lessons, even skipping some, meaning that they reached higher levels.

"We felt that our kids were strong because of the proper implementation of Direct Instruction, and because of that, we became more aggressive - I'm going to say `greedy,'" said Whelchel, 54.

A former special education teacher, reading specialist and assistant principal who has worked in Baltimore schools for 31 years, Whelchel doesn't believe City Springs would have progressed so much without Direct Instruction, which she called the most "effective" and "efficient" method of learning.

DI is quick-paced and regimented, with teachers working from a script and prompting dozens of responses from children in a single hour. Some say DI takes the creativity out of the classroom.

"It bothers me that the critics say, `Oh, Direct Instruction, so robotic,' " said Whelchel. "It's what you make it."

Whether a curriculum is engaging to pupils and helps them learn depends on how teachers teach it, she said.

"Any curriculum can be boring to a kid," she said. "If you give the kid motivation - that they are achieving - you've got them."

Sixteen other Baltimore schools use DI, though none for as long as City Springs. Of those, 11 exceeded the citywide gain of 2 points on last year's MSPAP. Charles Carroll Barrister increased its composite score by 22.2 points, while Federal Hill went up 17.4.

Scores at two DI schools dropped slightly, including at Dickey Hill Elementary-Middle, which was added to the state's list of failing schools this week.

At City Springs yesterday, fourth- and fifth-graders in Phyllis King's U.S. history class read aloud from a seventh-grade textbook.

Whelchel took over for a few minutes and asked how the children felt about their class.

"I feel good about being in U.S. history because you learn a lot of important things," Brittany McCready, 10, said.

"I'm very proud," said Renee Maultsby, whose son Kenneth Flomo, 11 today, is also in King's class. "Miss Whelchel is Mom No. 2. The majority of the students know what she stands for and what she will accept and what she will not accept, and I really thank her for hanging in there with us."

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