Two schools defy odds to boost scores

Columbia principals say innovation, care led to MSPAP gains

Troubled sites thrive

Elementaries focus on flexible planning, effective teaching

March 03, 2002|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

As Howard educators work to determine what is going wrong in the county's five worst-performing elementary schools - where scores on annual state performance exams are among the worst in the state - at least two other schools have emerged as examples of what is going right.

Jeffers Hill and Running Brook elementary schools serve populations similar to the schools that are most puzzling to Howard school officials - in particular, the five that posted the county's lowest scores on the latest Maryland School Performance Assessment Program exams: Guilford, Swansfield, Dasher Green, Laurel Woods and Talbott Springs elementaries.

But at Running Brook and Jeffers Hill, principals and teachers seem to have overcome the challenges that trouble their lagging counterparts.

Despite high mobility rates, large numbers of children receiving free and reduced-price lunches, children and parents who speak limited English and several teachers with limited experience, those two Columbia schools have managed to steadily bring up their standardized test scores.

Last year at Jeffers Hill, for example, 67.2 percent of pupils scored at the satisfactory level on the MSPAP exams. That's above the county average of 61.2, and less than 3 points from the state's goal of having 70 percent of pupils score satisfactorily.

It wasn't always this way.

In 1993, the first MSPAP year, Jeffers Hill pupils earned a composite score of 43.5. It took six years for the school to reach the 60 percent mark.

Jeffers Hill Principal Steve Zagami said the turnaround was long and hard-won, requiring a major restructuring of the school's organization and revision of the school improvement plan.

"I'm really kind of an organized, detail-oriented person," he said. "And I thought that could help the school in a lot of ways."

Altered schedules

Schoolwide, Zagami restructured teachers' daily schedules so resource teachers and specialists could reach more children during the day. He instituted a new focus on data collection and analysis so teachers could understand how pupils were performing throughout the school, why they were doing well or poorly, and what needed to be done to help them improve.

"Our educating, in terms of data interpretation, is stronger than it was eight or nine years ago," said first-grade teacher Eileen Tootle.

Once teachers get a handle on where their children are, they can immediately adjust how they teach, or what they teach, or how much time pupils get in math or reading instruction.

Many times, children will be pulled from one reading or math group, or even from one homeroom class to another - in midyear - if data analysis shows that child needs to move.

"We're so much more flexible in our movement of students than other schools," Tootle said.

Teachers at Running Brook Elementary pride themselves on their data analysis and "flexible grouping," noting that it has largely been tradition in schools not to disrupt children in midyear.

Valerie Thompson, a gifted-and-talented resource teacher at Running Brook, said better matching of children with teachers, groups and supplemental programs is crucial on many levels, including pupil discipline - which teachers at both schools say is not a problem.

"Having children in better instructional groups as a better fit for their instruction cuts down on your disruption, because they're not as frustrated," she said.

Minimizing disruption was a major objective of Running Brook Principal Marion Miller when she took over at the Columbia school three years ago. And for the past three years, no child has been suspended there.

"We are very serious about what our expectations are for the kids, and the kids learn very quickly what will and will not be tolerated," said Laura F. Lee, a parent educator in Running Brook's Parents as Teachers program - one of the dozens of programs the school offers its families.

Running Brook's 1993 MSPAP score was a dismal 35.5, at the time the lowest in the county. Last year's results, after three years of steady gains, showed Running Brook at 53.8, its best performance.

Miller attributes Running Brook's success to her careful selection of new and experienced teachers.

"Teachers who really couldn't be successful at Running Brook are no longer at Running Brook," she said.

Jeffers Hill fifth-grade teacher Gary Ortega, who has been teaching for 26 years, said there is a veteran teacher on every team in the school.

"I think you need experienced teachers who can act as your mentors or your leaders," Ortega said. "At this school, there's a real cadre of experienced teachers. We've got a lot in our bag of tricks. But those tricks may not work at every school."

When asked to identify the components that do work, at least at their schools, teachers at Jeffers Hill and Running Brook list remarkably similar points.

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