Sacrificing for MSPAP

Session: Pupils and instructors give up their spring break to prepare for the exam -- and have fun in the process.

April 05, 2002|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

All across Baltimore, spring break means no classes, no teachers, no books and no school.

Except at Franklin Square Elementary.

While the rest of the city's more than 170 schools shut down for vacation this week, Franklin Square has remained open for learning. And about three dozen third- and fifth-graders have been dutifully attending classes in preparation for the annual state exams that will begin this month.

Not, mind you, because they have to. Because they want to.

"It's fun to be here," said Shavae Mann, 10, a fifth-grader at the West Baltimore school, who explained that the alternative would be "sitting around at home."

"I'm glad I'm here because I want to pass on the MSPAP. I want to go to the sixth grade."

The "Spring Break Mini MSPAP Academy," which began Tuesday and ends today, is centered around exercises that are much like those on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program exams. The tests, which are given to third-, fifth- and eighth-graders, emphasize reading, writing and critical thinking, often in small groups.

At the best-scoring schools, like Franklin Square, MSPAP preparation is a yearlong affair. But the mini-academy is a way of giving children four extra days -- and 16 extra hours -- of practice, just weeks before they take the test.

"One week may not seem like a lot, but this will definitely benefit our children," said fifth-grade teacher Jennifer Green, 27, an alumna of Franklin Square who has taught there for five years. "The test is very overwhelming. This extra boost will really help them."

In her class, children have been writing biographies of each other all week.

On Tuesday, they brainstormed and did a "prewriting" exercise. On Wednesday, they conducted interviews and wrote a first draft. Yesterday, they finished their compositions, did a "peer review" and read their work aloud to the class.

Participation is voluntary. About 16 of the school's 45 third-graders and 18 of the school's 35 fifth-graders have attended from 8 a.m. to noon each day, said Gail Kearson-Gough, a master teacher who is overseeing the academy. Four teachers also volunteered.

The staff is being paid, but Principal Peggy B. Brown said everyone has given up something to attend -- whether it's sleeping late, spending time with family or going on a vacation. Her workweek has been quieter, though.

"I don't feel as drained as I do during the regular week because the e-mail's not [piling] up," she explained, "because no one's working except me. It's a breath of fresh air. It's been a profitable week."

The school has made enormous gains on the MSPAP in the past several years. In 1997, the school's overall score was 12.7 -- roughly equivalent to the percentage of children performing satisfactorily. On the most recent exams, given last spring, the school's score was 47.6 -- better than the statewide average of 43.7 and far above the citywide average of 22.5.

Franklin Square also stayed open for spring break two years ago in the name of MSPAP. This year, Brown said, the school got a $10,000 grant from the school system to support the academy. The money goes to pay staff, buy materials and provide children with rewards for attending.

Earlier in the week, they got a water bottle with the school's slogan: "Excellence is the Expectation." Today, they all will leave with two goldfish and a goldfish bowl. Trophies are on the way as well.

Tyrell Schaffer, 11, named all seven continents during an exercise in Green's class yesterday.

"I don't mind [being here] because I still have the rest of the day off and I still like learning," he said. "I think the MSPAP is a test that helps you pass and get good grades in school."

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