Gilmor school brings good things to light

Education: Edison-run elementary finds validated improvements in cultural change.

April 24, 2002|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

Kenneth Cherry doesn't mind when the kids at Baltimore's Gilmor Elementary/Junior Academy argue.

That's because, these days, they are much more likely to raise their voices about the correct spelling of a word or the answer to a math problem than they are about who has better sneakers or what's going down in the streets.

"It's a cultural change. It's that achievement change," said Cherry, the academy director at Gilmor, one of three city schools in their second year being privately managed by Edison Schools Inc. "I love to hear them argue. I won't stop them, either, if it's a productive argument."

Two years after being taken over by the state, Gilmor and its counterparts - Furman L. Templeton and Montebello - have begun to make significant improvements under the for-profit company's direction.

Proof of that arrived this week when the state released results from the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills, a national standardized test that was given last month.

Children at Gilmor posted 1- to 7-percentile point gains in reading, while gains in math ranged from 21 to 35 percentile points. Some grades at the West Baltimore school doubled or even tripled their math scores.

"You had a dream, a vision, two years ago about what could happen," said Gilmor Principal JoAnn Cason, who jumped up and down when she learned the good news. "You know what? It's starting to happen."

Gilmor, which struggled in its first year under Edison, is by most accounts a new school with a new slogan: "We Bring Good Things To Light."

Every child's picture is posted outside his or her classroom. The hallways are filled with student work, both academic and artistic. Everyone, right down to the school's custodial staff, has "adopted" - and is responsible for tutoring - at least five children.

Even the cafeteria is different: Gone are the rectangular tables usually grouped in long rows. In their place are round ones, at which children sit for a "working lunch."

That approach is designed not only to cut down on behavior problems but to give children more time to learn.

"One of my things was no downtime," said Cherry, 32, a former gifted-and-talented teacher at Baltimore's Cross Country Elementary who joined Gilmor last summer. "Everything had to be an `up' time."

At Gilmor yesterday, children in Denita Johnson's first-grade class - grouped in teams with names such as the Snakes, Cheetahs and Tigers - were busy figuring out how much they would have left if they started with $1 at a museum store and bought a 48-cent seashell.

While one boy did the subtraction work on the board, another quietly pointed out that with the remaining 52 cents, you could purchase a second shell.

After recording a disappointing drop in last year's CTBS math score, Gilmor's first-graders improved this year from the 15th national percentile to the 49th. The 50th percentile is the national median.

Johnson's class in particular did so well, according to Cherry, that the students now are moving ahead with second-grade work.

To Cason, the secret to successful reform is "putting a finger on the pulse of your school."

That means constantly assessing the progress of all of Gilmor's 620 children, not just quarterly when report cards come out, but weekly and even daily.

For instance, Cason and Cherry, who function as co-principals, post the results of the weekly "principal's test" in what is called Achievement Hall near the main office. The results also are read over the intercom as a way of keeping children and teachers accountable for their performance.

"You have to constantly keep pushing," said Cason, 39, a talkative former city principal whose enthusiasm is contagious. "It's the consistency."

Added Cherry: "If you want to achieve well, you've got to talk about it."

Germaine Smith, a 15-year veteran of teaching who is in her second year at Gilmor, teaches math and science in the sixth-grade "house," which was added this school year because of support from parents.

As the lead teacher, Smith is responsible for how all of the nearly 80 sixth-graders are doing.

Posting the results can be stressful at times, but is an incentive.

"It's that good stress," she said. "I cannot let [any child] slip under the cracks."

Smith, 39, said the school emphasizes teaching the skills on which children are tested - not just on the CTBS, but on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program exams and the state's Functional tests in reading and math.

And the hard work started on Day One.

"As soon as school began, it was intense learning right away," she said.

Jamal Lake, 11, a sixth-grader, has been at Gilmor since the second grade. He wants to be an NFL player as a first option, an artist as a backup. One of the paintings he did in art class recently sold for $500 at a benefit auction held at Gallery 409.

He said the school is better since Edison took over. There used to be more fights and lower test scores, he said, and the teachers showed up mostly for the paychecks.

Gilmor's success on the CTBS hasn't been lost on him.

"It makes me feel good," he said.

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