Hebbville brings home gold - again

`Low-performing' pupils defy label, win state title

May 09, 2002|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

The trophy's so large that it takes one of the bigger fifth-graders to carry it down the hall at Hebbville Elementary School.

It proclaims the school "state champions" in engraved letters, the kind that can't be rubbed away. The label they're used to around here is "low-performing school." The new one sounds so much better, the kids will tell you.

For the fifth year in a row, a group of Hebbville's fourth- and fifth-graders left Maryland's recent MESA Day competition with a victory, beating elementary schools from across the state. MESA stands for Math, Engineering, Science Achievement and it's a program designed to bring greater understanding and appreciation of those concepts to female and minority children.

"They are winners and we continue to tell them they are winners," Norma F. Boyd, deputy director of the state program, said of Hebbville. "What they need is the opportunity."

Hebbville sits just off Liberty Road in a highly transient part of Baltimore County. More than 50 percent of the school's pupils receive free or reduced-price lunches - a federal indicator of poverty. A third of the school's population turns over before the school year is out. The school's scores on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program exams are among the lowest in the county. Many pupils live in foster homes or group homes.

"Hebbville's got a lot on their plates," said Warren J. Hack, a computer programmer whose son, Steven, is on the MESA team. "They have been able to excel even with all those marks against them. That's what makes their performance so dramatic.

"It really does provide something to work toward and ... they see the fruits of their success."

Said Principal Annie R. Gordon: "What we do for children often is not shown in scores - we meet a lot of social, emotional issues. Sometimes we have to work children through to that point where they can be willing learners."

The competition is filled with brain teasers, problem-solving, memorization and real-world decision-making.

In one contest, the pupils are given a quarter of a stick of clay and told to build a boat. The boat that holds the most pennies without sinking wins. On competition day, Hebbville's boat held 16 pennies.

There's also the naked egg drop, where the goal is to come up with the best contraption to keep an egg dropped from a tall ladder from going splat when it lands. First they tried a bed of popcorn (too many sharp edges). Then packing peanuts (too much space between the pieces). They settled on a plastic bag filled with green Easter grass. They never again lost an egg.

And then there's the paper tower. The teams get an 8 1/2 - by-11-inch piece of paper and tape and are told to make the tallest tower they can and make it stand for 10 seconds - outside in the wind.

"I like to think a lot, and we had to work really hard," explained fifth-grader Monique Robinson. "It accelerates our brains."

Another fifth-grader, Therm James, said, "It shows we're a school that likes to do hard work, and we don't stop until we finish the job."

Darnell B. Peaker, who has taught at Hebbville since 1987, and second-grade teacher Terri Ihle have run the MESA program there for the past six years.

Their dedication is one of the reasons Hebbville has all those trophies. The kids spent an hour a week after school working on their projects, doing extra science experiments, listening to speakers from chemists to engineers, and asking lots and lots of questions. Sometimes they wouldn't want to leave when the hour is up. "We have to shove them out of here," Peaker said, laughing.

The two dozen slots in MESA are highly coveted. Peaker and Ihle pick the children based on the recommendation of teachers. "We have to turn kids down," Peaker said.

She knows the interest - and the success - don't exactly match the school's overall performance. "We're a low-performing school, but we do have boys and girls who are above average," she said. "We do have boys and girls who are academic successes. It draws another picture. There are two sides to the story.

"We show them you can be successful."

Aside from the annual competition held at the Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, MESA keeps track of how the fourth- and fifth-graders are performing year-round. Peaker sends their math, science and language arts grades to MESA each marking period. Those who keep As and Bs earn special rewards from MESA.

"You don't just come here to play and have fun, but you have to learn something," she said.

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