The price of enrichment

Program: Parents who are paying for their children to take such courses this summer wonder why the city school system can't fund extra instruction for academically robust kids.

August 03, 2002|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

Iram Webster defined classroom fashion at Leith Walk Elementary earlier this week. The third-grade teacher wore a camouflage shirt and skirt, ankle-high brown leather boots and a straw hat neatly painted with green leaves.

But it was all in the name of education. For the past month and a half, she has been teaching children to read, write and do math -- using the theme "Summer Safari." Webster has been free to be more creative this summer. Her pupils aren't given homework, don't take tests and aren't in danger of failing.

"They mix the learning process with fun," said Angela Bell, the mother of two school district students. "It is outstanding. My kids love it."

Bell and other participating parents feel so strongly about the value of the program that they have spent $400 per pupil so their children can attend this summer school for first- through sixth-graders at the Northeast Baltimore elementary school. What they don't understand is why the city can't help pay for the program.

Why is it, parents ask, that the school system has money only for those pupils who need academic help while children who are doing well in school aren't given any extras?

"I don't think it is fair the ones who do well have to dig into their pockets so deep," said Saudia V. Scott, who sold boxes of candy for more than four months so she could afford to send her children to summer school. Her daughter is on the honor roll and her son is doing fine in school, she said, but she believes that the summer program gives them an added boost that will help them during the next school year.

It is a philosophy that Leith Walk Principal Edna Greer has subscribed to for decades. Believing that children's brains should be stimulated for at least part of the traditional three-month break, she has offered summer school for the past 12 years, staffing it with 10 of the school's best teachers. About 200 children are participating this summer.

Unorthodox curriculum

The curriculum is unusual and challenging. Written during the course of the school year by a master teacher, Michael McNelly, it requires children to practice the skills they learned during the school year. Teachers try to stretch children who are at the top of their class while offering help to those whose skills might not be strong.

Each year the program has had a different theme, from "A Trip Across America" to this year's "Summer Safari." Sometimes it is a challenge to apply the theme to math, McNelly said. For example, to stay faithful to the safari theme, teachers have taught geometry and math concepts by having pupils design dog houses, lay out a zoo and calculate the weights of animals.

Reading skills have been reinforced by having pupils read folk tales and fables about animals, and the children focus on animals in science, a subject that often is given less emphasis in a school system that spends substantial class time on the basics, reading and math.

In one classroom, children were learning that a white-fronted capuchin is a monkey that lives in the upper Amazon basin. The map was pulled down and the Amazon basin quickly located. Then children measured with a yardstick how many meters the monkey -- and a human child -- can jump.

Pupils are challenged in quirky, yet thought-provoking ways.

For example, this question was on a blackboard: "If a turtle loses its shell, is it naked or homeless?"

The school system estimated it would spend about $17 million this summer trying to help one-third of its children -- about 29,000 -- meet passing standards so they could advance to the next grade. But because money is tight, school officials been able to make only a tiny allocation for programs for children who don't have academic problems.

Not `penalized'

Although school board member Camay Murphy said the school system should look for more ways to support summer enrichment programs, such as the one at Leith Walk, she believes parents should not feel cheated.

"I don't agree that parents of children who do well are penalized," Murphy said.

Somehow, said Leith Walk Principal Greer, there should be money for all children whose parents want them in an academic summer program.

"I don't think it should be a choice," she said. "You shouldn't have to give it to a slow child or a bright child."

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