Bridging the learning gaps

Education: Howard schools turn to a blitz of innovations to meet standards set by the state and by county school officials.

October 20, 2002|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

It's 8:40 a.m. at Phelps Luck Elementary School in Columbia and 500-plus pupils are trying to talk themselves into greater success.

I stand tall! I stand tall! they chant, punctuating each sentence with two claps.

I take pride in my work, pride in my school, pride in my family, pride in myself. I will achieve! (clap, clap) I will achieve! (clap, clap)

Their principal, John Morningstar, grins above his Dr. Seuss tie.

"See?" he asks. "They do this and then they say the Pledge and they're ready to work."

The mantra is just one of many pieces in an aggressive plan to achieve some extraordinary goals Howard County educators have set for themselves and their students.

By 2005, Superintendent John R. O'Rourke has promised, every school in Howard will meet state education standards. By 2007, the achievement gap among races in the county will be closed, he has pledged.

Last year, Howard came closer than any other county in Maryland to meeting the state standard. But that achievement masked the fact that a significant number of county schools fell far short.

In recognition of that, the county has pledged to make an effort to jump-start performance at eight elementary schools, five middle schools and two high schools that have particularly low test scores and heavy concentrations of low-income students.

School officials hope to raise the performances of those schools and to improve performance everywhere with a blitz of tactics such as handing out laptop computers, reducing school autonomy, intensifying teacher training and support, implementing self-esteem boosters and challenging ignorance at every turn.

"We're fast-tracking this," said Robert Glascock, the school system's director of curricular programs.

"We can't wait five years. I want to move it. I want to move it."

The driving force of the effort is data analysis, and lots of it. That's where the laptops come in.

As teachers complete training in developing individualized improvement plans for under-performing pupils, called "student support plans," they earn a laptop for school use. The idea is that they can continually update and keep tabs on their kids and their teaching practices and performance.

"We can't wait until the end of the school year to find out if a kid is below grade level and then make changes," Glascock said.

Beyond the laptops, administrators are:

Adding a reading and a math support teacher to help staff members in each of the eight particularly challenged elementary schools with the latest in teaching techniques and research.

Scheduling 15 extra minutes of math and reading instruction daily.

Strengthening summer and after-school programs.

Building stronger community partnerships that draw parents into the education process.

Promoting accelerated teaching through training and participation in national workshops.

Striving for intense collaboration among administrators and teachers.

In addition, schools, particularly those at the elementary level, are developing their own projects.

Phelps Luck Elementary has its morning chant and is tailoring teaching according to demographic needs.

"We're trying to look at the whole learner," said Assistant Principal Jonathan Davis.

"Different socioeconomic status means different learning styles. We need to know how background affects [children] and what we can do differently to meet their needs."

Phelps Luck has pupil support plans for 158 children -- about the same number it has in Gifted and Talented programs -- and many of them are new to the school (21 percent of its student body moves away each year and another 26 percent is new to the district), from lower-income families or speak English as a second language.

"Those are the kinds of things we have to keep in mind and the different learning needs we have to grasp," said Kimberly Statham, associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction.

"There are the same issues across the county, but they exist in schools like Phelps Luck in a more concentrated way."

The school also offers a greater diversity in its student body, which is one of its oft-overlooked advantages.

At Bryant Woods Elementary, where the demographics are similar to at Phelps Luck, they've reduced morning announcements so that more time can be devoted to instruction.

They've also started a Saturday school program and invited 50 pupils to participate.

Dasher Green Elementary staff members spent the summer coming up with a "miracle schedule" that gives teachers extra time to work with struggling pupils, and have adopted a school ritual, in which youngsters hold hands in a circle every morning and afternoon and state their personal goals aloud.

"For years, we had an attendance issue," Principal Sue Goglia said. "We'd have 25 to 30 kids 10 to 15 minutes late in the morning. That's been cut by 50 percent or more because the kids want to come in and be part of the circle. That's pretty cool."

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