Elementary aims to boost performance

Van Bokkelen gives state its plans for improvement

`We're doing what we need'

Small classes, new staff, extra instruction all ideas

March 14, 2004|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

Officials at Van Bokkelen Elementary School in Severn are gearing up for major changes starting this summer that they hope will help Van Bokkelen shake off its status as Anne Arundel County's lowest-performing school.

Tomorrow is the deadline for Van Bokkelen to submit a self-improvement plan to the State Department of Education that would give pupils three extra weeks of instruction, reduce class sizes and replace staff, if needed.

Seventy other Maryland schools are in the same boat, labeled by state education officials as in need of "restructuring." The schools will find out next month whether their plans are acceptable to the state.

How drastic the changes at Van Bokkelen will be depends on how well the school's third- and fifth-graders performed on standardized state tests that ended last week.

Test results will be distributed in early June, and if pupils failed for a second year in a row to meet the state's gradually increasing targets, the school could see teachers or even its principal replaced this fall.

"We've monitored Van Bokkelen very closely and supported it very much," said Superintendent Eric J. Smith. "I'm very optimistic about what we're going to see."

Last year, the 455-pupil school failed by a narrow margin in a single area: Fifth-graders eligible for free or reduced-price meals missed the target on the math portion of the Maryland School Assessment by a tenth of a percent.

That was enough for state officials to order the school to begin the restructuring process.

The state, nudged by the 2001 federal No Child Left Behind Act, has begun to hold schools responsible for the failings of certain groups of pupils, from the poor to the learning disabled to minorities.

But officials at Van Bokkelen -- where about 65 percent of pupils qualify for subsidized meals -- hope they have turned a corner.

They say their pupils have benefited from more than a year's worth of a better math and reading curriculum, ordered by Superintendent Eric J. Smith in summer 2002.

And a third of the pupils voluntarily enrolled in an academic program last summer designed to bridge the vacation months. Research shows that children from disadvantaged backgrounds lose more academic ground during summer vacation than children from affluent families.

"We don't worry because we know that we're doing what we need for our children and our population," said Principal Rose Tasker, who was brought in eight years ago when the school was threatened with state takeover under Maryland's previous school performance program.

Regardless of what the June test results show, the coming school year at Van Bokkelen will be very different. For one thing, it will arrive sooner: Van Bokkelen pupils will start school in August six days before the rest of the county's public school students.

Add to that the extra 20 minutes that they will spend in class a day -- time they used to spend eating a free breakfast in class with their teacher -- and Van Bokkelen pupils will get roughly three weeks more of instruction over the course of the year than other county pupils. (Breakfast will be served in the cafeteria at 7:10 a.m., instead of 7:40 a.m.)

Teachers will report to work for six additional days during the summer for a staff retreat and to train and plan for the coming year, and they will hold a summer orientation for students and parents.

The plan also calls for classes to shrink. Class sizes at Van Bokkelen are 17 to 25 pupils, and are on a par or slightly smaller than the rest of the county.

Next year, each classroom teacher will have only 15 pupils. That's a better ratio than the 1:20 mandated by the state for kindergartners, the lowest ratio required.

Those two changes alone thrill Tasker.

"I've always known that smaller classes would make a difference," Tasker said. "I've always known that more time on task would make a difference."

But Tasker will get even more help. The school system, which oversaw the creation of the improvement plan, will spend extra money to make sure Van Bokkelen has a more stable teacher force than it typically has had.

Pending the availability of funds, new teachers will be offered signing bonuses if they agree to stay at least five years. And those who contribute to the school's success will get performance bonuses.

It would cost an estimated $500,000 to pay for those bonuses and to lengthen the school year, according to Smith.

The extra teachers needed to establish the smaller class sizes will come from Van Bokkelen's staff. Certain staff members, such as an intervention specialist, do not teach a full class.

"What's important for people to recognize is that this kind of progress doesn't come easily, and there is a cost to it," Smith said.

The superintendent said he is reserving judgment on whether any teachers or administrators need to be moved because he is optimistic that Van Bokkelen will hit its mark. "I certainly would not want to do anything to break up or harm a team that's successful," Smith said.

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