WALK INTO Claudia Robinson's sixth-grade math class at Lakeland Elementary/Middle School and you wonder if you've just crossed over into the Twilight Zone.
There they were, about 20 to 25 pupils, hunched over their math books, working steadily, distracted minimally, if at all, by the conversation their teacher was having with the school's principal and a pesky columnist.
"If this school had a gifted and talented math class," Robinson said, "this would be it."
But wait a second: This isn't supposed to happen in Baltimore City classrooms. Or at least the standardized test results of city students -- which in too many cases are below statewide and national averages -- indicate that it doesn't happen often enough.
So Robinson's class is a happy anomaly. The teacher said her class left sixth-grade math behind quite a spell back. It's on to pre-algebra and possibly algebra now.
"They have a confidence about mathematics," Robinson told me and Jacqueline Ferris, Lakeland's principal for the past four years. "And they're very competitive."
Some of the pupils are on Lakeland's National Academic League team, which recently placed second in its conference with a 7-1 record. Other pupils compete to see who scores the highest on tests in the class.
"Sarah," Robinson asked one, "what do I expect students to make on tests?"
"One hundred," Sarah answered. "And if we get less than 100 we get The Speech."
The Speech is the one Robinson gives about the need for accuracy in math.
"You wouldn't want to build a bridge unless you had the math accurate," Robinson stressed.
Students in other classrooms were as busy as those in Robinson's. Bernadett Wardlaw's science class had just finished conducting experiments on Newton's Third Law of Motion. Yesterday, Matthew Hudock's social studies class was comparing the five pillars of Islam to the seven sacraments of Roman Catholicism.
In Danielle Breese's science lab, an enthusiastic pupil asked Ferris, "Would you like to look at my bacteria?" Breese explained that the bacteria -- which students peered at through microscopes -- had come from yogurt cultures.
Sounds like learning going on at this school doesn't it?
Four years ago, Ferris took over Lakeland, which is in Southwest Baltimore just off Patapsco Avenue near the Baltimore County line. According to data taken from the Maryland State Department of Education Web site, the school has experienced gains on the Terra Nova test in reading and math for grades one through five for the past five years. Lakeland surpassed its average yearly progress goals -- which are set by the state -- in all categories but one. And 71 percent of Lakeland's eighth-graders will attend citywide magnet high schools in September.
This is no minor achievement in a school system carrying the burden of a $58 million deficit and experiencing a cash-flow problem of similar proportions that has required a $42 million city loan bailout.
So how did Lakeland do it? Ferris credited the teachers, the parents who come in to volunteer, her assistant principals, Robert Webb and Reada Nelson, academic coaches Hazel Hopewell, Jeannette Davis and Linda Ludwig, and technical assistant Cynthia Caldwell.
The academic coaching positions are the brainchild of former schools Chief Academic Officer Cassandra W. Jones, who got a pink slip and a boot out the door this month for her efforts. Jones has said she was fired because she sent a letter to state and local lawmakers and others saying the system's deficit could not be blamed on academic programs she initiated. The school board was mum on her dismissal.
If you haven't heard of the technical assistant position, that's not surprising.
The technical assistants -- former principals from across Maryland -- are assigned to schools by state schools Superintendent Nancy Grasmick's office. They help evaluate teachers, work with new teachers, serve on school improvement teams and set up monthly professional development activities.
"The technical assistant has been a lot of help for me," Ferris said yesterday. Much of that help stems from their experience as principals.
"That's nice for me," Ferris said. "To have a sounding board, somebody who's been there, done that."
Ferris believes Caldwell has been as instrumental as anyone else in Lakeland's turnaround. But don't expect anyone within Baltimore's political hierarchy to mention the role technical assistants have played in the rise in test scores. The way it seems to go, politicians try to take credit for the schools' academic gains while placing blame for the budget mess elsewhere. That approach hasn't fooled Ferris, and it probably hasn't fooled many others.
"We're all in this together," Ferris said, "and we all have to roll in the same direction."
The blame game certainly isn't going to help Jon Kmetz, who was busy yesterday teaching English to five Hispanic students. Kmetz has been at Lakeland two years, and he isn't sure he'll be there -- though he's desperately needed -- in September.
"I'm really worried," Kmetz said of the impact of the budget deficit. "I love working here, and I love Baltimore, but some days I feel I've signed onto a sinking ship."
There wouldn't even be a chance of that happening if school officials -- and those politicos patting themselves on the back for the work teachers are doing -- applied the principle from a sign Ferris has hanging on her office wall.
"Anyone here not fired with enthusiasm, will be!"