Lessons learned

July 02, 2004

THE RELIEF is palpable. Principal Pamela Terry's academic year just ended with celebrations for students, staff, parents and business partners as George G. Kelson Elementary-Middle in Baltimore achieved a milestone seven years in the making: At last, it has shed the stigma of being a "reconstitution-eligible" school.

Preliminary results from this winter's Maryland School Assessments show improvement enough to move Ms. Terry's school -- and 17 others in the Baltimore metro region, 25 in all statewide -- off the state's list of schools needing improvement.

What succeeded differs from schoolhouse to schoolhouse. But the common theme of top-notch leadership emerged again and again in interviews with school administrators and staff, including technical consultants supplied to some of these schools by the state, and federal education officials: The buck stops, and the collaboration to pull a community around a school begins, in the principal's office.

In addition, there are lessons learned that districts should catalog and share for the benefit of the 32 other Baltimore schools just ordered to undergo major overhauls, and the altogether 199 schools statewide that have failed for one year or more to make "adequate yearly progress."

Among them:

Progress can be made despite the obstacles created by many children's economic and home circumstances. It requires a no-excuses attitude, a comprehensive recovery plan that every staff member rallies around, as much parent participation as can be marshaled, and solid support from community institutions, including churches, foundations and businesses. Money matters, but support doesn't have to come in dollars.

At Kelson, Ms. Terry said, even the first hour of after-school programs run by area nonprofit groups is based on the school's learning plan. Back in 1997, when Maryland designated the school "reconstitution-eligible," only 3.9 percent of students earned satisfactory scores on the six state tests then used to measure progress. This spring, 59.5 percent of third-graders passed the math test currently used, and several were marked "advanced"; 59 percent passed the reading test.

Schools should invest for the long term: That requires commitment to a curriculum refined to reflect the state's learning goals, expert analysis of student work and test results, and year-round professional development for teachers.

Federal Hill Preparatory had gone on the reconstitution list in 1999. Today, administrators attribute its progress to a decision to give children something that will stick, and benefit them far longer than the short-term gains they might achieve by devoting time to test preparation skills and drills. They focused on teaching, and incorporated the learning goals for reading and writing into their science and social studies programs.

Perhaps those who've cleared the reform hurdle can show the way to others.

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