Pupils put learning into orbit

Astronaut helps kids at Rosemont explore math and science


As he circled the block yesterday, searching for parking at a West Baltimore elementary school, Lt. Col. Terry W. Virts, a NASA astronaut and featured morning guest, received assistance from unlikely sources.

"Some of the [kids'] moms were waving at me, telling me which way to go," said Virts, who was dressed in his blue NASA uniform. "Then the kids, they knew my name as I was pulling up. They were so well behaved. That's pretty impressive."

Yesterday, Virts visited Rosemont Elementary School as part of the NASA Explorer School program, which was created to stimulate interest in science, mathematics and technology.

Once on the state's takeover list for failing schools, Rosemont, which is operated by Coppin State University, last year was accepted into the NASA program.

Virts, a five-year NASA veteran and Oakland Mills High School graduate, addressed most of Rosemont's 389 pupils during two one-hour assemblies, relaying the excitement of life in the space program and answering questions ranging from whether water exists on Mars to how to use the bathroom in space.

"I'm the first person in my family to go to college," Virts told the pupils. "I grew up just a few miles from here in western Baltimore."

During Virts' talk, which lasted about 30 minutes, the kids remained relatively quiet, even when it ended. There was walking instead of running. There was no loud talking and no horseplay.

Under the leadership of Principal Sandra Ashe, there is a renewed focus on manners, attention to detail and respect for authority, a philosophy she calls "the Rosemont way." Ashe has used those principles to help transform the school and raise the test scores.

Nationwide, 150 schools are participating in the NASA Explorer School program. Rosemont and Eastern Middle in Silver Spring are the only Maryland schools involved.

The schools receive up to $17,500 over the course of three years. Rosemont devotes 60 days an academic school year to technology and design challenges relating to science and mathematics.

Goddard Space Flight Center, one of 10 NASA field centers responsible for implementing the program, oversees Rosemont.

"Look at this school," said Alissa Kuseske, Explorer Schools coordinator for Goddard, after the first assembly. "This is the best example of how the partnership can work. We bring in scientists and researchers to work with the teachers to answer kids' questions and do programs with the school."

Ashe says NASA's involvement has raised her pupils' awareness of opportunities in the sciences and math.

Ashe and four other members of her staff attended a one-week workshop at Goddard shortly after the school was awarded the designation last April and have worked many of NASA's concepts into the school's curriculum.

Coppin wooed Ashe away from John Eager Howard Elementary School five years ago.

Coppin took over Rosemont in 1997 and is credited with helping to turn the school around. Rosemont was honored in 2004 by the state for doing well on a battery of standardized tests.

Ashe, who is as quick to hug a pupil as she is to sternly say, "I'm listening, and I'm watching," also has forged a partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Rosemont will add seventh grade next year and eighth grade in the 2007-2008 school year.

"I'm not saying that we don't have any disruptive students," said Ashe, who estimates 91 percent of her pupils are at the poverty level or below. "But what we do with them is a little bit different."

NaQuaa McGarrell, a sixth-grader, said forums such as yesterday's give him and his classmates a chance to find out more about the planets.

"This is very fun. We learn and get to explore a whole lot," he said.

After the first assembly, NaQuaa cornered Virts and fired off a handful of questions. Virts answered them all, and the conversation ended only because NaQuaa had to go to music rehearsal.

It reinforced the opinion Virts drew shortly after he arrived at the school.

"Those are great kids," Virts said. "They really are."


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