In Baltimore, word has been out about the off-the-charts test scores at George Washington Elementary, where nearly nine in 10 students are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. The wall in the office is filled with plaques and letters of commendation from Maryland's politicians.
Yesterday, the classrooms erupted in applause as Principal Susan Burgess delivered big news over the loudspeaker: The Pigtown school was awarded one of the nation's highest honors in education. The U.S. Department of Education named George Washington one of seven No Child Left Behind-Blue Ribbon Schools in Maryland and one of 287 in the country.
"I never dreamed that this would happen," said Burgess. "We just wanted to do what's best for kids."
Winning a national Blue Ribbon award, which recognizes either academic excellence or major gains in achievement, is a victory for any school. The others in Maryland celebrating yesterday: Red House Run Elementary and Hereford Middle in Baltimore County, Burleigh Manor Middle and River Hill High in Howard County, and St. Andrew Apostle School and Winston Churchill High in Montgomery County.
The schools will be recognized next month at a ceremony in Washington.
At George Washington, Burgess inherited a school in 2003 in which only 32 percent of third-graders had passed the state test in reading. By this spring, that pass rate had skyrocketed to 97 percent. And 63 percent of third-graders scored at the advanced level on the test, meaning they not only passed it but then reached a higher benchmark.
State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick called the achievement "stunning" and "amazing." In an e-mail to The Sun, city schools chief Andres Alonso wrote: "It shows what we can achieve with hard work, collaboration, high expectations and respect for every student's potential to learn. It's a school that accepts no excuses."
State officials noted a handful of other Maryland schools serving high-poverty populations that have been honored as national Blue Ribbon Schools in recent years - but none with a population as poor as George Washington's. They include Glenarden Woods Elementary in Prince George's County, Viers Mill Elementary in Montgomery County, Bainbridge Elementary in Cecil County, and another of this year's winners: Red House Run, in Baltimore County's Rosedale neighborhood.
In the city, meanwhile, the list of past national Blue Ribbon Schools is short. Patapsco Elementary won in 1997 but is now on the state's list of failing schools. Baltimore City College, which has admissions criteria and admits some of the city's brightest students, won in 2000.
A handful of others - Polytechnic Institute, Roland Park Elementary/Middle and Bentalou Elementary - have won state Blue Ribbon awards.
Since George Washington won the state award in December, Burgess has often been asked how her school does it.
First off, she says, George Washington is a small school. With about 20 children to a class and 250 students in all, staff members get to know all the families and can provide support when needed.
While the school follows the city's curriculum, it's not afraid to take risks. When teachers have a suggestion, the school usually incorporates it. Teachers spend a lot of time working together and attending professional development sessions beyond what's required. Turnover is very low.
George Washington partners with the YMCA to offer social services and three hours a day of after-school activities. Kids take field trips to the Inner Harbor's attractions, within walking distance. "As close as these places are, the kids have never been there," Burgess said.
Girls attend etiquette classes and have a cotillion. This year, students will learn about opera singing and clay sculpting. In 2005, Laura Bush visited to recognize the school's success with a good-behavior program.
Little things make a big difference. On test days, the staff makes sure students have a good breakfast. Last spring, the third-grade teachers brought in pancakes.
A few years ago, the Baltimore Believe campaign donated paint in fluorescent colors, and school staff members painted the hallways themselves. Only the stairwells have the old paint, a dreary "Pepto pink," as Burgess calls it, for its resemblance to Pepto-Bismol.
Fourth-graders offered their own ideas yesterday about what makes them successful.
"Every day we come to school and put in effort, and our teachers teach us everything they can teach us," said 9-year-old Malcom Monroe.
"The teachers take their time to teach us to make us better and have a good life when we grow up," added Alyshia Zerwonka, also 9.