When the strongest vibrations of Tuesday's earthquake struck during the first day of school in Anne Arundel County, students at Wiley Bates Middle School in Annapolis heeded evacuation instructions blared over the public address system and filed out of the building without much commotion.

When the students were outside, about a dozen approached Principal Diane Bragdon, asking whether it was a drill.

"I guess they thought I could simulate shaking the building or something," said Bragdon. Though that's not probable, she and her faculty led Bates last year to the kind of academic progress that has created rumblings throughout the Anne Arundel County school system.

A school often criticized for failing to meet state adequate yearly progress targets under the No Child Left Behind Act, Bates has entered this school year primed to continue last school year's success, when it met all yearly targets. In 2010, the school failed to meet targets in a dozen areas. If Bates meets them this year, it will leave the school improvement process, which schools enter after failing to meet annual academic targets for consecutive years.

Under the No Child Left Behind Act, all students are expected to be proficient in reading and math by 2014.

"There's great work going on at Bates Middle School," Superintendent Kevin Maxwell said earlier Tuesday when students arrived for the first day of the academic year. "We're just thrilled at their success. The integrated arts curriculum that we put in a couple of years ago and supplementing it with a performing and visual arts magnet has really helped turned this school from one that was struggling to make [annual yearly progress targets] to one that made objectives in every single category."

Under that approach, instruction incorporates art such as music and theater into math, reading and other subjects. The school's performing and visual arts program immerses students in the arts while giving them instruction in the sciences, social studies, classical languages and other subjects.

The magnet program enables students to study such disciplines as instrumental and vocal music, dance, creative writing and movement.

Julie Flanagan of Edgewater praised the school's performing and visual arts program as her sixth-grade daughter, Mikaela, begins the transition to middle school. "She's been looking forward to it; she's going into the PVA program in dance, so she's excited about that," Flanagan said.

In addition to the arts approach, the school has also emphasized other factors such as parent involvement and behavior supports for students. Bates has seen a more than 30-percentage point increase in the number of students passing MSA tests over the past six years, Bragdon says.

"We've worked very hard teaching our content standards through the arts," said Bragdon, who has been an educator for 29 years and is in her 10th year as a principal, seven of those at Bates.

"The arts have raised engagement and motivation in our students," Bragdon added. "It's a very effective way to teach the core subjects. We've started to feel validated about that, because our rise in test scores is very solid now."

Bragdon said that Bates students have relished the school's progress as well but do not get concerned about individual test scores.

"They're very proud of their school for that designation of meeting adequate yearly progress," she said. "We have shared that with them, and they know that all the hard work paid off."

The day after students endured the surprising earthquake, they were treated with a pep rally to start the school day, an event that included a disc jockey and visits from the Ravens and Orioles mascots. Bragdon said the pep rally had been planned well in advance.

Still, she said, it was a good way to return after such an eventful first day of the year.

"It was a very unusual start to the school year, that's for certain," Bragdon said. "Now many of the kids are saying they'll never forget their first day of middle school. It will be memorable, and it seems that kids have processed it in a very positive way."

joseph.burris@baltsun.com

  • Text NEWS to 70701 to get Baltimore Sun local news text alerts