Small Garrett County school ranks No. 1 in test scores

The best elementary schools in the state come in all sizes and areas, from a small school filled with low-income students in the far reaches of Western Maryland to a midsize one in a wealthy neighborhood of Anne Arundel County.

Of the 874 elementary schools in the state, Crellin Elementary, a schoolhouse nestled in a coal mining area that has amassed a collection of prizes for leadership, environmental teaching and character education, is the school with the highest pass rate on the Maryland School Assessment.

With an average 100 percent pass rate, the 100 students at Crellin edged out Anne Arundel County's Benfield Elementary, a school whose students live in neighborhoods along the banks of the Severn River.

The rankings were done by The Baltimore Sun after analysis of the state's MSA data. State officials released the annual report card on reading and math Tuesday.

The differences in achievement between the top 10 schools was tenths of a percentage point. All had more than 98 percent of their students passing the state test. As the principals describe them, there is much that is similar about the schools.

Principals said they are serious about teaching students, but just as important is raising children to understand what it means to be productive citizens and caring for their social and mental health. Principals also emphasized the strong support from parents who will go to great lengths to help the schools.

"We have really opened up the school and taken the walls down so the whole community becomes the school," said Dana McCauley, principal of Crellin. "Our parents are one of the most valuable tools we have. They will roll up their sleeves and do whatever we ask them." That includes building a playground that incorporates vestiges of the town's history.

After noticing that acid mine drainage had turned the stream behind the school yellow, students decided to investigate. That led to the establishment of a 5-acre environmental education laboratory behind the school where students get hands-on instruction. Fifth-graders won the President's Environmental Youth Award in 2006-2007.

McCauley, who was Maryland's Principal of the Year in 2009, teaches three hours every day, and her own children have attended the school.

Carole Quental, principal of Fifth District Elementary, said her school has students whose parents and grandparents have gone there. The school, which ranked fifth and is in a rural area of Baltimore County, focuses on helping students develop a strong belief system and a social consciousness. The high ranking of the school will be impressive to her parents, she said, but the school has a long tradition of offering a good education. Each year, she said, her parents collectively clock 6,000 hours of volunteer time.

"We have a wonderful staff that collaborates regularly," she said.

Benfield's principal, Teresa Sacchetti, said: "We prefer to nurture the whole child" rather than focus on just achievement. "It is not just academics here at Benfield," she said, so they look at the social and physical development of children. Teachers work in teams and "do whatever it takes to solve a problem," she said.

Of all the elementary schools in the state, the top achievers come mostly from Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Montgomery counties, although Howard, Garrett, Carroll and Dorchester counties also have a school in the top 15. And Thomas Johnson, in South Baltimore, came in ninth place.

But the rankings also show that more than a third of the schools in the state — 351 — have pass rates above 90 percent. Schools with rates at 70 percent are considered low achievers.

The rankings of middle schools showed that far fewer schools are achieving at the highest levels compared with elementary schools. The best schools had slightly fewer students passing, and fewer schools had a 90 percent pass rate.

The list was dominated by Prince George's, Howard and Montgomery counties.

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

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