At Golden Ring, teachers chalk it up to teamwork Five are tackling tough tasks together

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In the child-free calm of an empty classroom at Golden Ring Middle School, a small group of teachers is hashing out what to do about their most troubled sixth-graders.

The teachers agree that a hyperactive preteen who chatters and squirms her way through every class can't be allowed to distract other students any longer.

"She's not capable of controlling herself," says math teacher Brenda Riggs, who attributes some of the behavior to "big problems" at home. The girl's parents are separated and have had some ugly confrontations in front of her.

But everyone senses there's more to it. After watching her disrupt their classes for six months, the teachers suspect the sixth-grader is emotionally disturbed.

With the approval of the assistant principal, Thor Ramsland, the group orders a pediatric evaluation to try to learn the cause of the girl's behavior. Then they turn their attention to the next name on their list -- a boy who has already missed 30 days of school.

Discussions like these are routine for Mrs. Riggs, Mary Louise Kleman, Deanne Panighetti, Betty Jean Rounsaville and Jackie Nesbitt, who meet twice a week at this northeastern Baltimore County school and spend countless hours on the phone with each other at night.

Although they teach different subjects, their classes are made up of the same 135 students, who are divided into five sections according to ability and move from teacher to teacher. Together, the teachers work as a team to educate, discipline and mother the 11- and 12-year-olds assigned to them.

"It takes a tremendous amount of time," says Mrs. Kleman, a science teacher and the leader of team 6A. "But we don't have problems with [most of] our kids, and that's because we're on top of them."

Team teaching isn't unique to Golden Ring. Middle schools across the country are trying the technique to ease the transition from a sheltered elementary classroom to the impersonal sprawl of high school.

In Maryland, three-quarters of the state's middle schools use some form of team teaching, estimates Eileen Oickle, a specialist in middle and high school learning for the Maryland Department of Education.

Although little research has been done on the effectiveness of teams, educators believe they create a more nurturing, structured environment for children in the throes of puberty.

"It's really wonderful for kids to have that environment," Ms. Oickle says. "They're not just lost in the shuffle."

Students who don't get the help they need in middle school often wind up on the fast track to failure in high school, barely graduating or dropping out. "Some people refer to middle schools as the last great chance" to make a difference in children's lives, Ms. Oickle says.

Grabbing that chance is important at a school like Golden Ring.

Housed in the old Kenwood High School building, Golden Ring draws its 770 students from established blue-collar neighborhoods like Rosedale and more transient, federally subsidized developments like Fontana Village.

About one-third of the children are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches. The vast majority of students come from homes where both parents work or only one parent is present.

Team 6A gives its students the kind of close supervision families and neighborhoods used to provide.

"Those poor babies don't know what hit them," says social studies teacher Mrs. Rounsaville, a large, good-natured woman who radiates maternal warmth. "We've got them coming, and we've got them going."

Even the cleverest sixth-graders find they can't get away with much. News of children missing classes, skipping homework, chomping gum, fighting in the lunchroom or committing other transgressions is passed among the teachers with alarming speed. Punishment is swift.

Zack Kraft, a chunky, blond boy with an endearing grin, knows his teachers will start bugging him to turn in his homework if he forgets to do it too often. And if he doesn't improve, they call his dad.

"I can get in serious trouble," the 12-year-old reports.

The team also rewards the students who behave and work hard in class. Sixth-graders who pass every major subject and get good marks for behavior make the SWAT (Students Who Are Terrific) team and go on special field trips.

Occasionally, two or three teachers will plan lessons together to show students the natural connections between different subjects. A unit on mythology in English may be accompanied by a discussion of the planets in science and a lesson on plotting distances in math.

In theory, interdisciplinary units are one of the main academic advantages of team teaching. But the Golden Ring teachers have little time to coordinate their curriculums. Instead, they concentrate their efforts on keeping their students on track.

The five women bring distinct backgrounds and perspectives to the team.

Mrs. Kleman, a stylish, gregarious teacher who races around school in a white lab coat, began teaching high school three years before her youngest colleague, 28-year-old Miss Panighetti, was born.

Mrs. Nesbitt, a grandmother with a raucous laugh, lived her entire life in a Pennsylvania farm town before she became a teacher at Golden Ring in 1987 at the age of 50.

Mrs. Riggs, a team newcomer with a sweet voice and calm manner, taught every sixth-grade subject during 12 years as an elementary teacher and knows the entire curriculum inside out. Both she and Mrs. Rounsaville have children entering county middle schools next year.

All say they enjoy teaching sixth-graders, who still come to class with the shiny-eyed eagerness of elementary students for all their grown-up posturing.

"They're really inconsistent," says Miss Panighetti, a 4-foot-10-inch taskmaster with dark hair. "Some days they're ready to play with Barbies. Other days they want a car."

Every Monday and Friday, the women gather in Mrs. Kleman's brightly lighted science room, opening folders on the black lab tables and talking non-stop for 50 minutes. At times, they sound like a bunch of sisters sitting around a kitchen table swapping tales about their kids.

Everyone groans about the attitude of one boy, who approaches every lesson with a decided lack of enthusiasm.

"He whines a lot about everything," Mrs. Rounsaville says. "I'll say pull out of piece of paper, and he'll say, 'Oh no, a piece of paper.' "

When the laughter dies down, the teachers agree that the boy is much better since the beginning of the year.

The teachers have handed out interim report cards and are in the process of scheduling conferences with parents.

Depending on the child and the issues being discussed, the number of teachers who attend conferences can range from one to the entire team. Sometimes special subject teachers -- art, music or physical education -- also get called in.

Tom Kraft, who came in for a Monday evening conference with Mrs. Kleman, Mrs. Riggs and Mrs. Nesbitt, has nothing but praise for the team system. He finds it far easier to meet with a group of his son's teachers than to walk from one classroom to another to talk with them individually.

"Any time he gets a little behind, they let me know, and we're up here," Mr. Kraft says. "It's not like the teachers aren't communicating with each other."

But Carol Ruth, another parent and a teacher at Sandy Plains Elementary School, points out that the prospect of meeting with several teachers at one time can be scary for many parents. She remembers her own reaction when she arrived for a conference about her older son, now in ninth grade, and found a team of teachers lined up across from her.

"I was in education, and I was intimidated," Mrs. Ruth says. "What can go wrong is, it's them against you."

Even the most enthusiastic supporters of team teaching acknowledge that its effectiveness depends on the teachers involved and the school support they receive.

Some teachers love working with a group of colleagues; others resent the idea of making any changes to accommodate the team. Some schools give their teams a free period to meet every day; others don't provide any common planning time.

The Golden Ring teachers think their team works because all the members are flexible and respect one another.

"We don't work against each other," Mrs. Kleman says. "We have these sympathetic vibrations with each other. We all agree on what to do."

Sometimes, though, nothing works. The team has run out of ideas on how to motivate one boy who is failing his classes and will probably flunk sixth grade.

"He has more ability than anyone in his class," Mrs. Riggs says in disgust. "I can't put a pencil in his hand and make him write. At some point, the responsibility is his."

No one holds out much hope that another pep talk from the assistant principal will produce results. But the discussion gives the teachers a chance to vent their frustration.

"If nothing else, we commiserate with one another," Mrs. Kleman says.

For the teachers, that's the beauty of being on team, Miss Panighetti says. "You're not alone," she explains. "Five become one and face the problem."

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