Two years ago the Barclay School was in the eye of a storm.
The school's proposal to adopt a private school curriculum had started a battle that pitted the mayor against then-Superintendent Richard C. Hunter and eventually led to Dr. Hunter's ouster. There were newspaper stories and meetings, accusations and counteraccusations, and months of bitterness.
Now Dr. Hunter is gone, the Barclay experiment is entering its second year, and the curriculum that generated such controversy has sheltered the Charles Village school from the turbulence typical of Baltimore schools.
Along with the rigorous curriculum of the nearby private Calvert School, a stability has come to Barclay's early grades.
Teachers who might not have been sure of their class assignment until well into September now know months in advance what they'll be teaching, and to whom. Curriculum materials, from crayons to workbooks, are in place by the first day of school -- no textbook shortages or delays.
The budget is guaranteed, and the teachers can't suddenly be reassigned. Most important, there are no sudden shifts in direction. The superintendent may change -- he did, in fact -- but the program continues.
"On Sept. 3 when school started, these children walked in here and started their learning experience," says Gertrude Williams, principal of the elementary-middle school. "These children have a head start."
With class sizes capped at 25, compared with as many as 40 in previous years, and an assistant for each teacher, the stage is set for learning. And in the structured Barclay-Calvert program, which emphasizes writing, teachers say that children from all backgrounds are learning apace.
Though a detailed evaluation by a Johns Hopkins University researcher won't be ready until this fall, the early signs are promising. Writing samples have impressed Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the state school board and the Abell Foundation.
"It's well worth the money," he said.
Parents are pleased, and children are eager to come to school. Ms. Williams estimates attendance in the Barclay-Calvert program at 97 percent.
The school, where 65 percent of the students qualify for free meals because of low income levels, boasts an overall attendance rate of 90 percent.
"They have a lot of reason to think they're succeeding so far," said Sam Stringfield, principal research scientist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Research on Effective Schooling for Disadvantaged Students, who will evaluate the program using tests commonly used in private schools. "It's a very well-integrated curriculum and it's being beautifully implemented."
The Barclay-Calvert program began in September 1990, two years after parents submitted their proposal.
Dr. Hunter rejected it, saying that the plan ran counter to his aim of establishing "a single agenda" for the school system.
The superintendent's decision was at odds with Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's philosophy of granting more power to individual schools. The mayor overruled the superintendent. With $500,000 funding over four years provided by the Abell Foundation, the experiment finally began with kindergarten and first grade.
This year, it expanded to second grade, including 150 of the school's approximately 600 students. By the time funding runs out, the Calvert curriculum will be in place in kindergarten through fourth grade.
The curriculum emphasizes basic skills, with heavy doses of writing. Children start out writing in cursive script, instead of printing. Their progression is structured, spelled out in lessons that build one upon the other, year after year. "It spirals," Ms. Williams said.
Great attention is paid to parent involvement and teacher training. Curriculum coordinator Peg Licht, a veteran teacher on loan from the Calvert School, works with teachers and has regular contact with parents.
Each student starts the day by shaking hands with Ms. Licht, and she meets monthly with all children to review their work.
Children are responsible for correcting their own work daily. It is then checked by a teacher. Neatness, accuracy and attention to detail are as important as content. Children's work is displayed on bulletin boards and kept in folders that go home monthly. At the end of the year, the child's work is bound in a leathery black VTC binder with "Barclay-Calvert" embossed in gold.
The sense of pride and competence is palpable among students.
"I have nice handwriting," says 7-year-old Rushawna Melenyah. "And I'm good in spelling."
"I know all my numbers," boasts Jasphur Montgomery, a kindergartner who is sitting with his classmates on a blue carpet provided by the program. Each square on the carpet shows an object with its name, and in the center are numbers and letters.
Sofia Hamed goes one better. "I know my ABCs and all my numbers," she said.
A look through Shaneka Venable's first-grade work illustrates the steady progression of learning that Barclay-Calvert seeks. First are pages of letters in wobbly cursive script. Then simple sentences. "I see a little rat," and "A rat is in a car."
Soon, the sentences become little compositions of connected ideas: "I see a little rat. It can run. It is in a little red car."
By Mother's Day, Shaneka is off and running in a composition on her mother, neatly written in a precise script:
"My mother is terrific! My mother's hair is black. Her eyes are brown. She is small. She cooks every day. She takes care of her parents. She keeps our house clean. My mother's job is to sell meat. She looks wonderful in her blue sparkle and purple dress."
"See how it grows," says Peg Licht. "By leaps."
Patricia Jones' son, Brandon, is now a second-grader. "In first grade, he did a composition every week," she says. "I've never known a first-grader to have composition in public school."
Natasha Parker's son, Dominic Wynn, 6, missed only one day of school last year -- when he went to the hospital to accompany his mother and new baby brother home. "They expect a lot of the children, and so far the children have done fine," she said.
The program expects a lot of parents, too. Parents are asked to spend at least 30 minutes with their child each night. A letter home at the start of the year spelled out their assignments for the week: Monday night -- Have your child spell his 10 vocabulary words to you. Discuss the composition topic with him. Tuesday night -- Dictate the new spelling words.
"Helping Dominic with his homework, it was like I was back in school," Ms. Parker says.
The first trickle of test score data hint at the children's progress. The year before the program started, 39 first-graders scored below the 32nd percentile in the Critical Test of Basic Skills, qualifying for the federally funded Chapter One program for disadvantaged students.
This year, only nine of the 50 first-graders scored below the 32nd percentile, Ms. Williams said.
If the program is successful, a challenge awaits at the end of four years. Will the school system or some other sponsor continue to pay for its expansion into higher grades? Mr. Embry says that the Abell Foundation is not in the business of providing ongoing funding.
Jo Ann Robinson, head of the Barclay Community Council, which led the fight for the Barclay-Calvert program, says that the community will fight to keep what it has gained.
"There's a real sense of ownership there throughout the whole community," she said. "One way or another, the strength that we're starting here isn't going to get lost."