'Every child is so special' Teaching firm bound for Baltimore gets rave reviews

THE BALTIMORE SUN

MIAMI BEACH -- Forget the curriculum's mysterious name -- "Tesseract" -- or the slightly chaotic atmosphere.

What's going on at South Pointe Elementary School -- and what Baltimore officials hope to bring to nine city schools next fall -- is a celebration of educational common sense.

There are two teachers in every classroom, scores of volunteers working with students, computers for everybody, an enthusiastic principal, a hand-picked teaching corps and a brand-new building.

"Everything that you read about what is right for children is what we're doing," says Principal Patricia A. Parham.

South Pointe, a flashy neo-Art Deco school at the run-down south end of Miami Beach, is thought to be the first public school in the nation to be run by a private company.

Education Alternatives Inc. (EAI) will bring Tesseract to nine Baltimore schools in September.

It will be one of the grand experiments in privatizing public schools in the nation's history. And it will take some getting used to.

OC It's morning "center" time in a kindergarten classroom, and the

room is vibrating with activity.

Each child has chosen a work center. Five-year-old Jeffrey Brun draws on a chalkboard. Two little girls do a puzzle on the floor. Two boys work on their alphabets and spelling on computers in (( one corner. Six students draw at a table. Nearby, a teacher works on reading with another five children.

"You won't find many children off-task," says Mrs. Parham.

Into the controlled chaos comes a visitor: Yanick Brun, Jeffrey's mother, who has stopped by to hug her son. A native of Haiti, Ms. Brun is thrilled with South Pointe.

"They make them feel like every child is so special," she says. "He says my teachers love me. He never used to say that."

Her daughter, Sandra, a fourth-grader, has shot ahead in math, and Jeffrey is thriving, she says. For the first time, she says, she knows just what is going on at school. "The teachers let you know every little thing that's going on."

In the library, which is crammed with books, magazines and computers, fourth-graders are working on reports about constellations. There are plenty of reference books to go around. The kids draw copies of Cancer and Pisces, but they also create their own constellations, complete with a story.

A couple of dozen smaller children peer at computer screens, working on spelling. Some who can barely read work without words, trying to figure out which computerized lollipop they want.

Abe Paul, a 74-year-old retiree, sits at a table reading "The Missing Tooth" to first-grader Tamaso Fonseca, a twinkly boy with a mane of brown hair.

Mr. Paul volunteered at South Pointe after his wife died, he had a stroke and his support group kicked him out, telling him he needed to do something else.

"The school is strange to me," he says. "Right now, the way things are going, we have to try something.

"It remains to be seen if it will work."

Some 2,000 visitors have trooped through South Pointe since it opened in September, all eager to see the future.

Dade County made history when it signed an agreement with Minnesota-based Education Alternatives Inc. to run the new school for five years. Under the deal, the company provides the curriculum, trains the staff and raises extra money for the school. It was also supposed to take a fee for itself. So far, it has made nothing from the project, except for the enormous good will generated by dozens of glowing newspaper and television reports.

The company ran two private schools in Minnesota and Arizona. South Pointe is EAI's first public school.

The company grabbed Pat Parham and her 32 years of schooexperience. EAI gave her and an assistant a year to prepare and sent them to Minnesota to work at the company's private school.

With the first year almost finished, the tangible results are stilout. Students have finished their standardized tests, which will measure their progress against more traditional schools. There is nothing magical about Tesseract, the school's teaching style, which takes its name from a form of travel through dimensions in a children's book by Madeleine L'Engle.

Its creators borrowed some of the directed activities from Montessori schools and the freedom of open classrooms. Teachers rarely lecture. Students are given freedom to plan their days.

Parents meet with teachers before the beginning of school to figure out student goals for the year. For fourth-grader Lana Labrousse, for example, this year's goals were "to improve in math" and "to excel at a higher level."

There are no traditional grades to stigmatize students, nor are there gold stars.

About the only textbooks the students use are for math. Even then, each child is on a different page. There are few traditional work sheets, and students read real books, not Dick-and-Jane primers.

Teachers encourage students to write. They discuss reports, but in the early years refrain from marking up the mistakes. "Spelling comes later," says Mrs. Parham.

Teachers must learn not to "ssshh" their students, and the usual answer to a request from a student is "yes." Students are punished, but they often come up with their own solutions to behavioral problems. Teachers meet with parents four times during the year and send home two detailed reports.

"She has shown progress in reading since school has begun, third-grade teacher Beth Rosenthal wrote about one of her students in February. "She tries very hard and knows many new words. She understands addition and subtraction and will soon be learning multiplication."

There are also suggestions: "Although she is progressing in reading since the start of school, she would benefit from reading books that are on her level each night."

Teacher-student exchanges

Twelve-year-old Rockery Whitfield is in the principal's office, not for punishment but to read his special report on basketball hero Michael Jordan.

Sporting a Jordan T-shirt and a small earring in his left ear, Rockery plows through his report. Mrs. Parham and lead teacher Linda Lentin listen.

He finishes and the two women -- both veterans with more than 30 years of school experience -- exclaim as though it's the first student report they've ever heard.

"How do you feel about it?" asks Mrs. Parham.

"Good," Rockery says.

"You should," says Mrs. Lentin.

Later, Mrs. Parham asks Rockery and fellow fifth-grader Rafael Rivera for some help. She has brought in a life-size cardboard cutout of Michael Jordan, but his head has been folded in half.

In her sweetest Southern drawl, Mrs. Parham asks the boys if they can think of a way to fix it. The boys look a little puzzled. "You can go out and talk about it. Ask someone for help, if you need it," she tells them.

The two fifth-graders return in a minute with a stapler.

"What will a staple do to Michael's face?" Mrs. Parham asks. Again the boys look stumped. Patiently, Mrs. Parham coaxes the boys into rethinking their stapling plan.

"Rafael is the most auditory child you have ever met," she confides to a visitor. "You have to find him projects, or he'll drive you crazy."

Finally, the boys return with a ruler and a roll of tape.

They know they have figured it out and they are smiling.

"How do you feel about that?"

"Proud," they say.

The next day, Mrs. Lentin runs into Rockery in the hallway and asks about how Mr. Jordan and his Chicago Bulls teammates did the night before. Rockery is down: The Bulls lost.

As he leaves, Mrs. Lentin calls out, "Rockery." He stops and turns. "I love you," she says.

Rockery says something only he can hear and walks away.

Unpromising neighborhood

South Pointe sits on the wrong side of Miami Beach -- away from the gentrified Art Deco hotels and the $4.50 bowls of black bean soup. A boarded-up crack house stands across the street from the playground. Bob, a homeless man in his 60s, picks up litter in the morning in exchange for a free breakfast.

For some of the kids it is an oasis of stability.

Eighty percent of the students qualify for free lunch and breakfast. Some of their parents tag along in the morning to share the food. "We just put a little more on their plates," says Mrs. Lentin.

On rainy mornings, students show up late -- they don't have proper raincoats or umbrellas. One little girl was found to have eight pounds of worms in her belly. Another sick student couldn't be sent home because her mother was drunk.

Some 40 students left private schools to enroll at South Pointe in September.

Many of them come from affluent families -- some from the exclusive islands that dot the bay around Miami Beach -- which would be like Baltimore's lumping affluent Gibson Island in a school district with impoverished Sandtown-Winchester.

Justin Bakst, a bright-eyed, talkative fourth-grader, is the first to acknowledge that he got kicked out of his old school -- a prestigious private academy. "They asked me not to come back because they said I was a discipline problem, OK? I didn't like that."

Justin, a doctor's son who lives on one of the islands, has flourished in South Pointe's free-form atmosphere.

He even coaches some of his teachers on one of the school's many computer programs.

"Some of the teachers [at the private school] didn't have time for you, or didn't respect you," Justin says. "And if they're busy, there's no one else to help you. Here there's two teachers. I like that."

Teachers' high hopes

Michael Bell, a 13-year veteran of teaching, left an affluent, well-run school in a Miami suburb to come to South Pointe.

"When I put in for a transfer, people said, 'What, are you out of your mind?' " Mr. Bell says.

But the philosophy of Tesseract stirred his most basic feelings about teaching. He was not alone. More than 300 teachers applied for some 35 positions at the new school.

"It agreed with what we all wanted to be as teachers," he says.

That means getting down on the floor to work with students, abandoning the traditional front-of-the-room lecture style, spending extra hours at school in training or dealing with parents.

"It's not for everybody," says third-grade teacher Beth Rosenthal. "It's a lot of work.

"The best way to do it is just get down and dirty, just dive in," she says. "Be willing to let the kids make the choices. Don't come in with your little lesson plans that have always worked."

Baltimore will present a new challenge to EAI. For the first time, it will be responsible for the entire operation of its schools.

In Florida, the company simply provides the program. The county school system actually administers the school.

They will also not have the luxury of hiring only teachers who are enthusiastic about teaching the Tesseract way -- it is still unclear how many of the teachers now at the nine schools will remain.

No matter who ends up teaching at the Baltimore schools, EAI will have to give them training and hand-holding as the school year unfolds, say the Miami Beach teachers.

"If teachers in Baltimore don't think of it as a threat, if they see it as an opportunity to try it as a new approach, I think they will like it," says Merri Mann of the Miami teachers' union.

In Baltimore, EAI will have to find money to buy computers and materials and hire the extra teachers.

The company expects to do that with private donations and by more efficient operation of the schools.

Everyone acknowledges it's a gamble. The people at South Pointe think it's worth it.

"I believe in risk taking and I believe in children," says Pat Parham. "If we're going to make a difference, we have to take a chance."

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