The 'Calvert Way' gets high marks


From the private Calvert School in North Baltimore to homes and military bases throughout the world to poor, inner-city public schools, the "Calvert Way" works.

Carmalina Scott has no doubt about the success of the back-to-basics program.

Her son Michael Gray, 6, began using the Calvert curriculum in the first grade at the city's Carter G. Woodson Elementary this year. Now, when he brings home his work, written in perfect script, other parents marvel.

"The parents will ask him, 'Michael, who taught you how to write cursive in the first grade?' " Ms. Scott said.

The Calvert curriculum, now used at two Baltimore public schools, is spreading in Ms. Scott's household. Michael, she said, tries to teach his 4-year-old brother and helps his third-grade sister sound out words when she has trouble with reading.

And the Calvert Way could be heading to other city schools.

Heartened by its experiment at the city's Barclay School -- standardized test scores improved, attendance improved and parent involvement increased -- the city and Calvert expanded the partnership this year to Woodson in Cherry Hill.

Within two years, Woodson is to be a training site where city school staff members can become Calvert curriculum coordinators for other schools.

For nearly a century, Calvert has tested its methods at the private school and at thousands of homes worldwide where parents have used its home-study curriculum. The curriculum stresses basics such as writing, math, phonics and reading, with heavy doses of work produced by students and kept in folders that are sent home each month.

But until five years ago, when Calvert began its partnership with Barclay, the private school's approach never had been tested in a public school. Today, the evidence indicates that Calvert's methods can work in poor, urban schools.

During its first four years, a recent evaluation shows, the collaboration between Barclay and Calvert raised standardized test scores, which are now at or above national averages for both public and private schools.

Still, Calvert has insisted on expanding slowly, adding only a school at a time, and then adding only one grade level a year. Its approach to marketing has proved as conservative as its approach to education.

"We never entered the partnership [with Barclay and Woodson] with the purpose of making money or establishing a business," said Merrill S. Hall III, the Calvert headmaster.

"We don't want to be managing schools, but we've proven that we can be a successful partner in a public school. The question is: Can we clone that experiment without debilitating cost to us?"

City Superintendent Walter G. Amprey said the partnerships show that even poor urban schools such as Barclay and Woodson can succeed. "What it shows is that with the right combination of a good curriculum, the right staffing, the right guidance . . . it can take off like a jet."

Dr. Amprey said the district would like to expand the partnership to other city schools but needs money to do so.

For five years, first-grade teacher Joanna Beaty headed to libraries to borrow about 25 copies or bought titles such as "Jack and the Beanstalk" for her pupils at Woodson.

This school year, she didn't have to scramble. The books the city didn't provide arrived courtesy of the Calvert School. So did paper and pencils, crayons and a detailed curriculum -- and high expectations for teachers, parents and students.

The Calvert Way leaves little to chance. And that, say teachers, parents and Woodson's principal, has made all the difference.

One recent morning, Ms. Beaty shed tears of joy after her first-graders read their first compositions, one-paragraph descriptions of their homes.

"My house is pretty. It has a big porch in front. It has white doors and glass windows. I love my house," one composition read. Along with the others, it went up on the wall -- but not before being corrected by the student until perfect.

"I was so proud of them, and they were so proud of themselves," Ms. Beaty said. "It's just unbelievable. . . . If I compare my first-grade class this year to my first-grade class last year, there's a definite difference."

Patterning its partnership after Barclay's, Woodson began using the Calvert curriculum for kindergarten and first grade and will add anothergrade each school year.

In the first partnership, Calvert brought its methods and support staff to Barclay in 1990, and the effort now extends to the fifth grade at the elementary-middle school.

The nonprofit Abell Foundation provides about $100,000 a year for the partnership at each of the schools.

Robert C. Embry Jr., Abell's president and a member of the state school board, said of Calvert's curriculum, "It's demanding, it builds upon itself, it's nonrepetitious, it's consistent across all grades. You know what they get."

Teachers at Woodson and Calvert said the city's curriculum offered broader goals but not nearly as many specifics about how to reach them.

"The old way truly was a lot of what you did every day was left up to each individual teacher," Ms. Beaty said. "With the Calvert program, you have to do day 17 on day 17. You can't wait until day 18."

Margaret Licht made that much clear from the outset. The Calvert School veteran, who was curriculum coordinator at Barclay for four years, moved to Woodson this school year and is known for gently -- but firmly -- insisting on adherence to Calvert's principles.

"When people argue with me, I say, 'No, it's the Calvert Way,' " Ms. Licht said.

Teachers say they were taken aback when confronted with the demands of the Calvert curriculum.

They began learning the Calvert Way before the first student arrived. At Woodson, the teachers and their assistants practiced cursive script, wrote lesson plans, watched videos on teaching methods and studied for two weeks in June to prepare.

One lesson is drilled into staff members, said Susan L. Spath, Woodson's principal: "Mediocrity is not accepted. Kids are expected to do well, and they do well."

That message is spread to parents and students, too. Each week, students take home a letter spelling out their homework assignments, and parents are expected to spend at least half an hour a night studying with their children.

Students correct their own work until it's perfect. Every month, -- the school sends a report on each student's progress to that child's parents, along with a folder containing the best work. At the end of the school year, the folders go into a black binder.

Some Calvert students still have theirs, decades after correcting their assignments until perfect.

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