By conventional wisdom, Harper's Choice Middle School should be one of Howard County's lower-performing schools.
It's the county middle school with the highest percentage of students with limited English skills, the second-highest percentage of special education pupils and the third-highest percentage of students eligible for free lunches.
So why was Harper's Choice the only middle school in Howard to meet five of the six standards on the most recent round of the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) tests?
Harper's Choice Principal James Evans attributes a large part of achievement to the emphasis he and teachers placed on the tests at the school last spring.
The school's PTA notified eighth-graders' parents about the importance of the tests and offered incentives for pupils to be at school during the exams -- eliminating many of the "zero" scores assigned to pupils who are absent for any of the five testing days. The PTA also provided pastries and juice in the mornings before each exam.
But that isn't the whole story.
After all, the school did nearly as well on other tests last spring -- the nationally normed Comprehensive Tests of Basic Skills (CTBS) -- with its pupils scoring substantially higher than what was anticipated based upon the school system's measures of their cognitive skills.
Instead, two days of sitting in Harper's Choice classrooms yields some more fundamental explanations for the school's relative academic success: efficient use of school time, a strong classroom emphasis on the "critical thinking" skills on which the MSPAP tests focus, and freedom for teachers to employ a variety of instructional approaches geared to pupils' varying learning styles.
Harper's Choice teachers also say that the school's involvement in a county trial program known as MASSI (Motivation, Assessment, Support, Structure and Instruction) has helped many students. The program -- initially aimed at low-achieving black students -- gives teachers the flexibility to adapt standard lessons to pupils' needs, the school's teachers say.
"They've had the freedom to do what they believe is best for their students," said Dr. Jacqueline F. Brown, the school system's human relations coordinator who has worked closely with Harper's Choice on MASSI.
To be sure, Harper's Choice isn't a perfect school.
There are plenty of times when students can be found doodling in the back of the classroom rather than paying attention. Like almost every school in Howard, its classes are larger than teachers would prefer. The school, built in 1973 according to an open-space design, also struggles with many of the noise disturbances associated with this now out-of-fashion concept.
Nor is what's happening at Harper's Choice exclusive to the Columbia middle school. Many other Howard schools offer strong instructional programs; some boast higher scores on the CTBS exams.
But scenes from two recent days spent in Harper's Choice's classrooms and hallways offer a glimpse into what's working at a school considered by many to be an unlikely candidate for such academic success:
* Teachers tend to waste little, if any, time during the day. Instruction begins as soon as students enter the classroom. Activities during the 41-minute periods blend seamlessly into each other. Students aren't permitted to start packing up their books for the next period until the class is over.
"It's nothing magic, just hard work for the entire period," said sixth-grade math teacher Janet Cooper. "My sixth-graders know the routine: They go to the warm-up box for the drills and go back to their desks to do them. Every moment in class is so important, you don't want to waste any of it."
Students begin thinking about the MSPAP tests from the first day they walk into Harper's Choice as sixth-graders. "We hear about it all time," said eighth-grader Amanda Levin, 13. "The teachers give us exercises for it and we practice pretty often."
On the principal's schedule for quarterly activities, every page includes a section on MSPAP exercises -- also known as MSPAP "prompts" -- to be completed during those eight quarters.
"Every quarter there's another prompt for the kids, from the sixth grade on," Mr. Evans said. "Getting familiar with the test is so important to doing well. No matter how skilled the students are, they need to know how to answer the questions, too."
* When eighth-graders take the MSPAP tests each spring, portions of the tests require them to work together in groups to solve problems. As a result, Harper's Choice teachers are putting more and more group activities into their lesson plans.
Three or four pupils work together on sets of math questions or small groups haggle over life in America under the Articles of Confederation. "If you make sure the kids can work together now and are comfortable doing that, it will mean Harper's a lot at MSPAP time," said seventh-grade math teacher Roberta Girardi.
* No students are excluded from lessons in the critical thinking skills considered essential by the state and tested by the MSPAP. For example, eighth-grade science students spent a recent class period researching chemical elements, working on their own to learn about uses of silicon, carbon and magnesium.
In a seventh-grade social studies class that includes special education pupils and students with limited English proficiency, a pupil from China gave an oral presentation about his native country. Classmates peppered him with questions -- knowing that they would be expected to write a report summarizing what he said and comparing it to the stories told by pupils from such other countries as Bosnia and Haiti.
* Teachers throughout the school use the MASSI program to identify the problems of low-achieving pupils. Harper's Choice is one of two Howard middle schools to work with MASSI, which in essence brings teachers together to discuss how to best attack the problems of low-achieving students.
So, in sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade team meetings, teachers discuss pupils who are having academic difficulties and search for strategies to help them improve. In one recent meeting, teachers found that several bright students were falling behind because of poor organizational skills and asked a guidance counselor to run a small class for those pupils.
As part of MASSI, the school offers additional programs. All Harper's Choice seventh graders, for example, enroll in a "universal studies" class, which focuses on pupils' learning skills. That leaves the class teacher -- Joseph Fisher -- prepared to answer other instructors' questions about pupils.
"Sometimes a member of the [seventh-grade] team might not know what's getting through to a student, and I know that information or have it in my files," Mr. Fisher said.
Also as part of the MASSI program, all of the school's eighth-graders have voluntary jobs for one period each weekday at the school, nearby elementary schools, senior citizen centers or the Cedar Lane School. Teachers credit the jobs program with instilling more independence in pupils before they move on to high school.
For Howard school officials, the recent gains at Harper's Choice pose a challenge: Can the school's success be replicated at other county middle schools?
Some of the school's fundamental traits -- its efficient use of time and the MASSI program -- could be cloned elsewhere, Harper's Choice teachers say.
Most important is the freedom given the school's teachers in their classrooms -- which, the teachers say, exceeds that at most other county schools.
"We're empowered to take some risks to do what's best for our kids," said seventh-grade teacher Ms. Girardi. "There's nothing more essential for teachers. [Administrators] can set expectations, but let us figure out how to get there based on what our students need."
Dr. Brown, the human relations coordinator who has helped put MASSI into place at the school, agreed: "They've had the freedom to do what teachers know how to do. It's not that other teachers don't have that freedom, but there's often that perception that they don't."
"That perception can be just as powerful as reality, so the lesson may be for schools to work harder to ensure that teachers understand what they're free to do," Dr. Brown said.
But with the recent MSPAP test results, some Harper's Choice teachers now privately express worry that expectations at the school might be rising too fast.
They wonder whether the school's recent test results were a fluke resulting from a particularly outstanding eighth-grade class true sign of lasting improvement in the school.
For Mr. Evans, the principal, there's little doubt.
"It's working well and we're going to continue to get better," he said.