If there's a secret to improving on Maryland's annual school report cards, it may be found in reading -- and more reading. That's the lesson taught these days at Bryant Woods Elementary School, lately recognized by Howard County and state educators as one of the county's most improved schools.
"I think it all goes back to making sure these kids become successful in reading," says Fran Clay, reading specialist at the west Columbia elementary school. "By focusing on that, we're able to help the kids succeed in everything else."
Since 1994, the small school in Columbia's Wilde Lake village has made sure that all students spend at least an hour a day reading in supervised groups of a dozen or less -- a bigger time commitment than most other Howard elementary schools make.
The work appears to be paying off on the state exams.
Bryant Woods was the only Howard elementary to post gains in every third- and fifth-grade subject area on last spring's Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) exams, according to results released last week.
The scores on the 1996 exams arrived just weeks after Bryant Woods was honored by the Maryland State Department of Education for gains it had made in the 1994 and 1995 exams. Bryant Woods was one of four Howard schools to share more than $95,000 in grants to improve instruction as part of its reward. (Bryant Woods' school improvement team has not yet decided what to do with the money.)
"It's just a great boost for everyone here," says Susan Webster, the school's principal. "It shows that what we're doing is moving in the right direction."
The MSPAP aims to assess the thinking skills of third-, fifth- and eighth-graders in six content areas -- reading, math, social studies, science, writing and language -- by asking students to apply basic skills to real-life problems, often calling on them to work together in groups. Bryant Woods doesn't have the most top scores in Howard.
Its fifth-graders reached what the state deems to be an excellent rating in writing, language and math and a satisfactory rating in ,, science. Four other Howard elementaries achieved more satisfactory and excellent ratings on last spring's exams.
But of the scores that aren't yet satisfactory at Bryant Woods, all but third-grade social studies and fifth-grade reading are very close.
Since 1993 -- the first year that the state published the school report cards -- MSPAP scores at Bryant Woods have improved more than 75 percent. In that time, Howard County students' overall improvement rate has been 17 percent.
The consistent progress at Bryant Woods has left both state and county educators impressed, particularly in light of the school's relatively high rate of student turnover and proportion of students coming from low-income families.
About a quarter of the students receive free or discounted lunches, the fourth-highest in the county. More than 10 percent of the school's 320-student enrollment turns over each year.
"There's no excuse not to succeed," says fifth-grade teacher Carolyn Brunt, who has taught at the school since 1985. Posted on the blackboard of her classroom is a reminder created by her students: "Excellent -- our goal." A week before last spring's MSPAP scores were announced, Brunt already was predicting that Bryant Woods students would improve.
"If you tell the students that they are expected to succeed and show them how to do it, then they will succeed," she says.
As soon as Bryant Woods' bell rang to begin the school day Friday, students and teachers immediately jumped into their first lessons of the day -- an indication that last year's emphasis on improving students' "time-on-task" has paid dividends, says Webster, the principal.
In the school's third-grade pod, one classroom of students was reading independently and listening to classical music. Students the classroom next door pulled out their journals to do their daily writing exercise.
The MSPAP exams rely heavily on writing, and most successful schools find they need to devote a lot of time to it in all subjects, including even math and physical education.
Bryant Woods holds monthly exercises to teach students how to write for different purposes. This month's exercise is for all students to write letters to persuade Webster to lengthen recess.
Meanwhile, in first grade, the daily hour of reading began promptly at 9 a.m. Donna Mitchell's 27 first-graders were divided into three groups. She worked with a group of 10 readers while Clay, the reading specialist, and another teacher taught a phonics lesson to two smaller groups.
"Two years ago, the principal came to all of us in the school and said the responsibility for improving our MSPAP scores falls to everyone of us," Mitchell says. "It's not just a third-grade and fifth-grade thing. Now we've all bought into it, so the success is something we're all celebrating."
Instructional assistants and teachers from other areas of the school rotate through each grade level to lead the smaller reading groups. At most other schools, members of the staff do not devote so much time to small-group reading instruction.
"It's a real commitment on the part of the staff," says Assistant Principal John Hammett. "The teachers realized that they would have to give up some things to allow the assistants and others to do the reading, but we decided that reading was going to be our thing."
As Howard elementaries look for advice from schools where scores are improving, many are sure to look at Bryant Woods and its emphasis on reading, says Patricia Tidgewell, the county's K-12 instructional coordinator who specializes in elementary schools.
"You need to have good reading skills in order to be successful on all of the areas of the MSPAP," Tidgewell says. "Bryant Woods has recognized that, and everyone at the school -- staff, parents and students -- is working together toward that goal."
Such work goes beyond the school day, particularly to help students who may not be getting much support or attention at home, teachers say.
Barbara Trimmer, a special education teacher at Bryant Woods, has a list of a dozen students whom she calls at least once a week in the evening to hear them read to her for about five minutes over the phone.
"I'm not sure they're getting the chance to read to anyone at home, so I want to give them a chance to read to me," Trimmer says. "It takes up some time at night, but it's worth it because it's paying off. Just look at how the scores are going up."
Bryant Woods' scores climb
Percentage of students scoring satisfactory or above on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program exams.
THIRD GRADE .. .. .. 1993 .. ..1994 .. ..1995 .. ..1996
Reading .. .. .. .. ...* .. ...47.7 .. ..41.5 .. ..69.4
Writing .. .. .. .. .49.0 .. ..34.7 .. ..51.1 .. ..68.5
Language .. .. .. ...38.8 .. ..44.9 .. ..57.8 .. ..66.7
Math .. .. .. .. .. .49.0 .. ..53.1 .. ..64.4 .. ..68.5
Science .. .. .. .. .40.8 .. ..53.1 .. ..57.8 .. ..61.1
Soc. Studies .. .. ..44.9 .. ..42.9 .. ..53.3 .. ..55.6
FIFTH GRADE .. .. ...1993 .. ..1994 .. ..1995 .. ..1996
Reading .. .. .. .. .27.6 .. ..51.7 .. ..36.4 .. .48.9
Writing .. .. .. . ..51.7 .. ..54.0 .. ..60.7 .. ..89.1
Language .. .. .. ...39.7 .. ..54.0 .. ..53.6 .. ..80.4
Math .. .. .. .. .. .55.2 .. ..57.1 .. ..69.6 .. ..82.6
Science .. .. .. .. .44.8 .. ..55.6 .. ..57.1 .. ..73.9
Soc. Studies .. .. ..31.0 .. ..52.4 .. ..60.7 .. ..67.4
* No reading score available.