Similar schools find few successes shared School's out: Nine months of effort behind them, two Baltimore elementaries must judge the results of their widely different approaches to reading instruction. a yearlong journey concludes.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Principal Bernice Whelchel promised City Springs Elementary students that if they read 1,000 books, she would dance on the school roof. They read 1,997.

And so, with pre-kindergarten through fifth grade assembled on the new playground below, Whelchel scrambled through a trap door and collected herself. Not just any dance ' she would do the Macarena.

Across town at Lyndhurst Elementary, as the year wound down, Principal Elaine Davis all but disappeared. The last day of school she missed even the morning announcements - once an inviolate ritual.

This year would be her last. The struggle to raise reading scores and turn around a declining school had convinced her of that.

She had seen small steps forward, if not great leaps, and felt good about what she had been able to do.

But small steps were not enough.

When the final day came, she let the children leave without saying goodbye.

Two schools have finished another year.

They began in similar straits - terrible reading scores, heavy pressure to improve from the state and school headquarters - but the routes they chose toward recovery were as far apart as they could be.

City Springs, on Caroline Street in East Baltimore, spent its second year with the phonics-based Direct Instruction program.

It is a different school in June than it was in September - still struggling, but confident of its progress.

Lyndhurst, which continued teaching students to read by immersing them in words and stories, as most Baltimore schools do, is much as it was before.

Soon the schools will receive scores from citywide skills tests that will tell them in cold, hard numbers how much progress their students have -- or have not -- made.

In the meantime, they can see other evidence of their success or failure, less empirical than test scores perhaps, but just as irrefutable.

At year's end, one principal is dancing on the schoolhouse roof; the other is not coming back.

Lyndhurst

On the last day of school, Lyndhurst first-grade teacher Betty Pierce used the easiest of math problems -- what number comes before 22? -- and short sentences of single-syllable words to occupy those children who actually showed up. (Only about half the class did.)

"Tom got a fat lip from Jim. The pig bit the hog in the lip." Jasmine and Michone rattled off the sentences. Darnetta stumbled but she finished. Keiyhanna was stumped from the start.

In that 20-minute exercise was a snapshot of the entire year's progress.

Children who already knew how to read in the fall led the class. A few who came to school not knowing a thing learned to pronounce first-grade words. But several of those who couldn't read nine months ago still can't.

Those results - mixed at best - came from efforts at Lyndhurst that likewise were mixed.

Teachers "don't see that we've jumped any great leaps," says principal Davis. "But they see an improvement in how the children are doing."

Last year, Davis added a master teacher and specialists to develop the math and reading curriculum.

She also added teacher-training sessions every week, as part of the school improvement plan. Those extra training sessions meant that students were in class only a half-day on Wednesday - a trade-off many city schools have made.

The school's scores on the Maryland State Performance Assessment Program test went up slightly in December, after declining in recent years. This spring, watching the children confidently take this year's test, Davis felt her own shaky optimism rise.

That uptick in the scores last year, however small, gave Davis enough of a boost to feel that the school had turned a corner, that she wasn't leaving it in shambles.

"I didn't want to leave when they were down, and jump ship," Davis said.

In many ways, Lyndhurst, a West Baltimore school in the middle of the Edmondson Village neighborhood, was Baltimore's "everyschool" - led by a principal with decades in the system, staffed by teachers with 20-plus years in the classroom, doing business pretty much as business has always been done.

Schedules were lax. Discipline was light. Energy was low. And teachers were left to use the standard reading curriculum, the whole-language Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Treasury of Literature, or not.

Pierce admits she felt handicapped by the lack of a coherent phonics-based curriculum. Early in the year, she patched together a kit with plastic animals and flashcards to teach children letter sounds and names.

But even after phonics books arrived in December, Pierce taught "reading" in the morning and "sounding out" in the afternoon. And thus, many children never understood that this strange "sounding out" drill could help them decipher new words.

This fall, every school in Baltimore will get new phonics-based readers. And that, Pierce knows, will help. "There is only so much I can do by myself," she says simply.

Pierce often relied solely on her instincts, rather than formal tests, to gauge her students' progress. Unlike teachers at City Springs, who measured children every week and moved them back if they had not mastered the work, Pierce did not give her first standard test until March.

Likewise, "reading lessons" weren't always just about reading.

The children made pancakes in the teachers' lounge to practice a rhyme and built houses out of straw and paper "bricks," a la "The Three Little Pigs." Each morning they spent 15 minutes reciting the days of the week and the months of the year.

And on many days, they frittered away minutes of the "reading hour" putting away coats and books or lining up for lunch.

Left to her own devices - without a strong curriculum, without an aide, without even direction from her principal - Pierce taught these children what she could.

Remembering how immature the children were in September, she says she feels good about the progress each child has made. Still, in the final weeks of school, she found herself worrying about the same children who troubled her mind all year.

A few clearly weren't ready for second grade. Jovan had potential, but most days he didn't show it. Keiyhanna still couldn't read. And Kelli had simply stopped coming to school.

Should she pass these children when she knew they would be behind from Day One, or would the stigma of failure hurt them worse?

In the end, she passed all 23 of them, even Jovan, but with deep reservations.

These children were Pierce's "babies." She mothered them and, some would say, coddled them, humoring bad moods, rewarding goof-offs with her attention.

For the little girl who began the year with temper fits, Pierce's ministrations worked. But others learned to rely on her, rather than work alone. Even on the last day of school, Dontrell refused to stop pestering other children for answers until Pierce sat down beside him.

"Some of these children have potential, but you have to really pull it out of them," Pierce said. "Some of them just won't try on their own."

And some children, Pierce has learned, can put so much pressure on themselves to succeed that they almost fail.

Dominique seemed to be doing fine until March, when she was asked to read a passage that should have been easy for her. She froze. Later, when Pierce tested the class, she froze again. She went home in tears.

Dominique, it happens, can read - her parents have enrolled her in everything from Saturday school at Coppin State University to the Book-of-the-Month Club - but Dominique is a perfectionist. If she makes one mistake, she stops, sometimes for good.

And then there are those children, like Kelli, who Pierce has come to realize she just can't help. Kelli was already beginning to read in September, but grown-up problems and losses cut short her progress.

Kelli's mother had died before school started. Some days, she seemed to understand that; other days, she talked of how her mother had walked her to school that morning.

When her aunt got sick, Kelli went to live with her father. And Pierce never saw her in class again.

"I've learned," says Pierce, "that I can't control everything in these children's lives."

City Springs

City Springs Principal Bernice Whelchel stood on the auditorium stage, looking out at only a third of the school's students. The rest hadn't bothered to come the last day of school. Their absence reminded Whelchel, once again, how hard the school must fight to change habits.

"When I see boys and girls coming in that door, I know here and here," Whelchel said, pointing to her head and her heart, "that they will be the best students, not in Baltimore City, not in Maryland, not in the United States of America, but in the whole wide world I because?"

Nothing, nothing, NOTHING will stop us from finding out how good we can be. Accept the challenge, today, tomorrow and every DAAAAY!

The children joined Whelchel in the charge that begin each day, the one she hopes will carry them for the rest of their lives.

"I think," Whelchel said, "it's time to leave before I start to cry."

Whelchel's tears have not always been happy.

Her first two years at City Springs were no picnic. Children ran wild through the halls. Parents cursed teachers. Teachers slacked off.

There was that awful day early in her tenure when one of the regulars launched yet another full-blown tantrum, kicking and cussing his way into the principal's office.

"I hate this school," the boy screamed.

Before she could stop herself, Whelchel blurted, "So do I."

The child stopped, stunned.

"Fool," he said, "why do you stay?"

Whelchel will tell that story now and laugh about it. That day, she did hate City Springs.

But she stayed, and there was a victory in that. More victories have come since, though she knows the war is far from won.

Test scores went up ever so slightly in December in almost every category on the 1997 Maryland School Performance Assessment Program test.

But more important, the school began to see progress on internal tests, as the brightest fifth-graders sampled Homer's "Odyssey" and all but six of 69 first-graders finished the year ready for second-grade books.

The once-embattled principal also sees those things that can't be quantified but that are just as defining.

Like the four-page, handwritten letter from parent Teresa Fowlkes, who has not always been a Whelchel fan. "I thank God for you as a principal. You are a blessing I " Fowlkes wrote.

Or the Christmas performance of "The Nutcracker Suite," when fifth-graders danced a bit of ballet and the littlest students "sat big" in their seats and clapped.

Or the first Student Body Government, elected this spring.

Or the first Fun Day, when children could play carnival games on the school's new playground, built by volunteers and donations.

Or the first Read-a-bration, when Jeffrey Bryant -- a first-grader who in September couldn't sit in his seat let alone write his name -- read proudly for the grown-ups.

Or maybe most of all, the new attitude that seemed to blow through the building in April, when, after a trying winter, teachers finally began to see the reason for the rigors of Direct Instruction.

"We've got more of a family feeling, a cohesiveness," says school counselor Janet Cottman. "You don't feel like you're flying uphill all the time."

Whelchel gives credit to Direct Instruction.

The program, which is as much a way of life as it is an instruction plan, gave the school the discipline it lacked and the step-by-step recipe it needed to teach children to read. Teachers who chafed at the scripted lessons in the fall were talking in June about the proof in the pudding and marveling at the progress they'd seen.

They celebrated the stand-outs, such as first-graders Tyrika Washington, who read for the governor, and Kevin Flomo, who quickly moved to a third-grade class and then tested at a fifth-grade level when he transferred late in the year to another Direct Instruction school.

But the children who made their hearts sing were the difficult ones, the ones who in other years would have been headed for failure.

With these children, common-sense educational theories held up and paid off.

Curriculum does matter. as Whelchel notes, without a solid, research-based plan, schools "keep reinventing the wheel I and never see the fruits of their labor."

At City Springs, children learned to read the old-fashioned way, with phonics drills and simple primers, and then they learned to love books by being introduced to classic literature such as "Charlotte's Web" and "The Littles."

Still, because their vocabularies are as impoverished as the community in which they live, these children are baffled by words others take for granted. First-graders could sound out "jam" but had no idea that it, like jelly, could be spread on toast. Fifth-graders tackled Greek classics, but many didn't know the meaning of "forlorn."

Such gaps in vocabulary development are potentially crippling.

Anayezuka Ahidiana, the Direct Instruction coordinating teacher, worries that even DI books don't offer enough vocabulary training to make up for the shortfalls. "We have to look for ways to build their vocabulary or they'll never be able to compete," Ahidiana says. "But where do you find enough hours in the day?"

Wise use of all the hours in the day is another tenet of Direct Instruction. At City Springs, the school days are 20 minutes longer than elsewhere in the city and reading lessons come in the morning and afternoon. Even bathroom breaks are timed with a stopwatch.

And when time matters, nothing matters more than crowd control.

A new first-grade teacher, Robin Shaw, learned that the hard way. Before she could teach anything to a room full of unsocialized children, she had to stop being the nice Miss Shaw and draw some hard lines.

It took two months and lots of sessions of "time out," but with help from several others, she turned around a class bound for sure disaster.

Even though most of Shaw's students began the year unable to do kindergarten-level work, all but six of the 22 children finished the year ready for second-grade books. And those six should be in second-grade books by November.

"What's the most important thing I learned this year?" Shaw asks, pausing less than a second to answer. "Behavior modification, 100 percent!"

For Whelchel, the lessons were professional and personal.

She learned to listen, to relax a bit, to focus on the good rather than the bad. And now at 50, with a softer hair style and easier smile, she looks younger than she did the year before.

"Right now it is fun," says Whelchel. "It's fun because we've come a long way with DI I and I want more of that."

She wants more parental and community involvement. She wants to keep raising the bar until kindergartners can read.

And to do those things, she must continue to fight the problems that could submarine the school at any time. There are too many weak teachers, even though most now are working hard; vacancies are hard to fill and the children struggle under the burdens of the urban poor.

But most of all, she wants parents, teachers and students - to share the vision of City Springs as a school where children learn, grow and succeed.

Expect the best, she says bluntly, and you will get it.

Most special gift

And so, fired up, with Whelchel's challenge to excel still hanging in the air, teachers and children returned on the last day of school to classrooms stripped bare of posters and MSPAP words. For the first time all year, they were left to their own devices.

And for a few iffy hours, City Springs was more like its old self than the new, improved version. Aimless, bored children wandered about their rooms while teachers hurried to complete report cards - except in Shaw's room, where order reigned and good little boys and girls ate cake.

All year, Harriet Brown ran her first-grade class, where the Eagles finished the year ready for third-grade books, with an iron hand. But on this last day, she was busy, she was tired, and what good was it to write names on the board now?

Alvin snatched Tyesha's book; Tyesha whopped Alvin. Krya wanted to read aloud, but no one was listening. Destiny put her head down for a nap.

Shanay, annoyed by the commotion, went to the reading circle at the back of the room and took a book from the low shelf. Jasmine joined her. And then Eric and Brent and Ernest.

Soon, they were all back there, in their familiar circle, with the books they had come to love, reading to themselves and to each other. Brown had given them that most special of gifts this year.

Now they would use it.

Pub Date: 6/29/98

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
64°