ROCK HALL -- Donna Bendell's third-graders are scattered around her classroom, puzzling over ounces, pints, quarts and gallons as they calculate ingredients for the fruit punch they'll soon be mixing in Rock Hall Elementary's cafeteria.
Next door, the other half of the same class is working with teacher Stacey Baker -- some alone, some in pairs, others in groups of three or more -- on a social studies report that will include a dash of reading, writing and science, along with basic geography.
The 48 students move confidently between the two teachers, who have forged a cooperative approach they say is typical of the innovative spirit that has launched this small Kent County elementary school to the top ranks of Maryland schools.
The working-class school's third-graders ranked third in the state this year, tallying a composite score of 88.4 in six key subjects measured by the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) tests. Its marks, released Tuesday, trailed two elementary schools in much more affluent areas of Montgomery County.
"We're really not two separate third-grade classes," says Baker. "We do everything together. My strengths are in language arts and reading; Donna is more comfortable with math and science. We work within that general framework, and then the kids switch rooms at each marking period."
Success at the school, which goes from pre-kindergarten through fourth grade, flies in the face of the lock-step correlation between academic achievement and family income that reigns at most schools.
In a community once dominated by the seafood industry, 58 percent of the school's students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches -- qualifying it for Title I federal grants that pay for an additional teacher and two instructional aides.
Principal Bess L. Engle, a teacher and administrator for 37 years, remembers "our dreadful year" of 1993, the first year of the state-mandated tests when Rock Hall recorded a dismal 37.2 composite score. But she says conventional wisdom does not apply in close-knit, blue-collar Rock Hall.
"Schools with a high poverty rate do have a difficult time, but we have very high expectations for our students," Engle says. "If there is one thing I believe in, it's in taking risks. You have to fail sometimes in order to learn."
She also notes a heavy emphasis at Rock Hall on phonics in all grades -- and the fact that students "write, write, write at every level. That's as important as anything."
A demanding but matronly presence throughout the school, "Miss Bess" is the object of obvious affection among students who frequently greet the principal with spontaneous hugs. Staff members are equally effusive in their praise of the boss they say is always willing to allow them to try new methods.
"There's a level of trust among us that is hard to describe," says Bedell. "She allows us to try almost anything. She trusts us enough to give the staff real flexibility. You don't find that in every school."
Kent County Schools Superintendent Lorraine A. Costella wishes she could bottle the atmosphere at the Rock Hall school. "There really is something palpable at that school," Costella says. "The teachers expect their students are going to learn. It's a real belief system."
In Christine Maas' second-grade class, students have launched a successful cupcake fund-raiser -- teaching them the basics of economics, production costs and profit. Profits, by the way, turned out to be $39 on the 325 cupcakes the children baked and sold to schoolmates.
"We're trying to teach math but give them an understanding of economics, the relationship between workers and employers, profit after costs," explains Maas. "We're constantly trying new things."
In addition to team teaching, Rock Hall staff members have experimented with grouping students of various ages in the same classrooms. Angel Lins, a 15-year veteran at the school who teaches special education students, was among the first to blend first- and second-graders in the same classrooms.
"No matter where you are in this school, you have to be willing to give up standing in front of the class and lecturing," Lins says. "With multi-age classes, you can't teach to the middle group of kids. You have to be good at mixing things up to see what works. Children become the leaders in the classroom, learning and setting goals for themselves."
Lins, a native of Rock Hall, says continuity and familiarity are keys to success at the school, where about one-third of the staff grew up in the county or have spouses who did.
Third-grade teacher Stacey Baker is an example. A native of Chestertown, the Kent County seat, she is married to a Rock Hall waterman who spent third grade in the same classroom where his wife teaches.
Parents say they gladly volunteer at the school, where they can see firsthand the students' enthusiasm.
"My kids will try to go to school even when they're sick," says Toni Alejandro, a Rock Hall native whose three children attend the school. "I really hate to see my oldest leave and go on to the middle school next year."
Principal Engle says Rock Hall's success is a "total community effort" in the waterfront town of 1,600. "I really feel that there's nothing we could ask for that someone in the town wouldn't step forward to help us," says Engle. "I'm very proud of the staff, the students and of our town."
Pub Date: 12/10/98