Children and school get down to business; Rigid curriculum sparks enthusiasm, hope at City Springs


The green door swings open at 7: 30 in the morning, and a waiting group of children dressed in down coats files into City Springs Elementary School's cafeteria for a Sugar Frosted Flakes breakfast, a full day of classes and after-school karate or sewing lessons. Many will not leave the building until 5 o'clock.

The school, which serves the Flag House Courts and Perkins Homes housing projects and some of Southeast Baltimore's bleaker parts, hums with enthusiasm and efficiency -- and brags about its 97 percent daily attendance rate.

With an enrollment of 367 (which is declining because the adjoining projects are slated for demolition), the school at Caroline and Lombard streets maintains small classes and a structured curriculum, and the pupils willingly go through a day tightly wedged with reading and math lessons.

City Springs test scores have not skyrocketed, but the school has achieved a victory of sorts, overcoming what its principal calls the "chaos" of five years ago, when pupils were undisciplined and on occasion spat mouthfuls of sunflower seeds in the corridors. Fighting was a problem, and children often cursed at their teachers.

"We've had a long vacation, and I've really missed you," says Principal Bernice E. Whelchel, in her morning address to pupils returning yesterday from an unusually long weekend -- a snow day Friday and the King holiday Monday. Classes sit row by row in the auditorium, their teachers standing alongside in the aisles.

The pupils chant a spirited rendition of the school pledge -- "We will not allow anyone, or anything, to be an obstacle in our development. We will come to school everyday, on time, alert, and willing to work effectively."

A few minutes later, Doris Jones' fifth-grade class assembles on the stage. "Name the nine planets," she asks. In unison, the class answers -- correctly.

"Aren't they smart?" Whelchel asks.

By 8: 20, the pupils start filing to their classrooms in orderly lines. There is no fighting, heel-dragging or running. The day's learning has been determined well in advance. City Springs is one of 18 Baltimore schools that use Direct Instruction, a highly scripted curriculum that stresses repeated information.

Within minutes, third-grade teacher Phyllis King, who began teaching full time in September, calls out "Get ready," which she would repeat 100 times that day.

She snaps her fingers and begins a reading lesson. Her class of 22 sits at attention and doesn't seem to have a moment to daydream or loaf. Their hands rocket into the air as they call out the answers to questions.

Clutching a teacher's text, King drills and drills again. She repeats her sentences, and the pupils repeat their answers. When one child stumbles on the arithmetic tables (6 times 8 proves troublesome), the whole class repeats the answers, twice.

Teachers avoid using the words "right" and "wrong." Instead, they have students repeat their assignments until those who haven't caught up learn the material.

"I learn a lot here," says Tyrone Thornton, 9, who lives in the 1600 block of Bank St.

In the classroom, teachers hold manuals that detail the day's studies from start to finish. Their eyes dart back and forth from these instructional aids to their pupils' faces.

"Direct Instruction breaks down tasks into small components and then repeats them, but it's not a robot situation. It takes creativity to act from a script," says Muriel Berkeley, director of Baltimore Curriculum Project, a nonprofit group sponsored by the Abell Foundation. "We make no assumption here about what the child brings to school."

She acknowledges that the school's statewide achievement scores have not zoomed -- up 6.5 percent last school year, 12 percent of all City Springs pupils meet proficiency requirements -- but the principal says she now has a school that performs well. "Five years ago, the school was in chaos. Today is the difference between heaven and hell. The school is run like a business."

By the end of the afternoon, the principal's voice drifts over the public-address system:

"Goodbye, thank you. I can hardly wait to see you you tomorrow, on time."

Pub Date: 1/20/99

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