The test scores arrived just before Thanksgiving, and hopes were high at Laurel Woods Elementary School.
Last year, 40 percent of third- and fifth-graders at the North Laurel school had scored at least satisfactorily on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests -- relatively low for top-ranked Howard County, but up 7 percentage points from 1996.
Then the bad news: Not only had the MSPAP scores not improved from the previous year, they had slipped almost 5 percentage points to 35.1. It was the lowest score in Howard, far below the county's 60.1 percent composite score, the highest in Maryland.
"We really thought the scores were going to go up," said Principal Rosanne C. Wilson.
Achievement has long been a concern for the school. In one of the nation's most affluent counties, Laurel Woods Elementary wrestles with such issues as a high level of transience, a significant number of pupils who speak English as a second language, and poverty. Last year, almost 30 percent of the students received free or reduced-price lunches.
Despite its overall prosperity, the county has small communities of comparatively low-income residents. Some live in apartments near the school, which is west of U.S. 1, not far from Laurel racetrack.
"They probably have one of the toughest demographic situations of any of the schools in the county," said Howard County schools Superintendent Michael E. Hickey. "That, I think, is one of the biggest challenges that they have."
The county is increasing its investment in Laurel Woods and other poorer-performing schools sprinkled through eastern Howard. And the staff isn't giving up.
Laurel Woods teachers and the school administration are enthusiastically pitching new ideas, drafting long- and short-term "action plans" to help their pupils achieve, circulating inspirational poems and trying their best to make the steady trickle of new children feel comfortable.
Supporting the school are parents such as Pat Flynn, a self-described former "Catholic school snob" who has had two children attend Laurel Woods. "If parents are willing to work their kids will get a good education here," said Flynn, an instructional aide whose youngest child is a fourth-grader.
"I don't even pay attention to the test scores anymore. I see what my children are doing and they can hold their own against any other child in the county."
Most agree that the school is on the right track to improve its test scores, but no one is certain what caused the decline.
"I would say if any of us had the magic bullet, we would have fired it long ago," Hickey said. "I'm not sure what the real answer is, except stabilize the population."
School has good start
On a recent day at Laurel Woods, seven kindergartners, hopping with energy, flutter their limbs as their teacher instructs them to "wake up" for the school day.
"Wake up, brain," the teacher, Kelly Callaway, says.
"Wake up, brain," they squeal back, shaking their heads.
In this small group, children of Asian, Hispanic, African-American and Indian descent are represented. A set of wall decorations has English and Spanish descriptions, so that a flamingo is both pink and rosado. A pumpkin is orange and naranja.
"I think the fact that our population is diverse is a positive," Wilson said. "It gives children a picture of what the real world is. It's a great mix."
Laurel Woods has one of the highest concentrations of children of color in the county; they represent more than half of the school's 483 students. In recent weeks, a girl from Ghana and a boy from India have transferred to the school.
The children in Callaway's class attend extended-day kindergarten, designed to accelerate students who haven't been exposed to preschool. Laurel Woods is one of seven schools in Howard with a full-day kindergarten program, one of the many achievement-oriented programs at the school.
"It's to catch them up so that they see success when they get to first grade," said teacher Rebecca Oates.
Special programs help
In a small office near the library, Eddie Samoza is spelling out words with magnetized letters under the watch of teacher Dominique Butcher. He is one of four pupils in Reading Recovery, a daily, one-on-one tutoring program for first-graders in its first year at the school.
Eddie, who struggled with reading at the beginning of the school year, is breezing through a storybook and spelling words such as "recess" with relative ease.
These programs and others are made possible through Laurel Woods' status as one of the county's nine "focus schools" -- schools that receive extra resources because of lower academic performance. This includes extra staff and funding.
Laurel Woods has a part-time social worker who offers free counseling for the school's parents and children.
"I think being at the school makes counseling and therapy a lot less intimidating and a lot less mysterious for people," said the social worker, Bev Gonce.
Turnover a problem
Though most of the focus schools have some degree of transience, it has become a defining characteristic at Laurel Woods, which has the highest turnover among Howard's 37 elementary schools. Since August, 94 students have registered, the majority from other school districts. Acutely aware that they might have some children for only a short time, the school tries to make them comfortable and academically successful. Nancy Gifford -- a former clinical social worker and the school's family service coordinator -- greets new children and their families, taking them on tours of the school and getting them acclimated.
Gifford said new children usually enroll after vacations, such as spring or winter break.
"It hardly seems that a week goes by that we don't get new students," Gifford said.
On a drizzly Tuesday, Gifford and 10 second-grade girls assemble in a portable classroom for the weekly meeting of the Second Grade Girls' Helping Club, a hodgepodge of old and new pupils who chose the group's name.
Created to help incoming students feel at home, today's group includes three newcomers to Laurel Woods: 7 1/2-year-old Marketa Kletetschkova from the Czech Republic, 7-year-old Stevie Urban from Virginia, and Cristal Snaer, also 7, from Guam.
Older girls have a similar group. New fifth-grader Tiffany Samaniego said belonging to the club has made her less nervous about being at a new school.
"I get to talk to my friends," said Tiffany, who moved from Fort Washington. "We help each other and we don't fight."
Gifford said the club is one example of how the school is trying to deal with its circumstances instead of using them as excuses.
"We're trying to put it in the framework of, 'This is what it is. What can we do about it?' " she said.
"I'd like to think that over the long term, we'll be able to see this, this and this made a difference."
Wilson and Assistant Principal Deborah Misiag are also focused on the short term.
Gathered on a recent Tuesday with members of their School Improvement Team and Hickey, they open the meeting with a list of the school's accomplishments, including the smaller reading groups and the pre-kindergarten program.
Then it's on to the MSPAP. In elementary schools, third- and fifth-graders are tested in reading, math, social studies, science, writing and language.
Wilson points out that the proportion of third-graders with satisfactory scores on the reading portion of the test fell from 43.5 percent to 31.9 percent.
"That's the pattern that we're going to have to try our best to stop," Wilson says.
They pass out a proposal, complete with long- and short-term ideas to help their students improve: a possible partnership with Ellicott City's Centennial Lane Elementary School, which scored well on the MSPAP. Targeting students who are from other counties, states and countries and working with them intensively if need be. Making writing a key part of all subject areas.
"It's about teaching so that the children will achieve, and that achievement will be reflected on MSPAP," Misiag says.
Before the meeting ends, Wilson gives each member a copy of the poem "I Believe in You." Flynn encourages the staff not to be discouraged. The mood is energized, upbeat.
"We still believe that our children are achieving," Wilson says. "A lot of these things, you're not going to see gains right away."
Sun staff writer Jamal E. Watson contributed to this article.
Pub Date: 2/07/99