At Centennial Lane Elementary School, members of Susan James' second-grade reading class sit "pretzel-style" on the floor and offer facts they have learned from a Weekly Reader magazine article on fire safety.
While learning that they should make an escape plan, they also practice the steps for informational reading: They define "what I know," "what I wonder about" and "what I learned."
When they go to math class, the same pupils might read a funny story about someone using math. In physical education, they might read the instructions for the day's game and explain what they mean before beginning to play.
Teachers at the Ellicott City school will also emphasize reading and writing skills in social studies, science, music and art classes. In fact, according to Principal Susan Goglia, everything in the building is linked to the school's reading and writing goals.
This approach paid off Sept. 23, when Centennial Lane received a $35,730 award from the state Department of Education. Six other Howard County elementary schools and one middle school also won Maryland School Performance Recognition Awards and noted similar, focused, integrated approaches to reading and writing as one element of their success.
Other winners were Bushy Park Elementary in Glenwood; Northfield, St. John's Lane and Waverly elementaries in Ellicott City; and Clarksville and Pointers Run elementaries, and Clarksville Middle School in Clarksville.
Schools showing significant improvement on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests -- given in third, fifth and eighth grades -- and with strong attendance records received monetary awards. This year, the state also looked at improvement of test scores within racial subgroups.
Although the tests measure proficiency in a number of subjects, reading and writing skills are important throughout the tests. The children are asked to read instructions, describe problem-solving steps and create long-answer written responses, Clarksville Middle School Principal Harriette Greenberg said.
Every child at Clarksville Middle is expected to know the steps for a "well-developed response" to a written or oral question. The importance of restating the question and supporting the answer is reiterated in every classroom, and reinforced by manuals for parents and middle-schoolers.
"The key is to make [reading and writing] a total school effort and make it a priority," Greenberg said.
Children need to understand that subjects are connected and they need to know why they study math and science, said Goglia.
Besides developing curricula that reach across subjects, several of the principals said defining strategies that reach across grades is also an important component.
Northfield Elementary School began aligning its activities from kindergarten through fifth grade about five years ago, Principal Arlene Mindus said. Teachers agree on strategies, such as the steps for reading to be informed or the importance of giving examples from the text, and build on them each year.
"It's a K through five effort, not just grade three and grade five, when the state tests are given," said Nancy Kalin, principal at Bushy Park Elementary.
Pointers Run Elementary has instituted monthly "Team Talk" sessions, so instructors of higher grade levels can give feedback to teachers in lower grades based on academic performance.
"All of the kids belong to all of us," Principal Karen Ganjon said.
The teachers at the award-winning schools have a high level of understanding of the link between assessment and curriculum, said Robert Glascock, county director of elementary curricular programs. They are focused on achievement, aware of what they need to do to improve and eager to use county curriculum resources.
The schools also are finding ways to offer the children more individual attention. Many schools are reducing the size of reading groups by using teaching assistants and support staff, such as gifted and talented program teachers or reading specialists.
Improving the pupil-to-teacher ratio "has been pretty powerful," said Brad Herling, principal of Clarksville Elementary.
His school also has a program in which fourth- and fifth-graders volunteer to tutor first- and second-graders using vocabulary drills and short books chosen by the school's reading specialist.
"The younger kids benefit from extra communication and reading skills, and the older kids benefit from the responsibility and school citizenship," Herling said.
Several schools have created teams of teachers and staff to help children with specific problems. At St. John's Lane Elementary, an instructional consultation team that includes a school psychologist, a guidance counselor, administrators and classroom teachers meets every week to discuss targeted interventions for children having difficulty in classes. Principal Deborah Jagoda said the team, which receives training from the county, helped 54 pupils referred by their teachers last school year.
Principals had high praise for the efforts made by teachers and parents to make academic achievement possible. Many referred to the benefits of parents who volunteer in the classroom and offer help and support to pupils at home. Many also noted the importance of trained, committed teachers willing to take on new approaches and work with teachers from other subjects and grades.
Waverly Elementary Principal Joanne Ferguson thinks that teachers' ability to obtain and assess performance data before making lesson changes is important to the school's success.
Several principals also recognized that the curriculum guidance and best practices offered by the county help them meet state goals.
For example, Mindus said Northfield aligns its action plan with the county standards, based on state and national standards.
Meeting state goals "starts from the time they enter school," Ganjon said. "We have to focus on what we want them to know and be able to do."
"The curriculum integrates skills that will be assessed on the [state test]," Glascock said. "The test methodology becomes familiar to students and teachers.
"We know it's good instruction. It's not just for the sake of the test, or we wouldn't do it."
Although the Howard County School Improvement Teams will decide how to spend the awards, ranging from $26,608 to $37,594, all of the schools' wish lists include more computers and related technology. Many schools also will consider textbooks and other classroom materials.
All of the principals are pleased with the recognition and want to continue to improve.
Jagoda said her school is making great progress, but still has to strive for excellence.
"The money will help us do that," she said. And when the school reaches a level where it no longer qualifies for the improvement-based award, she said, "That will be the biggest payoff of all."