Baltimore County school programs focus on helping students soar; Strategies include teams of teachers, mentors and interdisciplinary lessons


Educators in Baltimore County's northeast corridor are betting that two new programs -- the Falcon Academy at Overlea High School and Pathway to Excellence at Golden Ring Middle -- will improve student achievement and smooth the transition from middle school to high school.

Golden Ring's Pathway program sets aside time during the school day for staff development -- time for teachers to work on their classroom craft, which translates to academic success. Overlea's Academy focuses on ninth-graders to help them adjust to a larger school and more rigorous studies.

Because most Golden Ring students feed into Overlea, administrators hope the programs will give students a clear idea of what is expected from them in the classroom.

Both programs -- funded through $500,000 in state and county money -- are built around teachers.

"All school reform starts with a quality teacher delivering a rigorous program in every classroom, every day," said Bill Lawrence, director of secondary schools for the school system's northeast area. "With these two programs, we want to guarantee that that happens."

The benefit of mentors

At Golden Ring, Principal Stephen J. Ponzillo expects teachers to push themselves in the classroom and record their progress in journals. "With the Pathway to Excellence program, every person on the team has the opportunity to make a difference," he said.

To make the Pathway program work, Ponzillo received extra funding to add several new positions -- including a math resource teacher and dean of discipline. Two new teaching positions allowed Ponzillo to free up Pathway teachers, most of whom are new to teaching or to the school system, for meetings with mentors and content leaders, and for classroom observations.

"It's helpful because you can pick up strategies from teachers with more experience, including time-management tips," said Tammy Moeykens, 28, a teacher with five years' classroom experience but a recent arrival to the Baltimore County school system. "When I was teaching for the Baltimore City school system, I was all by myself. There was no team-building between teachers."

As a result of the Pathway program, Golden Ring students know more teachers by name. Most of them have grown used to the flow of teachers in and out of their classrooms.

"To me, it's a nice thing," said seventh-grader Nancy Gonzalez, 12, of Rosedale, referring to Pathway teacher visits as part of frequent classroom observations. "It's nice when I see my English teacher in my science class. I know that he's interested in what's happening here and that he's learning all the time."

Overlea administrators unveiled the Falcon Academy in August. The program places ninth-graders in their own wing of the school with a team of teachers. Although similar programs exist in Anne Arundel and Howard counties, the Falcon Academy is the first of its kind in Baltimore County. "The academy is designed to improve academic achievement for all students, foster and reward appropriate behavior, improve attendance, and increase participation in the total school program," said assistant principal and academy coordinator Christine Amiss.

Students like the approach

Like those in the Pathway program, Academy teachers spend part of the day with colleagues and a team leader, honing instruction skills.

The three teams -- each composed of four teachers -- also discuss student behavior, sharing information about a teen-ager's tardiness or math abilities. Teachers use a computer to keep tabs on each student, including his or her attendance record, standardized test scores and grades.

Academy teacher teams work together to create interdisciplinary lessons for students. Recently, teachers cooked up a politics-based curriculum in which students composed campaign speeches, circulated recycling petitions and cobbled together a platform for education reform.

Although Academy students don't see all that goes on in the teachers' conference room, they seem to appreciate teachers' efforts to know the "total child."

"I like the Falcon Academy because we have more time to study and work on our homework," said Megan Dix, 14, of Rosedale, referring to the Academy's 90-minute class periods, longer than the standard class length. "That helps me to get better grades."

Pub Date: 10/18/99

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