Nine months of the battle; Documentary: A filmmaker tells the story of a troubled city school and its struggle to educate imperiled children.


THE FILM IS CALLED "The Battle of City Springs," and it opens with a shot of a tattered American flag high above the elementary school at Caroline and Lombard streets in East Baltimore.

That's appropriate. City Springs enrolls some of the poorest children in the city of Francis Scott Key and Fort McHenry. The documentary chronicles an academic year in the life of City Springs. It's a nine-month battle with an indecisive outcome.

But when the dawn breaks and the smoke clears, the flag is still there.

As documented in the film, to be shown Saturday at the Maryland Film Festival, the battle is fought against seemingly insurmountable odds. It's fall 1997, and third-year Principal Bernice Whelchel is determined to succeed in this "make-or-break year."

The obstacles are huge in a school surrounded by poverty, drugs and violence. The school is in the second year of a proven but debated program called Direct Instruction (DI). Whelchel's teachers, some new to the school and some with little experience with African-American children in the inner city, have difficulty adjusting to the highly structured program, with its emphasis on scripted lessons, repetition and phonics.

"The Battle of City Springs" focuses on kindergarten and first grade in a school where 100 percent of children are eligible for free meals. Kids enter City Springs from the adjacent Flag House Courts projects with less than half the vocabulary of their suburban peers. They don't understand the difference between "over" and "under." They have trouble with the verb "is."

The first semester of the 1997-1998 school year isn't auspicious. Two new kindergarten teachers, Clinetta Hill and Edwina Sampson, can't adjust to DI, while first-grade teacher Robyn Shaw, fresh from the University of Oregon (where DI was developed three decades ago), understands DI, but can't manage her class.

By February 1998, kindergarten is a mess. All told, eight adults are struggling to teach the 50 kindergartners, but the children are far behind the DI schedule and generally out of control. "The idea that these children will be reading by the end of the year is slipping out of reach," says the narrator.

Whelchel is frustrated. Spring testing in the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) looms. The media, politicians and educators, who should know better, have high expectations. There is heavy -- and unreasonable -- pressure to perform miracles. "I'm tired of excuses. I'm tired of hearing the 'buts,' " Whelchel lectures her teachers.

Then, a stroke of genius. With donated funds, Whelchel, Hill and Sampson visit the showcase of DI, Mabel B. Wesley Elementary in Houston, Texas. The Marylanders' eyes widen as they see Wesley's kindergartners reading at the second-grade level, counting by 11s, knowing the states, naming the vice president. They're engaged, alive, smiling. Learning. It's a spectacular school with a racial and economic profile similar to City Springs' (though it took 20 years to achieve that success).

For Whelchel, the narrator says, Wesley "is the Promised Land."

"From that point on," says Jon Palfreman, the Lexington, Mass.-based producer of the film, "you could see the change in the teachers. Seeing Wesley in action changed their mind-set and gave them the energy to move forward."

Renewed, the Baltimoreans return to City Springs and never look back. The school year -- and the documentary -- end on a high note on a warm spring day in 1998, the school having withstood the burning of the playground equipment by vandals and the stress of MSPAP. (In one of the film's many moving scenes, Whelchel nervously paces an empty hallway while her students labor over the test.)

Whelchel and other urban school reformers don't perform miracles. They "take tiny steps, one at a time, sometimes so tiny that you can't see them," the principal says.

Two years after the events documented in "The Battle of City Springs," Whelchel, now 52, remains optimistic. Sampson and Hill have become DI achievers, their pupils in 2000 far ahead of their kindergartners at the same time two years ago. And scores are up -- albeit by inches, not by yards.

"I was disappointed in the scores, but not surprised," says Robert Cook, a 58-year-old semiretired computer software entrepreneur and DI supporter who bankrolled "The Battle of City Springs" for about $350,000. "I wanted to show that Direct Instruction is hard, but that it works. And it does work if it's given a chance. It's at least a four- to five-year deal."

Anayezuka Ahidiana, a DI expert described in the film as "legendary," takes an even longer view. She, too, notes that City Springs is making slow but steady progress. It will make more progress, she says, if given the chance and steady support.

"These children will get more from school than their parents did," says the veteran teacher, "and their children will get more than they did. This is for my city. It took three generations to dig this hole."

"The Battle of City Springs" is to be shown at 1: 15 p.m. Saturday at the Charles Theatre, 1711 N. Charles St. It's also scheduled for a fall airing on PBS.

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