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Never losing a moment to learn

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When Amy Green's second-graders go to the bathroom, she makes sure they carry along books - for reading in line while they wait their turn.

"It seems like a waste of time to wait, not doing anything," says second-grader Emma Horoszczak as she reads a story by Beatrix Potter while waiting her turn. "It's more fun to read."

In the race to teach children how to read well, particularly by the end of third grade, time is precious. So when teachers at Bushy Park Elementary School began really examining how they use their 6 1/2 -hour school day, they were shocked.

Every month, they were losing 240 minutes of teaching time to inefficient class schedules - the equivalent of almost six days of classes a school year.

Every week, some students in the school band were pulled out of such basic academic lessons as reading and writing for music practice. And every day, as many as 20 minutes were wasted by students as they stood in line for bathroom breaks.

So this western Howard County elementary school made some simple changes.

It changed students' schedules. Band practice and other extras were timed to coincide with the less academic portions of the school day. And the bathroom-line reading began.

"Every minute is so important to their success," says Bushy Park special education teacher Linda Rosetti. "We can't afford to waste any time."

Bushy Park serves children from the affluent, predominantly white Glenwood area, where expectations for school achievement are as large as the suburban homes that sprawl across the once rural landscape. Yet the school delivers on those expectations - and more.

In a statistical analysis of the effectiveness of all of Howard County's elementary schools at teaching reading, The Sun found that Bushy Park does better than all other county elementaries when student demographic factors are held constant.

The analysis also found that many elementaries in less well-off Columbia also are very effective at teaching their children to read, despite public criticism in recent years for their relatively low student achievement and older facilities. These Columbia elementaries appear to be making better than average strides with a relatively diverse group of pupils.

Better than very well

With few, if any, of its students coming from impoverished homes, it's not surprising that Bushy Park would do better than its peers on reading tests. But to be considered the county's most effective school at teaching reading in The Sun's analysis, it had to perform even higher than its demographics would predict.

And Bushy Park - the wealthiest school profiled in this series on schools that are highly effective at reading instruction - did exactly that. On state reading tests, 79 percent of its third-graders and 66 percent of its fifth-graders scored satisfactorily.

In that sense, the school is most unusual, a school that should do very well and does even better than that. Such schools are fairly rare.

"In a way, the deck is kind of stacked against the school," says Geoffrey D. Borman, the Johns Hopkins University researcher hired to perform The Sun's analysis of effective reading instruction. "It has to be scoring a lot better than just about everyone else."

Like the other schools in this series, Bushy Park finds its success in a handful of consistent practices: phonics, teaching in small groups, a principal who takes charge of instruction, and treating time like a treasure that can easily slip away. But, above all else, Bushy Park is unusual in its devotion to using time well.

This is no accident.

Questioning everything

Two years ago, the school's staff went through an exercise rooted in the "total quality management" philosophy that swept through the business world in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They examined everything they were doing and asked if it was directly related to producing higher achievement.

"Schools do lots of things that they do just because schools have always done them," says Bushy Park Principal Nancy Kalin, who initiated and led the effort. "We decided to question everything and ask how it affected student achievement.

"If we couldn't come up with a clear answer," she says, "then we stopped doing it."

As a result, many teacher committees were streamlined or eliminated. One such group devoted to coming up with energy savings was handed over to students.

Faculty meetings are no longer filled with countless announcements about pizza days and ordering chalk. Those can be handled by memos - more work for the principal, but it frees up teachers' time to plan better instruction.

When Bushy Park's "school improvement team" gathers, the group doesn't waste time haggling about school fairs, as it would at many other elementaries. Instead, the teachers examine what each grade is doing to improve its reading or math skills - including looking at specific test-score goals and whether classes are moving to meet them.

"It gives everyone else a lot more time to focus on teaching," Kalin says. "That's the way schools should be."

That attention to preserving instructional time jibes with the conclusions of the National Education Commission on Time and Learning, which in 1994 produced the landmark study "Prisoners of Time."

The commission discovered that nonacademic activities eat up unbelievable chunks of the school day, leaving just three to four hours of the 6 1/2 -hour school day for teaching children such basic skills as reading and math.

"Currently, there is not enough room in our crowded school days to focus on achieving rigorous academic standards," the commission concluded after studying schools across the nation. "The answer lies in the ability to set priorities and to adhere to them. As with any scarce resource, we must treat time with respect and allocate it wisely."

Open Court phonics

As a result of Bushy Park's emphasis on hoarding time for instruction, its teachers directly spend more time on reading than at many other elementaries.

For beginning instruction, Bushy Park relies on the Open Court reading series - a phonics-intensive program that systematically lays out how children should be taught the relationships between letters and sounds.

Open Court turned up as one of the keys to success at three of the four schools profiled by The Sun in this series, with the fourth school relying on Baltimore County's own structured plan of phonics instruction.

When Howard County began using the Open Court program more than four years ago, it was thought by many educators to be mostly for schools with relatively high poverty rates and serving children entering kindergarten without much reading experience at home. In Baltimore, for example, many schools in impoverished areas are attributing their recent surge in reading test scores in part to the city adopting that program two years ago.

But even though it has one of the lowest rates of poverty in the most affluent county in the Baltimore area, Bushy Park's principal and teachers opted for Open Court. Their reasoning was simple. "Every kid should get it," says first-grade teacher Laine Malcotti. "Every kid needs to learn the sounds and letters in a structured way."

So with her children sprawled on the carpet in front of her chalkboard, Malcotti uses Open Court every day to go over a letter-sound relationship.

Today, it's the long U sound. Mule. Use. Fuse. Refuse. Huge.

"How do you know it's huge and not hug?" Malcotti asks.

"Because the G is the jah sound," replies Darrick Jones, 6.

Similar scenes can be found each morning in Bushy Park's four first-grade classrooms - teachers and pupils going through letters and sounds until every child confidently sorts out the sometimes subtle differences between long E's,short E's and silent E's.

"This is where the children learn to read," Malcotti says. "With the phonics, they're getting the tools they need."

Pupils take over

Across America, the first few minutes of virtually every elementary school day are devoted to the same trivial administrative tasks: Signing up to buy pizza or chicken nuggets, collecting books to return to the library, checking which pupils forgot their homework.

And at virtually every elementary, these mundane but time-consuming chores are carried out by teachers walking from desk to desk.

Not at Bushy Park.

First thing each day, in every one of the school's classes, pupils like first-grader Faith Walter take over these administrative chores.

After making sure her classmates have signed up for lunches, Faith tiptoes around the classroom, going from desk to desk checking to see who did last night's homework assignments and this morning's journal writing.

"It's like I get to be the teacher today," Faith says as she earnestly puts colorful stamp marks on the completed work. "It's a big job."

Extra time for teaching

This may seem like no big deal. But for Bushy Park teachers, it means that they have an extra 10 or 15 minutes each morning - more time for planning and more time for helping some students one-on-one, time that makes a big difference.

It gives Malcotti a chance to grab a couple of kids and pull them off to the side. She's not sure they understood yesterday's lesson, so she goes over it with them, reminding them how the silent E changes the sounds of vowels from short to long - as in such words as can and cane.

As the other pupils put away their journals, Faith, a tall child with dark, straight hair, stands up front just like her teacher and calls them forward, table by table, so they can review the class' daily plan. Alternating boys and girls, they read the day of the week, date and the day's schedule of subjects.

The class also reads together a list of the school's "core values" - being a good listener, following directions, helping and respecting others, ensuring safety. And then finally it's time for Malcotti to take charge for the day.

"They take over the morning, and I get an extra chance to teach," she says.

Advanced kindergartners

On the other side of the one-story, nearly windowless building, in Bushy Park's kindergarten classes, teachers face an unusual problem when it comes to apportioning their instructional time: So many children enter the school already on the verge of reading - from having been taught at home - that there's a real danger instruction might be aimed too low.

So the school's reading specialist makes regular visits to kindergartens to give extra tutoring to the early readers, the ones at the top of the class - who are often ignored in other schools' kindergartens because they've already learned their letters and sounds. Sitting on the floor of the hallway outside the kindergartens, this handful of top readers gets daily additional attention to keep moving ahead.

For struggling readers, minutes of instructional time are also carefully counted at Bushy Park. For these children, often boring written work at their desks is replaced with time spent directly with teachers alone or in small groups. Some get 2 1/2 hours or more of reading time each day, broken up various ways.

"If we give them double- and triple-doses of it, ... they'll get enough practice so they can be successful," says Rosetti, the special education teacher. Each morning, she pulls several first-graders out of their regular classes for about half an hour of work.

Learning vowels

"We'll listen to vowel sounds. I'll say the word, you identify the sound," Rosetti tells the three kids assembled around a table one morning.

Lag. "Short A. Ah," says Shantraya.

Pest. "Eh. Short E," says Sean.

Sand. "Ah. short A," says Scott.

Midway through this lesson, it's time for a quick break - but only for 30 or 45 seconds, Rosetti reminds the kids. "Let's get back to it," she says in a blink of an eye, handing out a work sheet with more complicated vowel sounds. "Every minute is so precious, we can't waste it."

Bread. Head. Meant. Then, a really hard word: instead. But not even that trips up Scott.

"I broke up in and stead," the 7-year-old says, flashing a smile beneath his floppy blond hair as he explains how he read the whole list.

Even Bushy Park's pupils have begun to understand the urgency of spending their class time wisely - in part because Bushy Park has taken the somewhat unusual step of placing more responsibility for success on their shoulders.

Just about all Maryland schools are big on goals and standards these days, because the state's annual exams require that children learn how to apply certain skills. Pupils at most elementaries are taught precisely how much work they will need to do to earn particular scores on the state tests - short essay questions may require at least three paragraphs and four or fewer misspellings for passing marks.

But Bushy Park goes several steps beyond that.

Children learn to do more than parrot back the education-speak in which the standards for the state's exams are typically expressed. They actually learn to use their test scores and grades to figure out what skills they haven't yet mastered.

Take Irene Brown's fourth-grade classroom.

Setting their own goals

Scattered across its walls are charts and tables tracking the progress of each student in the class and goals for how each aims to do better. Pupils confidently take visitors up to the wall, showing how much they've learned so far and their specific strategies for making improvements.

"We make at least two new goals every quarter," says fourth-grader Kyle Flanagan, 10. His goals: "I want to get 100 percent on every 'fast-fact' test and get 90 percent or higher on the rest of the reading tests."

Even in physical education and music, students track their own work according to the school's standards and their goals.

"It's a question of making the children believe they're responsible for what happens here, for what they're learning," Brown says. "If they understand that what they do matters, then we don't have any problems.

"They get mad if we're not working. They know that the time here is important, and they don't want to waste any of it."

Tomorrow: Georgetown East Elementary: Power in small classes.

About this series

Firmly identifying elementary schools that excel at teaching reading is a complex problem, primarily because no two student bodies are exactly alike.

But an unusually rigorous analysis of schools' test scores linked to data about particular pupils made it possible to pinpoint exceptional schools in the four largest school systems in the Baltimore area.

The goal was to identify which elementary schools within each of the districts are doing more to improve the reading skills of their pupils.

Frequently, such efforts involve nothing more than finding schools with the highest test scores. But the very top scorers are usually schools with the least poverty among their pupils.

Instead, The Sun's analysis -- performed by Geoffrey D. Borman of the Johns Hopkins University's Center for Social Organization of Schools -- used statistical techniques to essentially level the playing field and clearly highlight the varying effectiveness of schools' reading instruction.

Borman's study controlled for a long list of pupil factors that correlate with achievement, among them: family income, race, attendance, mobility, and percentages of special education pupils and non-native English speakers.

As a result, a small group of elementaries emerged in each district as much more effective at teaching reading than others. These schools -- no matter what pupils they serve -- break the typical link between achievement and such factors as family income.

At the same time, some schools with high test scores were found to be only average when it came to making a difference for their pupils. And some schools with low test scores are having more of an impact than it would seem at first glance.

In choosing one of the most effective schools to profile in each district, a mix of communities was sought -- to provide a broad basis for learning why some schools are much more successful.

One of the area's six school systems, Harford County, was unable to provide some essential test scores, and so a Harford school is not profiled. School officials there say they discovered only recently that the data had not been kept by their testing company.

And Carroll County school officials refused requests to provide test scores linked to particular students and schools, a requirement for Borman's analysis. Even though all students in his study were identified only by random numbers, not their names, Carroll school officials cited privacy concerns.

By contrast, officials of the four largest school systems in the area -- Baltimore and Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Howard counties -- were satisfied that the study protected their students' privacy.

Howard County schools

The impact of the reading instruction programs at each Howard County elementary school is ranked below on a percentile scale from most effective to least effective - with the 50th percentile being average. Within five broad groupings, schools are listed alphabetically.

Most effective

(100th to 81st percentile)

Bushy Park

Hammond

Longfellow

Above average

(80th to 61st percentile)

Clemens Crossing

Deep Run

Jeffers Hill

Northfield

Phelps Luck

Talbott Springs

Worthington

Average

(60th to 41st percentile)

Centennial Lane

Dasher Green

Forest Ridge

Ilchester

Manor Woods

Pointers Run

Running Brook

St. John's Lane

Stevens Forest

Swansfield

Thunder Hill

Waterloo

Below average

(40th to 21st percentile)

Atholton

Bollman Bridge

Bryant Woods

Clarksville

Elkridge

Laurel Woods

Rockburn

Waverly

West Friendship

Least effective

(20th percentile and below)

Guilford

Lisbon

NOTE: This analysis is based on test results linked to student data provided by the Howard County school system and the Maryland State Department of Education. That included reading achievement scores from the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests, given annually to all third- and fifth-graders, and from a national test, the Comprehensive Tests of Basic Skills, given annually to all second- and fourth-graders. Particular weight was given to the test scores of pupils who remained in the same schools for several years. Fulton, Gorman Crossing, Hollifield Station and Triadelphia Ridge elementaries were opened too recently to be included in the analysis.

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