It looks like half of Pat Appell's first-graders are absent today. The same seems to be true next door in Michelle Magee's classroom.
In fact, pupils appear to be missing in all the first- and second-grade classrooms at Georgetown East Elementary School. Why else would everything seem so empty?
But this is how it's supposed to look every day in a school fiercely devoted to cutting class sizes: Classes of only 14 or so young children seemingly dwarfed in spaces built for 25 or more.
"It's so different than every other school," Magee says. "We have so many more chances to work with our kids one on one."
Many elementary schools spend their thousands of dollars in federal poverty money on education's latest fads. Georgetown East spends its extra dollars on something more basic: more teachers.
Enough teachers so that Samantha Lean and her fellow second- and third-graders are able to have at least 40 minutes of reading instruction each day with usually no more than seven other children in the classroom.
Enough teachers so that struggling readers - whether they're 6 years old or 10 - get extra help almost every day, either individually or in groups of four or five pupils.
"It makes all of the difference," says Georgetown's principal for the past three years, Michele Marks. "The first-grade kids come in with such a wide range of reading abilities, from those who can read to those who don't know all of their letters. Having a class that's 15 is much more effective than a class that's 25."
For this Annapolis elementary school, smaller class sizes than most other elementaries have helped propel the school to among the very best in Anne Arundel County at teaching reading.
Georgetown East is among the top three elementary schools in the county in reading test scores when student demographic factors are held constant, according to a statistical analysis by The Sun.
The school's success largely relies on the same factors as other exceptional schools profiled in this series: phonics, extra time devoted to reading, plenty of remedial help, and a principal who enforces those priorities.
But for Georgetown East, what's really paid off is cutting class sizes to ensure instruction in small groups.
The best research on class size has found that student achievement tends to improve when early grade classes are kept below 17 pupils. As a result, as the drive to teach reading well by third grade has taken on urgency in the past few years, so has the push to lower class sizes.
Last year, a Maryland task force recommended that elementaries across the state cut class sizes in the early grades to between 13 and 17 pupils, far below the state average of 22 to 25 pupils.
Yet reducing class sizes is extremely expensive - both for hiring extra teachers and building extra classroom space - making the statewide effort spotty so far.
For example, Baltimore City has cut most of its early grade classes to below 22 pupils. But Montgomery County's elementaries don't reduce class sizes for the whole day. Instead they give all first- and second-graders 90 minutes of continuous reading instruction in groups of no more than 15 pupils.
The push to cut class sizes has taken on such significance that Howard County politicians were willing to raise taxes last year to pay for it. And last week, Howard's school board and political leaders concluded weeks of budget wrangling by scraping together enough money to ensure that all first- and second-grade classes will be reduced in the fall from an average of 25 pupils to 19.
At Georgetown East Elementary in Annapolis, teacher Appell loves that she gets to work with only 14 first-graders at a time - calling it "a wonderful chance to really teach." She smiles when she talks about being the envy of teachers at elementaries that have as many as 26 pupils in their classes.
At least 10 desks sit unused in her classroom, and there's always lots of space for pupils to spread out on the floor, curling up to read by themselves or in pairs. "Find the word tighter," Appell tells three children seated near her at a semicircular wooden table. All three point to it on a page of their tiny book on butterflies.
Moments later, 7-year-old Kierra Creek struggles with the word caterpillar.
"Frame the word that you know," Appell tells Kierra.
"Cat," Kierra says, as she puts her fingers around the first syllable and ignores the rest. Then, sound by sound, she works her way through the word. "Caterpillar!" she finally exclaims, beaming with a big smile.
The group - Appell, Kierra and two other girls - have no trouble concentrating, largely because the rest of the class is small enough and spread out over enough space that those children have little cause to make noise, get distracted or interrupt.
The small classes are particularly helpful because Georgetown East is one of those often noisy schools built without windows or walls - a 1970s construction strategy based on the long-discredited "open classroom" model. As at many such schools these days, teachers have struggled to ward off distractions by throwing up mazes of portable chalkboards and bookcases to shield their classes from sight, if not sound.
Georgetown East began cutting class sizes two years ago, adding one teacher to the trio in first grade and another to the three second-grade teachers. This costs $80,000 to $90,000 a school year in federal Title I funds, aid that goes to all schools with relatively high percentages of children living in poverty.
The school also has used some of its federal aid to pay for an extra reading teacher.
Billions of federal dollars have been flowing to predominantly low-income schools like Georgetown East for more than three decades, since President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society efforts of the 1960s led to the Title I program. About 25 percent of all elementary schools in relatively well- off Anne Arundel County receive such funds, compared to a high in this region of about 80 percent of all elementaries in Baltimore City.
But over the decades, much of that money has been frittered away on unproven fads that happened to grab educators' attention - producing little in the way of improved achievement among children living in poverty.
In more recent years, these funds typically have been used to provide more teachers for remedial programs. But now - with more schools focusing on improving early grade reading instruction - a greater push is being made to devote the extra aid to reducing class sizes for all children.
Marks, Georgetown East's principal, believes this is definitely the way to go.
"Using our federal money to cut class sizes really wasn't a very hard decision to make," she says. "It wouldn't seem too difficult for other schools to look into this, too."
Sitting south of Annapolis' historic district, a couple of blocks from a busy road lined with gas stations and suburban strip malls, Georgetown East does not fit the stereotype of an impoverished urban school. And the story of its success is complex.
For starters, the children attending Georgetown East are the most diverse group of the four schools in this series.
Though some of its pupils come from a relatively affluent neighborhood near the waterfront, many families from that area send their children to Annapolis' extensive network of private schools - not so much to flee Georgetown East as to secure scarce seats for middle school.
Immediately surrounding the school are many small, single-family homes, and nearby are large developments of subsidized rental apartments and townhouses - neighborhoods that produce large numbers of pupils who qualify for free lunches. Almost two-thirds of the school's children are African- American.
Such relative diversity brings challenges. In a county with many schools in far wealthier neighborhoods, Georgetown East is the kind of school that tends to have high teacher turnover. Once teachers gain enough experience to qualify to transfer, they tend to start looking to schools considered to be "easier," those with fewer children from low-income neighborhoods.
While Georgetown East has a core of veterans, more than 40 percent of the school's teachers changed last summer. "It's like we're training teachers for a lot of other schools," says Marks. "We get lots of compliments from the other schools that hire our teachers away, but we don't need so many compliments. We need to have some more stability."
Perhaps as a result of its teacher turnover, student performance at Georgetown East has not been particularly consistent through the 1990s. Overall, though, its recent reading achievement has been higher than most other Anne Arundel County elementaries with high poverty rates.
The school's third-grade reading scores on Maryland's annual exams rose to 64 percent scoring at a satisfactory level in 1996, dropped to 19 percent two years later and jumped back up to 50 percent on the most recent tests. On fifth-grade state reading tests, one-third of the school's students scored satisfactory in 1999. State averages on these two tests are about 41 percent.
Georgetown East teachers believe their relatively good test scores don't come from small class sizes alone, but also from having a solid plan for what they're doing with the smaller groups of pupils.
So the teachers - like those at the other effective schools profiled by The Sun - make sure that beginning readers learn to read with a heavy dose of phonics, or instruction in the relationships between letters and their sounds.
In recent years in Maryland and across the country, many schools have been swinging back to stressing phonics instead of the "whole-language" approach to teaching beginning reading, which stresses immersing children in literature and tends to neglect phonics. Anne Arundel County schools, including Georgetown East, are making the same transition.
In the past couple of years, the county has adopted a new reading program - called "Wordmasters" - that has a lot in common with Baltimore County's phonics-oriented "word identification" program.
This year, Georgetown East and other Anne Arundel schools have swung further back to phonics, with some phasing in the Open Court reading program in first and second grades. While it's too early to determine whether Open Court is having a positive impact on the school's test scores, the program's emphasis on sound- and-letter instruction has been given credit for the recent dramatic rise in reading test scores at many Baltimore City schools.
Such programs - which typically go to great lengths to lay out teaching plans lesson by lesson - are often found useful at schools like Georgetown East, helping to create greater focus and consistency in instruction, even as many teachers come and go.
"Having the right kind of curriculum to teach is so important to the students' success," says Carrie Mitten, who oversees the school's reading program. "It's important whether the teachers have a lot of experience or if the teachers are brand new to the school."
While Georgetown East has devoted much of its extra funding to smaller classes, it hasn't dropped Anne Arundel's countywide focus on one-on-one tutoring.
More than any other school system in the Baltimore area, the county devotes a huge amount of resources to a program known as "Reading Recovery." It gives struggling readers about 20 weeks of individual tutoring with a highly trained teacher for a half-hour every day.
This approach is similar to that used with success at Martin Boulevard Elementary in Baltimore County - another highly effective school in this series - with one critical difference: Georgetown East relies on teachers, who are more carefully trained but also far more expensive than the minimum-wage parent tutors used at the Baltimore County school.
At Georgetown East, two teachers are trained to do Reading Recovery tutoring, each working with four students a day, or about eight to 10 pupils per school year. The teachers are paid with county and federal funds.
Demand for Reading Recovery is at such a premium that tutoring begins an hour before the start of classes at Georgetown East - in part because it lets a pair of first- graders receive help without pulling them from daily classroom instruction.
By 7:45 a.m., one of the Reading Recovery tutors, Martha Hansen, is working with the first of her four pupils of the day. A veteran teacher who now works part time, Hansen dives into one of first- grader Devin Montague's favorite stories, "The Three Little Pigs."
He reads page after page, tracing his finger beneath sentences as the teacher tracks every correctly read word.
"No finger," Hansen says, "just your eyes."
Devin complies and picks up the pace with a shy smile. When he accidentally skips a page, he quickly notices that the story doesn't make sense and turns back - earning praise from her for correcting himself.
For 30 minutes, Hansen focuses on this one struggling child - reviewing a story he read earlier, then having him write a sentence about it and start a new story. Hansen monitors everything Devin reads, so as to precisely pinpoint skills that need a boost.
Trying to leverage broader gains from Reading Recovery's big expenses, Georgetown East teachers - like those at many schools using the program - work to put its techniques into practice every day in regular classes. All of the school's first- and second-grade teachers keep running records of their pupils' progress - carefully tracking their reading skills word by word, a Reading Recovery method.
Says second-grade teacher Catherine Joynes: "I know how well everyone in my class is reading almost all the time."
Georgetown East keeps experimenting to provide more time for instruction. In the past two years, that's meant juggling teachers and pupils in a way that's not widely used in the Baltimore area.
The goal is to provide more small-group reading instruction in the school's second and third grades. Like most everything else in schools these days, the approach has a somewhat arcane label: "parallel block scheduling."
At most elementaries, teachers typically run two or three reading groups with their entire class in the room - working with one small group, while the other children are assigned written work to keep busy. Classroom noise and questions from confused students routinely create disruptions.
But at Georgetown East, classroom teachers concentrate only on the seven to 10 second- and third- graders who are reading with them. The others are sent to another classroom, where another teacher works with a much larger group on reading and thinking activities.
So third-grade teacher Myriam Ramsey is able to pull aside 10 children for almost 45 minutes to work on "The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses."
And as third-grader Samantha Lean digs through the story - searching for words that use the blended sounds, sh, st and gr - Ramsey has time to go from pupil to pupil and check on their progress.
"The advantage is you can get to every child while they're making their mistakes and correct them right away," Ramsey says.
Meantime, the 13 or so other third-graders from Ramsey's classroom - as well as pupils from the school's other two third-grade classes - are in a classroom down the hall, hard at work writing summaries of a recent nature field trip.
No busy work
This scheduling has forced teachers to jettison the kind of written class work that's designed to keep children quiet and busy while others are learning with the teacher. That kind of busy work - so common at many elementaries - is often hard to find at effective schools like Georgetown East and the others in this series.
These exceptional schools jealously guard instructional time as their most precious resource, packing as much as they can into every hour.
And when it comes to teaching reading, they know that effective lessons begin with letters and sounds, involve children in the smallest groups possible, and are quickly followed by testing and tutoring.
In the race to teach children to read at grade level by third grade - whether pupils are rich, poor or in-between - teachers at these elementaries know that their success requires focus and consistency in what they teach.
And the results at Georgetown East and other such standout schools speak for themselves.
As Jennifer Riegger, a reading specialist at Georgetown East, puts it, echoing a sentiment common to those working in these highly effective schools:
"We can make sure they learn how to read."
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 students 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.
Anne Arundel County schools
The impact of the reading instruction programs at each Anne Arundel 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.
(100th to 81st percentile)
(80th to 61st percentile)
(60th to 41st percentile)
Cape St. Claire
(40th to 21st percentile)
Glen Burnie Park
Richard Henry Lee
(20th percentile and below)
NOTE: This analysis is based on test results linked to student data provided by the Anne Arundel 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.