The children in Barbara Morant's first-grade class at Furley Elementary are deep in their daily three-hour literacy block.
Emmanuel Lawson, 6, is reading entries from "The Children's Atlas of People and Places," in which his favorite is the Great Wall of China. Others are working on "Big Idea" projects: creating cartoons about Hermit the Crab or writing poems about their homes.
The focus on literacy at the Northeast Baltimore school is a key element of a reform model education officials began experimenting with three years ago. Called Achievement First, it emphasizes in-classroom teacher training and support for principals.
The model helped city elementary schools reach new highs on the latest national reading and math tests. On Thursday, officials reported significant gains for the second straight year on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills and said they signified a turnaround in schools that were once poor performers.
Twenty-five of the city's 120 elementaries are using Achievement First, a number expected to nearly double, to 47, next year, said Bonnie S. Copeland, executive director of the nonprofit Fund for Educational Excellence, which created the model.
Among the additional schools will be several low performers the school system's chief executive officer, Carmen V. Russo, plans to oversee.
The 10 schools that instituted Achievement First in 1998 slightly exceeded the city's average on the reading portion of the CTBS in grades one through five this year, according to Fund for Educational Excellence data. The average for all 25 Achievement First schools met or exceeded that of the city in every grade but first.
"The culture is really changing in our Achievement First schools, and it's being reflected in student achievement," said Bernice Pinkney, Achievement First's director. "You raise the bar, and they'll reach for it."
At Furley, which has about 650 pupils, children in every grade increased their scores in both reading and math. First-, second- and third-graders scored at or above the national median percentile in reading.
"I knew that we had the ability, I knew that the staff development was there, and I said, 'Yes! It's about time that it showed,' " said Barbara A. Meyers, Furley's principal. "You wanted the scores to reflect what you're doing every day."
Achievement First's intense focus on reading is bolstered by the support the program provides teachers and principals.
Meyers is paired with an "education coach," who accompanies her on classroom visits, helps her track pupils performing below grade level and advises her on how to be a better instructional leader.
Meyers described mentor Ann Brooks, a former principal at Moravia Park Primary for whom she used to work as an assistant principal, as an "advocate." Together, she said, they make a kind of "dynamic duo."
First-year teachers get support as well: from veteran teachers, a designated mentor and, in some cases, each other. Out of 28 general education teachers at Furley, Meyers said, nine are in their first year and seven are provisional, which means they are not fully credentialed as teachers.
Two of those first-years are Tennille Garrison and Shana Smith, who team-teach a class of second-graders performing below grade level in reading. The class includes a few children who can't read at all.
Smith, who joined Furley midway through the school year, called Meyers an inspiration. "She helps out a lot and gives us advice on how to improve our teaching," said the 26-year-old, who graduated from the University of Delaware last year with an education degree.
Phyllis Roche, mentor to Furley's first-year teachers, said new teachers arrive with a range of skills and needs.
"It's really helping to improve the students [and] the teachers," she said of the mentor arrangement. "It's helped me. It's like a give-and-take kind of thing, and it's happening all the time."
Betty Morgan, chief academic officer for the 98,000-student district, said Achievement First has created a support system for teachers and principals that leads to improved classroom instruction. "I have liked Achievement First all along because it has helped us to develop our own capacity to reform ourselves, instead of giving us a quick fix from the outside," she said.
In addition to gains on the CTBS, scores on the most recent Maryland School Performance Assessment Program exam rose at the Achievement First schools by an average of 6 percentage points, surpassing the average increase in the city and the state.
Copeland said the Fund for Educational Excellence receives $50,000 from the school district for each of its 25 schools, which covers about 60 percent of the program's costs. School officials may increase their allocation next school year, she said.
In addition to Achievement First, the school system is using several other phonics-based reform models, including Direct Instruction, and participating schools also posted significant gains on the CTBS.
School officials have said the systemwide adoption of a new reading curriculum in 1998 is another reason test scores rose across the board this year.
At Furley, Morant's classroom is set up as something of a shrine to reading and writing. A library has books about insects and animals, and fairy tales written by the children are displayed on the walls.
Meyers said her school has spent between $4,000 and $5,000 this year on books; in 1999, the school's first using Achievement First, it spent about $17,000.
She said the effort is paying off.
"The proof is in what our children have done," she said. "We've worked long and hard. It's great to see the fruits of our labor."