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109 city schools improve since '97


Baltimore's place at the absolute bottom of public school systems across the state masks a surprising trend: A growing number of elementary schools are performing above or close to the state average.

If you live in Curtis Bay or near the corner of North Avenue and Calvert Street, for example, your children are achieving at the same level as children in Havre de Grace or Owings Mills.

"Or better," says Irma Johnson, a spirited principal who has turned around Dallas F. Nicholas Sr. Elementary, just north of North Avenue, and now sends her graduates to such select schools as Roland Park Country.

According to the results of the latest state tests, released last week, 10 city elementary schools scored at or above the state average and a half-dozen or more are within about three points of the average.

That's a big improvement over several years ago, when only two city schools, in more prosperous areas of the city - Roland Park and Woodhome - were close to average on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program exams.

Take Franklin Square Elementary School, at the corner of Saratoga and Stricker streets in West Baltimore, a school where few children were reading at grade level four years ago but that is now scoring above the state average.

Or Arlington Elementary, in the Northwest Baltimore neighborhood just south of Pimlico Race Course, which has doubled its scores on state tests in five years.

Behind the pack of those performing well is another group of schools moving up quickly. Others have made slow but steady progress during 4 1/2 years of reforms heavily subsidized by the state. As a result, 109 of the city's 120 elementary schools have made gains since the 1996-1997 school year.

"There is a sense of mission. People are on a mission," said Charlene Cooper Boston, the area executive officer of a group of elementary schools.

The 16 schools now approaching or above the state average have provided encouragement to poorly performing schools. "There is hope because we see so many schools improving. The shining stars are beacons to the rest of us to say we can make it, too," Boston said.

About 50 principals who gathered last week at the school system's headquarters on North Avenue to hear about the test results celebrated. They cheered one another and oohed and aahed like spectators at a fireworks display as the list of scores flashed on a screen.

The progress, principals say, didn't come through some flashy new program but through a back-to-basics approach that included a new curriculum and textbooks for reading and math, smaller class sizes, better pay and training for principals and teachers, and higher promotion standards.

Schools making strides range from the city's traditional best performers - Roland Park has improved for seven consecutive years - to once-failing schools, such as City Springs.

In some cases, a new principal made the difference. As often, though, schools that have had the same principal for years made progress after they were given money and tools.

"I think for me this has really been a journey ... my journey to make better teachers," said Johnson, principal at Dallas Nicholas for four years.

Johnson said she has been helped by other principals who share information about their successes and their failures.

Some principals emphasize that the additional money they have received in the past several years has given them vital resources - from reading coaches for struggling children to new textbooks.

"It takes money to educate poor children because they don't have the opportunity to participate in the educational part of growing up that children in more affluent areas do," Johnson said.

Barbara J. Pryor, principal of Curtis Bay Elementary this year and previously principal of Bay-Brook Elementary, saw test scores double last year at Bay-Brook. Even so, the school's scores remained in the single digits - 30 points below the state average.

She said she has seen a change in the culture of the system in the past 4 1/2 years, during the reform period inaugurated by a city-state partnership. "I am very passionate about what I am doing and my children. It is a focus like we have never had before. Everyone understands what is at stake," she said.

School achievers

Sixteen Baltimore elementary schools exceeded, met or came within about three points of meeting the statewide average on the latest Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests.

Roland Park Elementary/Middle 55.6

Patapsco Elementary 55.4

Dallas F. Nicholas Sr. Elementary 52.5

John Eager Howard Elementary 49.2

Mount Washington Elementary-Middle 48.0

Franklin Square Elementary 47.6

Curtis Bay Elementary 46.9

George Washington Elementary 46.2

Hamilton Elementary-Middle 43.9

Armistead Gardens Elementary 43.3

Francis Scott Key Elementary-Middle 43.2

City Springs Elementary 42.4

Midtown Academy 41.9

Thomas Johnson Elementary 41.8

Cecil Elementary 41.4

Arlington Elementary 40.3

The statewide average 43.7

The citywide average 22.5

Source: Baltimore City public schools

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