An elementary school begins to restore its reputation after years of decline and struggle

The Baltimore Sun

The lime-green shoots of tulips are beginning to push their way through a patch of rich dirt in front of Germantown Elementary School. Principal Walter Reap parks beside this garden every morning, and sometimes he considers the tulips' slow and perseverant reach for the sun and sky as a symbol of the gradual rebirth he is seeing at his school.

Reap is in his first year as head of an Annapolis school that has grappled with drastic demographic shifts during the past decade.

A school that once had nearly 600 students evenly split between white and African-American, saw its enrollment drop in 2001 to barely 400, with Hispanic students making up a third of enrollment, as white students dropped to 15 percent. The school has 411 students.

Some of the new students were among the city's poorest, a third of whom did not speak English at home. As recently as five years ago, six out of 10 third-graders did not pass state tests in reading. Adding to those challenges were community perceptions that the school was unsafe and lacking in order and discipline.

Germantown's struggle to draw neighborhood children back into its fold is not unique -- particularly in Annapolis, where about 40 percent of elementary-school-age children either attend private schools or are home-schooled.

But as those challenges persist, Germantown's administrators and staff have started taking steps to repair the image of a school they believe could become a premier elementary school in the district, boasting its diversity as a badge of honor, rather than a hurdle to overcome.

"There just seemed to be this idea out there that this was an unruly place and I had parents concerned about the diversity at the school," Reap said of conversations he's had with parents at community meetings. "They want to know how does the diversity affect their child's education. I think for Caucasians, they're not used to being the minority, so they're not sure how it works and they were unsure how that would affect their children. That's changing a little bit now. They're visiting our school and they're surprised, pleasantly, by what they see."

Over the past four years, during which time Reap was promoted from assistant principal, the school began hosting gatherings -- movie nights, a winter carnival, a Hispanic heritage night -- that embrace different cultures and promote frank discussions about the diversity within the 41-year-old school's halls.

Germantown also began emphasizing positive behavior through daily, 15-minute lessons, teaching students how to be respectful and deal responsibly with peer pressure, putdowns and anger.

The school started to make use of federal funds meant for low-income schools that allowed Germantown to hire nine intervention specialists. The specialists work in classrooms with teachers to identify learning gaps and pour extra attention into academically struggling children. Their presence has brought teacher-student ratios in many classes to an enviable 1-to-10, lower than many private schools, and have become a key draw for families that are giving the school a chance.

"We went into the school, thinking we'll give it a year and see what happens," said Karen Makris, who has a fourth-grader at the school. "We heard a lot of rumors in the community that it's not a good school, but that's not what I saw. The school gets a lot of [federal] money that my child benefits from, through small class sizes, extra help in class, a lot of great after-school programs. We've got a good core group of parents who help out regularly."

Germantown has launched an aggressive drive to welcome more parents and community volunteers, to help with everything from lunchroom monitoring to planting gardens that simultaneously beautify the school and create "living classrooms" that enhance science education.

School staff say they're seeing signs of a rejuvenation. Families are more eager to spend time at the school, with children lingering on the playgrounds even after the final bell rings.

Germantown's staff members are waiting for signs of improvement to emerge in numbers. They are watching for state data this summer to see how their efforts have affected enrollment and the demographic makeup of their school. With state tests this week, they're also eager to see whether they've sustained steady gains in student performance. The school's reading performance among third-graders, once its weakest area, now boasts a 77 percent pass rate.

"This school is a very different place than what it was when I started here 12 years ago," said guidance counselor Angie Guns. "This used to be a very stressful environment for teachers and students. Teachers were frustrated because of the loss of learning time with behavior problems, and children were frustrated because they couldn't learn, weren't getting certain concepts. That's when we saw a lot of families leaving us."

Guns said principals as far back as a decade ago began instituting new behavior programs and intensified the focus on academics that began turning the school around, but it was a change only those inside the school were noticing. Meanwhile, neighborhoods with professional families and higher achieving children kept sending their children to nearby private schools, she said.

"Unfortunately, we saw it was a lot easier to earn a bad reputation than get rid of one," Guns said.

But the momentum seems to be on the school's side this year, Guns and her colleagues say.

"There just seems to be a groundswell of enthusiasm about the school this year. This feels like a real neighborhood school," Reap said.

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