In a Baltimore school, a model of excellence

A recently released independent evaluation of two dozen Baltimore City schools conducted in 2011 suggests that even though the system has introduced important reforms in recent years, too many schools are still struggling to find effective ways to educate children. Yet educators should take heart from two bright spots in the report. Both the Mount Royal Elementary School and the Baltimore School for the Arts got positive ratings for effective teaching, and their example strongly suggests that with the right leadership, instructional methods and support structure, all kids have the potential to excel. The challenge will be to replicate these successful models in other schools so that the kind of highly effective teaching they exemplify becomes the rule rather than the exception.

Granted, the teaching model at the Baltimore School for the Arts, which has is own specialized curriculum as well as a state-of-the-art, custom-built facility, may be hard to duplicate at other city high schools. But that's surely not the case with Mount Royal Elementary, an inner-city school where students have racked up consistently high scores on state standardized reading and math tests for more than a decade.

Mount Royal adopted an interdisciplinary curriculum strategy during the 1990s that encouraged teachers in different subject areas to support each other by working as a team. Instead of teachers in one subject area instructing students on material unconnected to what children are learning in other classes, the school is based on a model that connects all the content areas together.

What the teachers discovered is that by working across disciplines they could create instructional models that engaged students' interest and enthusiasm in ways not possible when the subjects that make up the standard 4th- and 5th-grade curriculum were taught in isolation. By asking students to apply everything they were taught to a common theme or problem, teachers were able to help kids take ownership of their learning process and run with it. As a result, students not only learned more and faster, they also retained what they learned longer and took greater pride in their achievement.

This didn't happen overnight, and it took a tremendous amount of hard work and sacrifice by the school's principal and dedicated staff before the new approach got off the ground. Teachers willingly gave up part of their summers to meet in each other's homes and brainstorm concepts for an integrated curriculum, then they spent weeks turning their ideas into detailed lesson plans that connected the dots between each of the standard subject areas.

One year, for example, they decided to create a curriculum around the theme of golf — a sport their students admittedly knew little about. But the teachers were counting on the celebrity of Tiger Woods, then at the height of his popularity as the world's most successful African-American golf pro, to pique the kids' interest.

So reading and social studies teachers wrote lesson plans based on golf and its history, then created hands-on activities and projects, including the construction of a mini golf course in one of the school's hallways. Math teachers wrote lessons that taught students to measure the area, perimeter and other features of the course, as well as the arithmetic for keeping score and the use of decimals and fractions in understanding sports statistics.

Though Mount Royal's program was originally conceived to create better outcomes for students, it soon became apparent that the team approach was also helping teachers do their job more effectively. Stronger teachers became mentors for weaker colleagues, who in turn gained in confidence and ability. A decade after the integrated curriculum was introduced, the school's high standing is largely a result of the support teachers give each other, which has empowered the staff to do amazing things.

Why can't this model be applied to schools across the city? This week, city principals and administrators are attending leadership workshops and lectures aimed at helping more schools develop the tools and techniques required for effective teaching. Many of them will be encouraged to create their own interdisciplinary curricula to meet the more rigorous state and national standards that go into effect next year.

Those new standards mean the existing Mount Royal model can't simply be cloned at other elementary schools. But Mount Royal's staff is busily applying its experience to developing an integrated curriculum to fit the standards, and there's no reason that their labor needs to be replicated at other schools. Surely there is a way to scale-up the Mount Royal model so that other city elementary schools can begin using it right away rather than waiting to develop something from scratch. When you already have a model that works, the goal should be to copy it as widely and as quickly as possible so that the maximum number of city schoolchildren can benefit from its success.