Winning NASDC Project Takes Flight in Md.
This article is the first in an occasional series that will track "Roots and Wings,'' one of the projects awarded a grant by the New American Schools Development Corporation for creating "break the mold'' schools.
By Lynn Olson
LEXINGTON PARK, MD.--St. Mary's County juts into the Chesapeake Bay between the Potomac and Patuxent rivers, a place better known for its annual oyster festival than for its schools.
But in the next five years, this rural community hopes to become the breeding ground for a new generation of elementary schools that will be so visibly superior to what now exists that they will be replicated across the United States.
The project is known as "Roots and Wings,'' and it is the collective brainchild of a team of researchers at Johns Hopkins University, officials in the Maryland Department of Education, and teachers and administrators here.
Last August, their design was one of only 11 selected nationally for funding by the New American Schools Development Corporation, out of nearly 700 proposals.
American business leaders launched the multi-million-dollar nonprofit corporation in 1991, at the request of President Bush, to help foment a "revolution'' in education by financing the design and replication of a group of "break the mold'' schools.
"Their mission,'' the corporation proclaimed in an advertisement announcing the award winners, "is not merely to reform what already exists, but to start with a clean sheet of paper and rethink everything about American education and how it must work in the 21st century.''
But the leaders of the St. Mary's County project, like most members of the design teams recognized by NASDC elsewhere, cannot start from scratch. They must work with the schools they have. This is the story of that effort.
The phase-one contract for Roots and Wings, signed last month, is
for $992,775. Contracts with all of the NASDC design teams were
completed as of
last week. (See related story, page 13.)
'Gone to Heaven'
When Elfreda Mathis, the principal of Lexington Park Elementary School here, heard that Roots and Wings had been awarded a NASDC contract, "I had to go outside and get some air,'' she recalled recently.
"I thought I had died and gone to heaven,'' she chuckled.
But these days, she admitted, "I'm kind of overwhelmed.''
A large woman who attracts children like a magnet as she sails through the halls of her building, Ms. Mathis had begun drafting a New American Schools submission on her own before being approached by the St. Mary's County school district about joining the Roots and Wings team.
The project's genesis dates back to several phone calls between Robert C. Embry Jr., the chairman of the Maryland state board of education; Nancy S. Grasmick, the state superintendent of schools; and Robert E. Slavin of Johns Hopkins, one of the nation's most prominent educational researchers.
It was Ms. Grasmick who identified St. Mary's County as one of the more progressive districts in the state and one that might be willing to work with the researchers from Johns Hopkins, a private university in Baltimore.
The district had already planned to submit a NASDC proposal of its own and had an energetic new superintendent of schools.
For Ms. Mathis, it was the appeal of working with a major research university that finally won her over.
Lexington Park Elementary is a one-story brick building with three mobile classrooms on the side to cope with overcrowding. Fully half of its 516 students turn over each year, in part because of the military bases and low-income neighborhoods from which the school draws. Approximately 40 percent of its students are from minority groups, primarily African-American.
"When you're in a school where kids are floating in and out,'' Ms. Mathis explained, "you need a strategy to hold on to.''
Draws on Research
The strategy that Roots and Wings offers is grounded, in part, on more than two decades of research by Mr. Slavin and his colleagues at Johns Hopkins University's Center for Research on Effective Schooling for Disadvantaged Students.
Working in some of the most poverty-stricken schools in the United States, they have demonstrated that early reading failures among children can be virtually eliminated by applying a high-quality curriculum that enables children to work in teams and that provides aggressive one-on-one tutoring, family-support services, and other assistance to children who are falling behind.
Until now, most of Mr. Slavin's efforts have focused on equipping children with the basic skills needed to succeed in elementary school, or what he refers to as the "roots'' of the Roots and Wings program.
But the NASDC project will also provide children with "wings,'' by redesigning curriculum and instruction so that every child is expected to meet world-class standards in English, mathematics, science, history, and geography.
This agenda, which requires reconstituting whole schools around new and more ambitious standards, is far more demanding than anything that the research center has previously undertaken.
Reaching Out to Families
In Roots and Wings schools, children will work in groups based on their abilities and interests, not their age. The schools will reach out to students and their families from birth to identify youngsters who need special assistance before they begin school.
Starting at age 4, the project organizers say, every child will have the opportunity to participate in a "language rich'' preschool and kindergarten program built around thematic units.
Retaining students in a grade will not be considered. If children are having trouble keeping up, they will be given tutoring, family-support services, and other assistance to help them master the content. They may also take more time to finish a learning block.
But the same high standards will be held for everyone, the organizers stress, with the resources and time needed to meet them--rather than outcomes--allowed to vary by child.
To secure this vision, every school will operate as a "family-development center,'' combining federal, state, and local resources to serve families in need.
One of the most ambitious features of the design is a project known as "WorldLab'': a series of elaborate simulations that will enable students to work in teams to solve problems that are rooted in "real world'' contexts.
In WorldLab, explained Yael Sharan, an expert on group investigations who is co-directing its development with her husband, Shlomo, "the kids get to investigate issues that they are interested in investigating.''
"The point,'' she said, "is to lead them to the stage where they can say, 'This is what we'd like to learn. This is the question we'd like to investigate.'''
Rather than having students answer questions by rote, WorldLab will encourage them to solve problems creatively and flexibly and to apply the knowledge they have gained from a variety of subject areas.
For example, teams of students might collect data on the contamination of a nearby stream that is contributing to the pollution of the Chesapeake Bay. Their report, presented in both graphic and narrative form, might be based on water samples from the stream, interviews with area residents, telephone calls to local environmental experts, and library research using ãä-òïí disk-based encyclopedias and computer data bases on the bay and its tributaries.
Back in the classroom, the students might present their findings in the form of "testimony'' to an elected "town council'' of their peers.
The children might also identify imaginary families and businesses that could be affected by the stream's pollution. While completing their research, they might learn songs about the bay and read a novel describing how pollution affects the 11-year-old son of a waterman.
These kinds of long-range, multidisciplinary projects, which will draw heavily on the use of computers and other technologies, will replace the existing science and social-studies curricula in the four participating elementary schools.
"We want to make real changes in the style of instruction and in what kids are involved in for the bulk of the day,'' explained Nancy A. Madden, a senior research scientist at the Johns Hopkins center.
Later this winter, teachers and researchers hope to pilot a small segment of WorldLab in some 5th-grade classrooms in the Roots and Wings schools.
Roots and Wings schools are also revamping their math curricula to bring them into line with the standards of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, which emphasize problem-solving, hands-on learning, and teamwork.
A Good Starting Point
In some ways, St. Mary's County provides fertile ground in which to sow such schools.
When it comes to family support and integrated services, said Lawrence J. Dolan, a research scientist at Johns Hopkins, "we have as much to learn from St. Mary's County and the state as we can probably provide them.''
Under state law, every school in the county already has a "pupil-services team'' that meets regularly to provide case management for students who are having trouble in school. Several of the schools are also located near publicly or privately funded family-support centers that provide one-stop shopping for parents and children in need of social services.
At the state level, Gov. William Donald Schaefer has made the integration of services for children and their families one of his top priorities through the creation of a subcabinet for children, youths, and families. The body is headed by Ms. Grasmick, the state superintendent.
Changing Old Ways
But a walk through the halls of any of the four Roots and Wings elementary schools--Lexington Park, Green Holly, Ridge, and George Washington Carver--suggests that for many teachers, the project will require difficult, even wrenching, changes in how they do their jobs.
Although some teachers are experimenting with team teaching, cooperative learning, and multi-age grouping, others can be seen lecturing in the front of the room, or working with small groups while the other students fill out worksheets, chat with their neighbors, or gaze into space.
The huge amount of time that students typically spend on such inefficient and often uninspiring "seat work'' is one of the primary reasons that Mr. Slavin developed his cooperative-learning strategies.
Much of the fall was spent in a delicate courtship between teachers in this rural community, who are proud of their schools, and researchers from the university, who are trying to understand what they have to build on.
At a meeting with teachers earlier this school year, Anna Marie Farnish, one of the university's principal liaisons with the district, tried to reassure educators.
"We saw some wonderful things at your school that we're not planning to do away with,'' Ms. Farnish told them.
But some teachers remain skeptical--including several of those who have been seen as the most innovative in the past. One teacher, who asked not to be identified, said: "I deal with gifted kids. I'm not sure this answers their needs.''
"For those kids who are already doing well,'' this teacher stated, "I can see that, in cooperative learning, they're going to be a great help to other children. But are they going to learn at their own level? That's just a concern to me, as a parent and as a teacher.''
Ann Shumaker, a Chapter 1 remedial-education teacher at Ridge Elementary School, said: "Part of me is in that grant. I wrote sentences, and it's exciting to me.''
"I want to see change,'' she added, "but I want to take the best of St. Mary's County also. That's the frustration that we are feeling right now: how to fit in what [the researchers] have proven successful to what we already have.''
'You Have To Think About It'
Some of that integration is beginning to take place at schools like Lexington Park Elementary.
In Chris Jensen's reading class one day recently, 4th- and 5th-grade students paired up with a partner to alternate reading paragraphs aloud from a text. There was a constant hum of activity as students quietly read an excerpt and corrected each other's mistakes.
Once they were done, the partners began a "treasure hunt''--looking for the answers to questions and making predictions based on the text and discussing them with each other.
Each student then wrote down his answers individually. If a team was stymied, the partners could turn to another pair of students working nearby for assistance before going to the teacher.
By working in teams, every student had a chance to speak and to participate most of the time. And the process was one that the class seemed to enjoy.
After his partner attempted to answer a question on the treasure hunt, one boy retorted: "That ain't got nothing to do with the question. You don't have to get it from the book. You have to think about it.''
Another student corrected a teammate's spelling of the word H.U.N.D.E.R.D.: "Nope, because 'red' is R-E-D. Just listen.''
According to Mr. Jensen, the students like the structure provided by the Johns Hopkins exercises. And the discipline of having to listen to others' views and defend their own has resulted in sharper thinking.
"Their oral reading is a lot better, because they're correcting one another,'' Mr. Jensen said. "Their comprehension, I think, has improved by 80 percent, because they're into this game of challenging each other.''
"They're asking critical questions,'' the teacher continued. 'They're asking the 'why' questions. And I think that will transfer to other subjects.''
Structure Worries Some
One initial source of tension between the university scholars and some teachers was whether the Johns Hopkins approach might be too structured and rigid.
In the area of beginning reading, some teachers also worried that the program was too phonetically based--stressing the sounds of individual letters and syllables as a key component of reading instruction.
In a series of meetings last fall, Johns Hopkins researchers and St. Mary's educators tried to work out how to mesh their two approaches.
The university has also provided teachers with training, so that they can try out new instructional strategies "risk free'' this year and adapt them to their schools' needs.
According to Ms. Madden of Johns Hopkins, some of the teachers who were most concerned initially about the researchers' approach to reading instruction have become "strong advocates'' after trying it out in their own classrooms.
"They found that kids are proceeding very well,'' she said, "and that the phonics core has filled a gap.''
That view was seconded by teachers like Mr. Jensen, who said, "I think teachers are a lot more comfortable with it, because you see the results.''
Beginning in mid-October, Lexington Park entirely reorganized its reading instruction in grades 1-5. Students are now grouped and regrouped by reading level--rather than age--every eight weeks, and no teacher has more than two reading levels in a classroom.
The time set aside for language arts has been expanded from 60 to 90 minutes. And children who are having the most difficulty receive 20 additional minutes of tutoring a day. Kindergarten and pre-kindergarten teachers are also incorporating some of the Johns Hopkins methodologies into their classrooms.
Christin Berryman, a Chapter 1 teacher at the school and a facilitator for the project, said, "We actually had children that jumped a year's reading level on paper--from pre-primer to primer to 1st grade--in just eight weeks.''
In addition, said Ms. Mathis, the Lexington Park principal, behavioral problems and referrals at the school have decreased, because students are more engaged and are placed more appropriately.
Janice Walthour, the principal of the George Washington Carver Elementary School, who supports the new approach, said: "We cannot run our school on one or two master teachers. I want to see teachers have a structure that they can pull from that is sound.''
Like Lexington Park, Carver has a highly transient student population. Last year, it had a 60 percent mobility rate--the highest in the county. Nearly half of its students are eligible to receive free or reduced-price lunches; some 42 percent are from minority groups, primarily African-American.
The neighborhood school, built in 1960, was originally one of two all-black high schools in the county. Lockers still line the walls in one wing of the red-brick building.
Away From 'Labeling'
In contrast, Green Holly Elementary School is a brand-new building with more than 600 students that draws from a mixture of upper-middle-class and low-income communities. Teachers half-jokingly comment that they run a mile every day just to navigate around the school building.
The school also houses the district's program for the severely and profoundly handicapped, which draws students from across the county.
Teachers at Green Holly decided to pilot the Johns Hopkins approach to beginning reading in only one classroom this year, with students who were having the most difficulty with traditional reading instruction.
"Probably this school is taking a more cautious approach than the other three,'' Principal Mary Blakely said. "We're not totally sure that Johns Hopkins has the answer in this area; but if they do, we want to use it.''
To Ms. Blakely, a former special-education teacher, the primary attraction of Roots and Wings was to get away from labeling too many students as "slow'' or "handicapped'' and pulling them out of mainstream classrooms. "I saw a lot of kids in high school who had been steeped in failure,'' she said.
A 'No-Fault Year'
Technically, this year was supposed to be a planning year for the project. But teachers and researchers have found themselves operating on two tracks at once.
With assistance from Johns Hopkins faculty members, many teachers, such as those at Lexington Park, have begun trying out new approaches to cooperative learning and literacy instruction.
The majority of teachers at the four schools also have volunteered to participate in work groups that meet monthly to develop specific aspects of the Roots and Wings design. At Johns Hopkins, separate committees that correspond to these groups are working feverishly to develop more detailed prototypes and plans.
This summer, a large number of the schools' teachers will be hired to work at Johns Hopkins full time to flesh out the final curriculum materials and strategies.
In addition, the state education department has assigned a full-time liaison to provide technical assistance and brokering for the project.
In part to allay teachers' fears, all of the school principals involved, as well as Joan Kozlovsky, the superintendent of the county school district, have emphasized that participation in the project is purely voluntary this year.
By next year, both teachers and students will attend the four schools by choice; those who disagree with the approach will be free to transfer elsewhere in the district.
"This is almost a no-fault year,'' stressed Michael Metz, the principal of Ridge Elementary School, a small neighborhood school with 260 students and 11 teachers. "We're going to put [Roots and Wings] into practice as much as we can, and kinks are going to come up.''
"Our goal is not to wipe out the progress that we've made,'' Ms. Kozlovsky added, "but to inculcate the good things and make our programs and their programs merge.''
'Walking to Kansas'
For now, the question is: How much change, how quickly, can the four schools accommodate?
"We confidently expect that many of the things we try will fail,'' Mr. Slavin told teachers and parents during a ceremony to launch the project in September. "If we didn't, we wouldn't be pushing the envelope.''
"But there's a unique opportunity to do things here without having to worry about the way things have always been,'' he added.
Five years from now, Ms. Kozlovsky said, "I don't expect people to look at St. Mary's County and see four schools that have spotlights on them.''
Instead, the superintendent is hoping to use school-improvement teams at each school, combined with the state's new performance-based assessments, to push for changes throughout the system.
Similarly, state officials are hoping that, in subsequent years, some of the money that the new-schools corporation raises for replication will flow Maryland's way to help spread the design to other parts of the state.
"It's not like climbing Mount Everest, where you're not sure if you'll get to the summit,'' Mr. Slavin said about the project.
"It's more like walking to Kansas,'' he said. "You know you'll get there, but it's a long way.''