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Could I Interest You in a Late-Model School Design?

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Timonium, Md.

It couldn't rival the festivities at Camden Yards, just 25 minutes away, where the Baltimore Orioles were playing their home opener. But the school-reform "design fair" at the Holiday Inn here May 1 strove for the same celebratory air.

Red, white, and blue streamers swayed from the chandelier in the chilly ballroom breeze. A five-piece brass band struggled to be heard over the din of teachers' voices.

Along the walls, design teams representing some of the best-known names in American education handed out tokens of their appreciation: plastic cups, pencils, and plastic bags with the names of their projects prominently displayed.

But these salesmen were pitching ideas, not fastballs. They were trying to persuade the more than 500 Maryland educators gathered here that they have the blueprint that could most improve their schools.

Throughout the spring, the New American Schools Development Corporation has held similar coming-out parties in cities across America: Memphis, Miami, Philadelphia, Seattle.

U.S. business leaders created the nonprofit corporation in 1991 at the behest of President Bush to underwrite models of innovative schooling. So far, the designs have been tested in 155 schools in 18 states. Now, the corporation is trying to persuade large numbers of schools in four states and seven school districts to adopt the blueprints as their own.

"New American Schools. Safe, orderly, caring places, where students learn the basics and so much more," proclaimed a public-relations videotape in the darkened room. "Nine practical approaches to improve student achievement in kindergarten through 12th grade," it intoned.

Celebrity Sightings

At the Co-NECT booth, Linn Gerrard, an associate field director for the project, showed off "Alaska On-Line." The cyberspace tourist guide was created by students at the Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School in Sitka as part of a history and language-arts project.

"It's really exciting," she exclaimed, as she called up maps, historical descriptions, and lists of sightseeing places on the computer, "to talk to the kids who say, 'Usually, teachers show us what to do. And now, we're showing them how to do things.'"

At the Expeditionary Learning booth, there were books of poetry written and illustrated by students, and student-generated field guides and mathematics problems. "People want to know, 'How do you do this?'" said Mark Weiss, the principal of the School for the Physical City in New York City. "Can you do this with a 2nd-grade class? Can you only do this with a 2nd-grade class?"

The Roots and Wings booth displayed large, spiral-bound teaching manuals and glossy pictures of students working in cooperative teams.

Huddled near the buffet, teachers from Baltimore Highlands Elementary School in Baltimore County compared notes. "I was talking to Robert Slavin. Whoa! I can't believe I was actually talking to him," reading teacher Pamela Burke gushed about the Johns Hopkins University researcher. "I like what he said," she added, especially the part about all students reading by the end of 1st grade.

"Everybody is looking for something that's going to help improve education," concurred Susan Ziman, a speech pathologist from the school.

The Baltimore County public schools and the state education department sponsored the fair to give local educators a chance to discuss the designs with the experts who developed them. Two of the nine designs--Roots and Wings and the ATLAS Communities project--were first field-tested in Maryland.

"This is not a top-down effort," Nancy Grasmick, the state superintendent of schools, told the audience. "Unless an individual school will make a commitment that is shared by 80 percent of the staff members to pursue this, we do not believe it is worth pursuing."

Nonetheless, Grasmick hopes that at least a handful of schools in five Maryland counties will agree to adopt the designs beginning this fall. Another eight counties could be added to the mix the following year.

"We wanted to stimulate their imagination and their excitement about the possibilities," she said of the fair, which drew teachers from at least a dozen counties.

Fact-Finding Mission

After milling around the display booths and trading gossip over soft drinks and cookies, the teachers could choose from among three 45-minute sessions to find out more about specific designs.

"I can't talk about all of this in much detail because I'm talking too much," Sidney Smith, the director of the ATLAS project, said as he sped through his presentation. Then he went on talking.

"I chose to go to the Modern Red Schoolhouse because just the title seemed intriguing," said Margie Wilkins, a 2nd-grade teacher from the Featherbed Elementary School in Baltimore County. "I guess, too, because of my age. I think, how did I learn without all this outcomes-based education and all of this new stuff?"

But Wilkins said she didn't get enough out of the session to make a decision about whether the program was right for her school. "I wish they had had more visuals," she sighed.

During a session on the Co-NECT design, Principal Carol Shilinsky of the all School in Worcester, Mass., described how the project helped transform her aged, inner-city school into a popular magnet program with rising test scores.

But several people in the audience blanched when they found out they would have to commit to 30 days of professional development a year and spend between $25,000 and $80,000 for the first year of implementation.

At a session on Expeditionary Learning, Ed Masey, the principal of the Inverness Center, an alternative middle school in Baltimore County, complained, "I have no budget, and everything is being cut."

The ATLAS project emphasized that it would prefer to work with feeder patterns of at least one elementary, middle, and high school.

"It's sort of exciting being here," said Wanda Ensor, a teacher at Dundalk Elementary School in Baltimore County. "There were excellent components to several programs." But she withheld judgment. "The idea that 80 percent of a staff has to agree to it and buy into it means we really have to do our homework," she explained. "So this is a fact-finding mission for us."

At least at first blush, no project struck out. That's more than can be said for the Baltimore Orioles. They lost to the Milwaukee Brewers, 7 to 0.

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