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Curriculum: A Little Help From A Friend

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Back in 1906, so the story goes, a contagious disease--one guess is whooping cough--raged through the harbor city, confining to bed children enrolled in the Calvert School, a private primary school founded nine years earlier. It also sidelined other schoolchildren and led to the quick distribution around town of a homeinstruction program developed by Virgil Hillyer, Calvert's headmaster at the time.

Ever since, the Calvert School has sold its K-8 home-instruction curriculum--the very same curriculum used in its day-school classrooms--to families all over the world; approximately 10,500 students internationally now use the highly structured program. Recently it has been winning converts at a public school just across town.

Since 1990, the Barclay School, a predominantly AfricanAmerican elementary school where 70 percent of the 600 students qualify for free lunches, has been using the curriculum and instructional program to teach K4 students. Three years into the four-year, $400,000 experiment funded by the Abell Foundation, a Baltimore-area philanthropy, the results look promising. A Johns Hopkins University evaluation of the program, for example, found that it has pushed up students' standardized test scores significantly. Their writing, attendance, and time on task have also improved.

What's more, the Hopkins evaluation revealed that referrals at the public school to Chapter 1 and special education programs are way down. Indeed, some 20 children have progressed so much during the course of the program that they have moved out of the "severe'' Chapter 1 designation-- often meaning a child is nonverbal--into the gifted-and-talented category.

Such progress reports have brought Barclay plenty of attention. Some Baltimore parents have even falsified their home addresses in hopes of enrolling their children at the school, which now has a long waiting list.

As former president of the Baltimore school board, Abell Foundation President Robert Embry was in a perfect position to shepherd the partnership between Calvert and Barclay--and to provide the funding to make it possible. For Embry, what Calvert could offer went to the heart of what was missing in public schools: a vision. "It's my view,'' he says, "that one of the problems with public schools is that they don't have a model that has worked someplace. And more important than that, they don't have somebody to be in the school every day to make sure they implement the model correctly. I wanted to see whether it would make a difference in a public school.'' So in the spring of 1990, the foundation agreed to fund the BarclayCalvert program--complete with model and a curriculum coordinator to oversee its implementation.

Barclay principal Gertrude Williams says her growing frustrations with the school district's constantly changing, watered-down, directionless curriculum prompted her to give the Calvert program a try. "We sought a curriculum that would work,'' she says, "that would enable our children to go anywhere and be knowledgeable, to speak intelligently, and to read, write, and compute.''

The Calvert School was more than happy to help out--as long as it wouldn't lose money on the arrangement; it doesn't profit either. After all, says the private school's headmaster, Merrill Hall 3rd, "who doesn't want schools to be better in general?''

Calvert's traditional, structured curriculum emphasizes reading and writing and prescribes a set number of tasks and skills for students to complete and master in a given week, month, and year. Those involved in the program say this straightforward approach makes for one of the curriculum's many benefits: It has largely ignored the fads that have buffeted curriculum and instruction over the years. Other benefits include reasonable class sizes (25 students maximum), instructional aides in virtually every classroom, and summer training and extensive staff development for teachers.

Students begin to work on both reading and writing skills early in their academic careers. On the first day of 1st grade, they start writing in the trademark "Calvert cursive,'' a script lettering with block capitals. "The time to teach children to do something well is early, at age 7, not at age 13,'' Hall says. Throughout the program, students write daily, whether it's about their most recent reading assignment, a class field trip, or their own lives.

On this spring day, students in Patricia Bennett's 2nd grade class are learning about the connection between the number of syllables and vowel sounds in a word. In the dinosaur-decorated classroom, students punch the air with their fists each time they hear a syllable in a word Bennett calls out. "Side-walk,'' for example, earns two energetic jabs.

In another room, 3rd graders combine reading and geography skills as they decipher a map of a fictional country. Fourth graders, meanwhile, are choosing a topic for a composition, finishing a geography unit on the Amazon jungle, or starting a geometry lesson on parallel lines.

In their written assignments, teachers and students leave no mistakes uncorrected. The motto, at both the Calvert campus and at the Barclay School, seems to be: "It's not finished until it's perfect.'' Students receive praise not for acceptable work but for wholly correct work. Throughout the school, Barclay-Calvert teachers showcase student writing and art. Students' reproductions of a fifth century lion mosaic in the Baltimore Museum of Art enliven the hallway outside one 4th grade classroom.

In their reading instruction, teachers emphasize phonics as well as comprehension. Finetuned by Calvert teachers when necessary, the curriculum incorporates materials written at Calvert as well as standard textbooks available from mass-market publishers. From the 3rd grade on up, the children read novels, such as the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, along with their basals.

Once a month, students take home folders filled with their copious written work and a report card their parents must sign and return. Teachers also encourage parents to get involved with their children's homework.

If standardized test scores are any indication of student ability, then the Calvert program has had a remarkable impact. According to the Johns Hopkins evaluation, participating students outscored their pre-program counterparts at Barclay on both Educational Records Bureau tests and the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills. On the ERB Total Reading Test, for example, the mean scores of 1st and 3rd graders in the spring of last year stood more than 20 percentage points above the mean for students in the same grades before the introduction of the Calvert program.

When it comes to writing, the test results are even more dramatic. In the 2nd and 3rd grades, the average participating student scored above the 60th percentile on the ERB writing test. By comparison, none of the pre-Calvert peer groups averaged above the 47th percentile. In fact, two of the groups averaged below the 30th percentile. Scores on standardized mathematics tests tell a similar story.

Jocelyn Morris, president of Barclay's parent-teacher organization, says she has seen Calvert's curriculum usher in other improvements, too. She has witnessed firsthand, for example, the increased attentiveness of teachers and has seen students' behavior, career goals, and selfesteem improve. For Morris-- who says she could never afford the tuition of a school like Calvert, which charges $4,400 to $8,550 a year--"to have a student in the Barclay-Calvert program is, in a sense, an affordable private school.''

Everyone involved with the partnership has been so pleased with the results that the initial four-year experiment at Barclay has been extended. In fact, the program will be expanded to include grades 5-8, in addition to grades K-4. What's more, the curriculum will be phased in at a second district school, Carter Woodson Elementary, beginning this fall.

As far as Embry of the Abell Foundation is concerned, he would like to see every school in Baltimore have some kind of private-sector partner or resource like Calvert.

But Calvert headmaster Hall cautions that it's not possible for private schools to be involved in every public school the way Calvert is with Barclay. In fact, Calvert officials have been wrestling with just what their role should be. "We don't know what we can do,'' he says, "and still keep doing what we do now.''--Millicent Lawton

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