Borrowing From The Basics

By Millicent Lawton — April 20, 1994 9 min read
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What began as one Baltimore private school’s way of coping with a long-ago epidemic has become the present-day educational salvation of some 200 inner-city children there.

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 home-instruction program developed by Virgil M. Hillyer, Calvert’s headmaster at the time.

Ever since, the Calvert School has sold its K-8 home-instruction curriculum, and, if desired, instructional advice, to parents and students all over the world--the very same curriculum used in its day-school classrooms. Currently, about 10,500 students internationally use the Calvert program.

As popular as the highly structured, traditional curriculum has proved for Calvert students and home schoolers alike, recently it’s also been winning converts at a public school just across town. Since 1990, the Barclay School--a predominantly African-American neighborhood elementary school where 70 percent of the 600 students qualify for free lunches--has been using the curriculum and instructional program in a four-year, $400,000 experiment funded by the Abell Foundation, a local philanthropy.

Three years into the experiment, the results look promising. Last year, a Johns Hopkins University evaluation of the program showed for the first time publicly the good news that those involved with the Barclay-Calvert program have known for some time. Used in grades K-4 of the K-8 school, the Calvert program has pushed Barclay School students’ standardized-test scores up significantly. Students’ writing has also improved, attendance is on the rise, and time on task is high.

What’s more, the evaluation revealed that referrals at the public school to the Chapter 1 compensatory program and to special education are way down, while referrals to the district’s gifted-and-talented program are up. Indeed, some 20 children have progressed so much during the course of the program, school officials report, that they have moved out of their Chapter 1 “severe’’ designation--in some cases meaning a nonverbal child--into the gifted-and-talented category.

Paving the Way

Such progress reports have brought Barclay School plenty of attention from the local and national news media as well as area parents. In fact, some parents have even falsified their home addresses in hopes of enrolling their children at the school, where the names of 40 to 50 children now linger on the waiting list.

But this isn’t the first time Barclay has found itself in the spotlight. Several years ago, the school waged a highly publicized battle simply to get permission to use the Calvert program. The political and bureaucratic fight pitted Principal Gertrude Williams and her parent community against the school board and two former school superintendents.

The first moves toward getting Calvert’s program into Barclay took shape in the late 1980’s. As the former president of the Baltimore school board, Abell Foundation President Robert C. Embry, who now also serves as the president of the state board of education, was in a perfect position to shepherd the partnership--and provide the funding to make it possible.

For Embry, what Calvert could offer went to the heart of what was missing in public schools. “It’s my view that one of the problems with public schools is that they don’t have a model that has worked someplace,’' he says. “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 the public school.’' So in the spring of 1990, the Abell Foundation agreed to fund the Barclay-Calvert program--complete with both a model and a curriculum coordinator to oversee its implementation.

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

“With the infusion of the [Calvert] curriculum and the strategies into the Barclay School,’' Williams adds, “you have the kind of high expectancies that we have not had in years in public schools.’'

From Calvert’s point of view, as long as the school wouldn’t lose money on the arrangement (it doesn’t profit either), helping Barclay adopt its home-instruction program was an offer it couldn’t refuse, says Calvert’s headmaster, Merrill S. Hall 3rd. After all, he asks, “Who doesn’t want schools to be better in general?’'

Stressing the ABC’s

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, or 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.

The program’s other benefits include reasonable class sizes that limit each grade level to two classrooms of 25 students, 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. Students hitting adolescence are interested in expanding their knowledge and being like their peers, the headmaster adds, not in “pleasing adults and acquiring good habits.’'

Throughout the program, students write daily, whether it’s about their most recent reading assignment, a class field trip, or their own lives. In 1st grade, for example, Barclay-Calvert students may start with a short essay on “My House,’' with help from the whole class on the topic sentence.

On a recent Friday, students down the hall in Patricia Bennett’s 2nd-grade class learned about the connection between the number of syllables and vowel sounds in a word. In the dinosaur-decorated classroom, students punched the air with their fists each time they heard a syllable in a word Bennett called out. “Side-walk’’ earned two energetic punches.

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

In their written assignments, teachers and students leave no mistakes uncorrected. The motto, at both the Calvert campus and 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 artwork and compositions. Outside one 4th-grade classroom, students’ reproductions of a fifth-century mosaic of a lion in the Baltimore Museum of Art enliven the hallway.

In reading, teachers emphasize phonics as well as comprehension. Fine-tuned 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 such novels as the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder along with their basal readers.

Barclay-Calvert students seem to enjoy all their challenging work. Once a month, they take home folders filled with their copious written work and a report card their parents must sign. Teachers also encourage parents to get involved with their children’s nightly reading and homework.

Setting the Curve


When you look at Barclay-Calvert students’ standardized-test scores, the Johns Hopkins evaluation claims, their higher achievement levels are unmistakable. They outscore their pre-Calvert counterparts (who are sometimes their own older brothers and sisters) on both Educational Records Bureau tests and the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills. On the E.R.B. 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 national mean for students in the same grades before the introduction of the Calvert program. The C.T.B.S. scores for reading also took an upward turn.

When it comes to writing, test scores are even more dramatic. In the 2nd and 3rd grades, the average Barclay-Calvert student scored above the 60th percentile on the E.R.B. writing-skills test. By comparison, none of the pre-Calvert same-grade groups averaged above the 47th percentile. In fact, two of the groups averaged below the 30th percentile.

Scores on standardized mathematics tests offer similar success stories.

Jocelyn Morris, the president of Barclay’s parent-teacher organization and the mother of two daughters in the school, says she has seen Calvert’s curriculum usher in other improvements, too. She has witnessed firsthand, for example, the increased attentiveness of program teachers, as well as the improved behavior, more ambitious career goals, and increased self-esteem among the students.

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 in a sense is an affordable private school.’'

Looking to the Future


Amid such positive reviews, Barclay is now embroiled in a budget battle with the school district. Although the school enrolls 600 students, it started the school year with funding for only 500--a disparity that has left Williams running the school with no operating budget, facing long-overdue rental fees on the copy machine, and mopping the hallways herself because she couldn’t afford to hire a substitute janitor.

Still, as the Barclay-Calvert experiment draws to a close, Williams--a petite but formidable presence--seems undaunted by the district’s attitude. In fact, all parties are hopeful that the program will continue beyond its original four years. Last month, the Abell Foundation, Barclay, and Calvert were eagerly awaiting the school board’s response to their proposal to extend the program through the 8th grade.

When it comes to expanding the program to other schools, however, opinions differ. Embry, for one, says he would like to see every school in Baltimore have some kind of private-sector partner or resource.

But Calvert’s Hall cautions that it’s not possible for the private school to be involved in every public school the way it is with Barclay. Calvert officials are now 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.’'

A version of this article appeared in the April 20, 1994 edition of Education Week as Borrowing From The Basics

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