Special Report

The Personal Touch

By Jessica L. Sandham — January 11, 2001 4 min read
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Six year ago, district leaders in this rural farming community on Maryland’s Eastern Shore decided to throw out the traditional school calendar. Too many students were not faring well on Maryland’s then-new state tests, and Kent County school officials suspected they needed to offer more time, and more personal instruction, to improve student achievement.

But such increased support also meant extra money--something this 3,000-student district didn’t have in great supply. So school leaders began knocking on doors, seeking handouts to help the district subsidize the kinds of summer school and after-school programs they had in mind.

“We went hat in hand, really, and begged for the money,” says Superintendent Lorraine A. Costelia.

Local organizations such as the Lions and Rotary clubs and the American Legion eventually came through with enough money to start modest programs. Now, with financing from the federal Goals 2000 program, along with local and state support, Kent County has the money to continue expanding its after-school and extended-year programs--and the test scores to prove why it should.

A full 60 percent of the district’s students performed at the “satisfactory” level on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program in 1999, compared with only 33 percent in 1993. By contrast, in the affluent Montgomery County, Md., district, roughly 55 percent of students scored at the satisfactory level in 1999. As measured by test scores, Kent County is both the top-achieving and fastest-improving district in Maryland.

District administrators emphasize, however, that their intervention efforts for at-risk students are but one part of a comprehensive system that also relies on strong professional development for teachers, curriculum and instruction that are in line with state standards, and close analysis of student-assessment data.

“It is a really strong template for what local systems ought to be doing,” says Nancy S. Grasmick, the state superintendent of schools.

Summer School Mandate

Maryland has been a leader in its efforts to help students who are at risk of not meeting state standards. The state education department last year lobbied for $49 million to subsidize a comprehensive intervention program. Ultimately, the legislature allocated $19 million for statewide early-childhood and K-12 intervention programs for fiscal 2001. Of that, roughly $12 million will go to after-school and summer school programs for middle school students whose academic progress in reading and math is lagging. Grasmick says the department is working to increase funding for such efforts to about $35 million in fiscal 2002.

Despite the Kent County district’s continued progress, officials here say they have learned not to rest on their laurels. As the smallest district in the state, Costella says, “it’s much easier to make change, but it’s also easy to slip in the other direction.”

The district adopted a policy last school year that requires 8th graders with failing grades in reading or math to attend summer school to advance to high school. Many of those students who had been failing at least one of the two subjects pulled up their grades by the end of the school year.

In the end, though, 19 students from the district’s three middle schools were forced to attend a four-week summer session. With the help of two teachers and two instructional assistants, all but five improved enough to pas reading and math tests given at the end of the program. The five who failed were permitted to advance to the 9th grade, but receive individualized instruction.

“We had to create an atmosphere that was different for them from what they had ever experienced before,” says Steve Weller, the district’s summer program director. “We had to give them more of a sense of self-responsibility.” The district plans to phase in the program for 7th graders this summer and is considering making the summer session mandatory for 8th graders who do not meet satisfactory levels on state tests, Weller says.

Full-Day Kindergarten

Intervention in this scenic county bordering the Chesapeake Bay, where 38 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, can start in a student’s first year of school. In addition to offering extended-year and extended-day programs in each of Kent County’s eight schools, administrators have begun providing full-day kindergarten classes for those youngsters identified early in the school year as needing extra help. At Worten Elementary School, for example, five of this year’s 30 pupils who initially enrolled in the school’s half-day kindergarten classes now stay for a full day.

“They get a lot more one-on-one attention,” Katherine Durham, a kindergarten teacher at the school, explains. “It gives those children a chance to be the stars and show off. It makes a big difference in their self-confidence.”

Worten teachers have also started using referral sheets that list students’ specific needs to give to summer school and after-school instructors. On one sheet filled out last spring, Durham listed “subtraction, one less than” and “counting 20-50" as the areas where a pupil needed help in math. In reading, the teacher also suggested that the student work on learning “beginning rhyming sounds” and the letters L and Q.

Worten Elementary also puts its art, music, and other specialty teachers to work during the school day in one-on-one or small-group sessions with children who need more intensive help in certain areas.

The school’s efforts have paid off in higher test scores. But Principal Gina Jachimowicz says staff members are still working to come up with new ways to use school time effectively for students who are struggling Next, she says, they are considering how to incorporate academic into the breakfast time youngsters have before school starts.

“This has made us think beyond the school day,” Jachimowicz says. “We’re starting to see the difference in what is helping these children be successful.”

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A version of this article appeared in the January 11, 2001 edition of Education Week

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