Ready To Soar

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Landon Cornett leans intently over his desk, comparing data with a classmate, one foot tapping in unconscious rhythm. For the past 15 days, Landon and other 5th graders here at Green Holly Elementary School have been nurturing peas, beans, squash, and corn from seed. Now, they're reviewing the results: What kinds of seeds sprouted first? Grew the tallest? Grew the least? Which seemed to need the most water?

Like a young plant, Landon soaks it all in. At the school he attended last year in Virginia Beach, Va., he explains, "We had science, but it wasn't as neat as this because here we get to do experiments and things. In my old school, basically we would just read about it, study it, and take tests."

"I think I'm learning more here," he adds, "because you learn about what it actually looks and sees and feels and sounds like with all the experiments. And with books you can't really do that."

This particular experiment, known as "CropLab," is part of Roots and Wings, one of nine designs for high-performing schools funded by the New American Schools Development Corporation. Business leaders founded the nonprofit corporation in 1991 at the behest of President Bush to support models for innovative schooling.

For Landon, a bright student with a keen curiosity, Roots and Wings has fulfilled its promise. It has given him a solid foundation in mathematics and reading and the opportunity to soar.

In his old school, Landon admits, "I used to get bad grades because my attention would wander. I'd get done, and I'd be bored."

Twenty minutes down the road, Jessica Guy, a 4th grader at Ridge Elementary School, also participates in Roots and Wings. A self-possessed student who's quick to voice her opinions, she, too, relishes aspects of the program, particularly the chance to do research.

But Jessica and her mother, Linda, are less enthralled with another of Roots and Wings's hallmarks: its strong emphasis on cooperative learning and teamwork.

"You get to discuss things, and we work together," admits Jessica. "But sometimes, I don't like it. Like when you know the answer, and they all think it's a different answer, and you don't agree with them."

For three years, four elementary schools in this largely rural community that juts out into the Chesapeake Bay have struggled to make Roots and Wings a reality. Working with researchers at Johns Hopkins University and officials in the Maryland Department of Education, they have nurtured the program from birth through infancy.

I've visited the schools regularly over that period and filed reports on their progress in implementing the design. Now, as the developmental phase draws to a close, I revisited St. Mary's one last time to spend a few days with students. The question I wanted answered was how much have things really changed?

Palpable Changes

Ridge Elementary is a small school in the most rural part of St. Mary's County. Its 272 students, from pre-kindergarten through grade 5, include both the children of professors from nearby St. Mary's College and those of local watermen who work the Chesapeake Bay. Classrooms are orderly and disciplined, and teachers are quick to admonish students if the volume gets too loud. There is one 5th-grade class, and one combined class of 4th and 5th graders.

Green Holly Elementary, located in the more populous Lexington Park area, is a new building with more than 700 students. Yards of hallways, decorated with children's art, connect the sprawling structure. It also houses a regional special-education center serving children from birth to age 11. The school has three 5th-grade teachers, and children go to one teacher for reading and social studies, a second for math, and a third for science.

But at both schools, the change between 1992 and 1995 is palpable.

During two days, I did not see one instance of a teacher standing in front of a classroom lecturing. I did see a lot of examples of teamwork, some more successful than others.

When I first toured the schools in 1992, the few computers that existed were kept in separate computer labs and used primarily by youngsters in a federal program for low achievers. Today, all of the 4th- and 5th-grade classrooms have a bank of computers that students use throughout the day as part of their normal instruction.

Most important, students are active, engaged participants, whether growing plants from seed, writing in journals, or solving math problems with a group.

"A remarkable percentage of things have actually happened the way we hoped they'd happen," says Robert E. Slavin, the creator of the program and a professor of education at Johns Hopkins University.

But other aspects of the schools have not changed. Researchers abandoned their plans to create multi-age, ungraded classrooms in the face of local opposition and state testing mandates.A program to reach out to infants from birthto age 3 barely got off the ground because of funding problems.

The ubiquitous public-address system still interrupts lessons to announce the day's lunch menu. Art, music, band, and physical education remain largely separate from the rest of the program. Teachers still complain that students don't do their homework. And the annual spring testing ritual is very much in force.

On the day I visited Ridge, Jessica took a county-mandated writing test for 4th graders. The week before, students were boning up for the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program by completing sample exercises.

If this is a revolution in education, it is a quiet one, built on a host of incremental changes.

The World as Laboratory

The jewel in the crown of Roots and Wings, and the piece that consistently draws praise from students and teachers, is WorldLab. The multidisciplinary curriculum lets students follow their interests within a broad research agenda set by the teachers that incorporates their knowledge of science, social studies, and other subjects. Each unit culminates in an event that asks students to role-play the lives of the people they are studying--from the re-enactment of an early Maryland legislative session to a colonial festival.

Since the fall, teachers at the two schools have been piloting a new unit called "Encounters" that focuses on colonial life in North America.

In Jessica's class, the students are working in three large groups to research the lives of European, Native American, and African settlers during the 1600's and 1700's.

In Landon's class, the groups represent three different regions of the United States: New England, the mid-Atlantic, and the South. Landon and a partner, Michael, have chosen to research questions on when New England was first settled and what religions were practiced there.

Both schools are preparing for a one-day festival during which students will role-play characters from colonial America and demonstrate and talk about crafts and practices of that era. Jessica's group plans to churn butter, mold pottery, spin yarn, and sing African songs.

On this particular day, her group is composing invitations to the festival on the computer and bickering over their responsibilities for the coming event. After 20 minutes of heated conversation, one student says, "We usually have some argument and disagreement, but not this much."

"Why do I have such a horrible team?" moans Jessica with mock dismay. Later, she confides that WorldLab is the best part of her day. "You get to do research," she explains, "and I love doing research."

Her teacher, Brenda Bassford, seconds that idea. "I love WorldLab," she says. "The students are more involved. They're doing more research. They're more active. I could do it all day long."

Three years ago, WorldLab was an idea in the minds of Slavin and his wife and colleague, Nancy A. Madden. Now, the curriculum has expanded to cover an entire school year in grades 4 and 5, and nearly as much in grades 1-3.

CropLab is one of the science units that accompanies WorldLab. Students grow seeds that the colonists depended on for survival, give them varying amounts of water, and chart their growth on a line graph. Another science unit has students re-create experiments in static electricity pioneered by Benjamin Franklin. In language arts, students read a novel about the statesman and inventor.

JoAnne Moore, who teaches science at Green Holly, praises some of the WorldLab units for engaging students at the same time that they learn necessary concepts and skills. But she cautions: "I don't feel that science should be integrated with social studies in all cases. There are too many things that children need to know in science, like matter, that just cannot be integrated."

Math Problems

Like social studies, math looks substantially different for these children. For one thing, there are no textbooks.

Like the other components of Roots and Wings, MathWings is designed to move students beyond the rote application of basic skills through the use of hands-on materials, cooperative learning, and problem-solving.

Landon's math class begins with a "facts check"--rapid-fire exercises that students complete individually to improve their agility in addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.

"She gives us three minutes," explains Landon, pointing toward his teacher, Ella Neal, "and we have to do 90 questions. If we get them all done and right, or if we do more correct than the last time, we get a treat."

Landon breezes through the exercises. Then the students exchange papers and correct each other's work as their teacher reads the answers aloud.

When Neal finishes, she distributes small plastic containers of pastel-colored M & M's to each table of four or five students. Working together, the students use the M & M's to depict fractions, then reduce them to the lowest common denominator.

Neal, a veteran teacher, circulates around the room, prodding and poking. Landon's team begins by counting each color and expressing it as a fraction of the whole. Then, they decide to combine colors and express those as fractions.

But not everyone on the team participates equally. One little boy, who struggled through the facts check, looks on without contributing. Later, when the students work individually on worksheets that cover the same concept, he still refuses to participate until a classmate nudges him to try. Finally, the teacher asks Landon to help him.

"If we're working in a group with someone who doesn't understand, then we'll help them understand it," Landon says after class. Teams can also lose points--that go toward rewards and special treats--if a team member doesn't pull his weight.

Landon says he likes working in groups. "It's easier because you don't have to do all the work yourself. Sometimes, some kids work harder than others. But most of the time, it's pretty evenly spaced. Plus, the teams change a lot. It's good because you get a chance to work with everyone."

But Landon's teachers insist that not all students share his views. "Kids like Landon, generally, don't like the cooperative groups," says Jeri Baumann, his social-studies teacher, "because they feel weighed down. He's an exception. He is really bright, but he does have the patience." Students with severe academic or behavioral problems also don't work well in groups, the veteran teacher says. "No matter what they say, it is not a team thing."

Moore agrees, arguing that cooperative learning works well for some activities and some children but not for all. "Some children get too dependent on other children giving them answers," she asserts. "Some actually lose what independence they had."

Slavin, one of the nation's foremost researchers on cooperative learning, can cite studies demonstrating that it benefits students on both ends of the academic continuum. But in St. Mary's County, he notes, the initial commitment to cooperative learning was muted because schools were not asked to go through an extensive self-selection process before committing to the program. And that has been a problem.

"In the beginning, I hated it," says Jessica's mom about cooperative learning. "I was told she was not developing independent thinking, and I thought, how is she going to develop independent thinking working in a group? Plus, I was not satisfied with the way the groups were set up."

This year, she says, the groups are working well. But she still worries about whether there is enough enrichment for her daughter. "We all have to learn in a team-player kind of world," she admits, "but there has to be some space in there, too, for that independent kind of learning."

Advances and Frustrations

Reading lessons in the upper grades pose a different problem at Ridge Elementary. According to the Roots and Wings's design, teachers should group and regroup students for reading every eight weeks, based on their ability rather than their age. By making use of all the qualified staff members in the building, no teacher is supposed to have more than two reading groups.

But Bassford, Jessica's homeroom teacher, has four reading groups comprising students who read anywhere from the 2nd- to the 7th-grade level. And Stephanie Haines, who teaches the more advanced readers, like Jessica, has one reading group of 28 4th and 5th graders.

In a small school like Ridge, Jessica's teachers argue, it has proved impossible to juggle everyone's schedule enough to accommodate the Roots and Wings design. While the approach has worked in the lower grades, at the upper grades, advanced students have nowhere to go. "We need another reading teacher is what we need," says Haines.

Even so, she acknowledges, "It has worked wonderfully down in the lower hall, with the beginning readers." Moreover, her own students are reading more novels than in the past because of the resources the program has made available.

The results speak for themselves. In 1992, when the program began, many of the 2nd and 3rd graders at Ridge were still struggling with beginning reading materials. This spring, all of the school's 1st graders were reading at the 1st-grade level or higher, "so they will not have 2nd and 3rd graders reading in 1st-grade materials next year," says Madden of Johns Hopkins.

Across the four Roots and Wings schools, scores have also improved on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, which tests students in grades 3 and 5. From 1993 to 1994, the percentage of 3rd graders scoring at or above the satisfactory level increased from 15 percent to 24 percent in language arts; 15 percent to 26 percent in mathematics; and 22 percent to 29 percent in science. Students' scores in writing and social studies held steady.

In grade 5, the percentage of students scoring at or above the satisfactory level increased from 20 percent to 23 percent in reading; 26 percent to 32 percent in language arts; 28 percent to 34 percent in math; 30 percent to 41 percent in science; and 27 percent to 31 percent in social studies. Only the writing scores declined, from 34 percent to 27 percent, a pattern that was reflected across the state. The greatest improvements were seen at those schools that implemented the program most thoroughly, and the weakest scores at those schools with large populations of disadvantaged students.

Tensions Remain

Three years after its inception, Roots and Wings is slowly changing behavior and curriculum where it counts: in the classroom with children.

But the same tensions that were apparent when the program began reverberate today. Because its curriculum and pedagogy are crafted largely outside the classroom, by researchers, Roots and Wings must struggle to give teachers a sense of ownership. In the process, its creators have had to assess where to bend on their design and where to hold firm. And once-reticent teachers have had to learn to speak up for what they believe works--and what doesn't.

"I think the biggest pro is that kids are more active," says Baumann, Landon's social-studies teacher. "I think the resources that we've gotten--the books and things--have been wonderful."

But, she cautions, "It's really the people who are dealing with children on a day-to-day basis who know curriculum best and what children can do."

Vol. 14, Issue 34

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