Educators expect major improvement

July 31, 2005|By KAREN HANNA

Two years ago, just about half of Eastern Elementary School students who were tested failed state assessments designed to measure their abilities in reading and math.

This year, according to the Maryland State Department of Education, proficiency levels approach 80 percent, and Washington County Public Schools administrators say they have built a model for their next big project - bettering Bester Elementary School.

"This school is going to be the best thing you ever heard about, when I get through with it," Principal Kathy Stiles said.


Stiles, four teachers and one instructional assistant have come to Bester from Eastern Elementary in search of new challenges.

As part of its improvement plan, Washington County Public Schools required Bester's instructional staff to re-apply for their jobs.

According to Stiles, 17 staff members of 23 who applied to come back will return to the county's most economically impoverished school this fall.

Teachers at Bester will work longer days so they can meet in the mornings to discuss classroom strategies. The school will offer more tutoring and academic clubs, as well as stage performances and events so students can show off what they have learned, Stiles said.

She said she hopes to get both students and parents excited about learning, and she has pressed all summer for improvements in the school's physical appearance.

Gone are the prison-gray hallways, but the straggly bushes out front remain. Bulletin boards that one day will display student work are empty.

According to the Maryland State Department of Education, less than 65 percent of Bester's students in grades 3, 4 and 5 could read or do math on grade level last year.

School pride

For educator Mary Helen Spiri, test scores are not the only indicator of a good school.

"I want the teachers to be proud of the school. I want the parents to be proud of the school. I want the kids to be happy to be there for authentic reasons. I want it to be a vibrant learning community," Spiri said.

Spiri plans to be at Bester a lot this year. She is executive director of Chesapeake Coalition of Essential Schools, an organization that provides help to struggling schools.

According to Spiri, the coalition stresses creating environments in which students take the lead in their own education. Schools should encourage community involvement and self-reflection and critical analysis among teachers and their colleagues, Spiri said in an interview Wednesday and during Bester's first official teacher training day last week.

The Chesapeake Coalition, based in Baltimore, is one of 19 regional offices of the Coalition of Essential Schools. According to its Web site at, about 30 schools in three states receive services from the coalition.

Those schools include Salem Avenue and Hancock elementary schools.

Teacher Tina Swindell, who followed Stiles to Bester, said Eastern Elementary's commitment to extra professional development helped her learn ways to "intrigue" students.

"When you get burned out - because even teachers get burned out - and then you get an idea ... it's like 'oh my gosh, I've got to go try that,'" Swindell said.

Grants will cover the cost of the coalition's work at the school, JoEtta Palkovitz-Brown, the school system's executive director of early childhood and elementary education, said.

The base model - 10 days of technical assistance, 20 days of on-site classroom coaching and 16 hours of workshops - costs a total of $37,200, Spiri said.

One focus of the extra help will be learning about how poverty affects students' performance, Palkovitz-Brown said.

Teachers need to find ways to build students' vocabulary and experiences through technology, books and field trips, she said.

Almost 80 percent of Bester's students qualify for free and reduced-priced lunches.

"You simply don't look at that as a non-factor. It is a factor," Palkovitz-Brown said.

Deputy Superintendent Patricia Abernethy defines success as rigor, relevance - children must see meaning in what they learn - and relationships both inside and outside the school. She indicated she has no doubt that Bester, which long has ranked near the bottom of the county's schools, can replicate Eastern's success.

"I would expect in time that Bester would be a model school, as well," she said.

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