Nearby Schools, Worlds Apart

Adelphi pre-kindergarten teacher Cheryl Smith sings a song with her students. Full-day pre-kindergarten is a recent addition at the school.
Adelphi pre-kindergarten teacher Cheryl Smith sings a song with her students. Full-day pre-kindergarten is a recent addition at the school. (Photos By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
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By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Broad Acres and Adelphi elementary schools sit nine-tenths of a mile apart. The boundary that separates them cuts through a horseshoe-shaped apartment complex off New Hampshire Avenue that houses some of the poorest families in the Washington suburbs.

And yet, those nine-tenths of a mile make a world of difference.

Broad Acres is the poorest school in affluent Montgomery County. It has been lavished with attention, serving as a laboratory for one program after another in an ongoing effort to elevate achievement among the county's most disadvantaged students. Teachers are paid to work an extra 15 days a year, the only such arrangement in the county. The 2006 National Teacher of the Year works there. The school's dramatic turnaround from the brink of state takeover is the stuff of local legend.

Adelphi is one high-poverty school among many in Prince George's County. Apart from a brief visit by the governor two years ago, the school has drawn little notice for its solid test scores and steady leadership. In a county of struggling schools, Adelphi stands out mostly for the attention it does not get, the kind that comes to schools that struggle on statewide tests.

Montgomery's single-minded focus on improving one low-performing school has paid off. Broad Acres consistently outperforms its neighbor, though both schools have seesawed, and both have missed performance targets at one time or another. Neither school has found a way to overcome the economic realities of life along New Hampshire Avenue.

The two schools illustrate the contrasting challenges facing less-affluent school systems such as Prince George's and wealthier districts such as Montgomery's as they labor toward a common goal: adequate yearly progress under the No Child Left Behind law.

Montgomery Superintendent Jerry D. Weast has poured money into Broad Acres, one of 35 schools in the 200-school system with a majority of students receiving federal meal subsidies because of low family income. The school got $797,599 in supplementary federal Title I funds this year, or about $1,750 for every student, the most of any Montgomery campus. Classes have fewer than 20 students in most grades. The school offers full-day Head Start and was among the first in the county with full-day kindergarten. Teachers stay three hours after school every Wednesday to talk about student data. It's an ensemble of services no other school in the county can match.

"We are one of a kind, really, in Montgomery County," said Michael Bayewitz, the principal.

In Prince George's, programs and dollars to improve struggling schools are spread across a much wider swath. Superintendent John E. Deasy estimates that two-thirds of schools meet the criteria for remedial aid, whether because of poverty, test scores or inexperienced staff. Adelphi's Title I funding, the largest source of federal aid, is $221,476, or about $605 per student, one-third of what Broad Acres gets.

"With all due respect to my great colleague Doctor Weast," Deasy said, "there is no comparison."

Both schools met their annual performance goals last year under No Child Left Behind, a feat attained by about four-fifths of schools statewide. Sixty-eight percent of Adelphi students rated proficient in reading, 64 percent in math. At Broad Acres, 71 percent were proficient in reading, 79 percent in math. That's closer to the statewide average across all grades, 76 percent proficiency in reading, 72 percent in math.

Broad Acres has improved dramatically since the start of the decade, when just 13 percent of students passed the old Maryland School Performance Assessment Program in third-grade reading. Adelphi has improved, too: Its pass rate in 2000 was 19 percent.

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