With the advent this fall of a new "pupil progress plan" and semester-by-semester promotions in the District of Columbia school system, The Washington Post is periodically visiting the second grade class at Bruce-Monroe Elementary School to see how effectively the programs are working .
Every day, before she prepares for her next class, second-grade teacher Dorothy Porter refers to a thick book in a red plastic binder that she calls her teaching "Bible." Under a heading of "objectives," the book tells her what skills to teach the children that day, how to teach those skills, how to test the youngsters to see how much they have learned and even how many mistakes a child is allowed to make.
The teaching method Porter uses in her class at Bruce-Monroe Elementary School in the Columbia Heights section of Northwest Washington is being repeated each day in all elementary schools throughout the city. It is part of a system-wide "pupil progress plan," that for the first time in the District of Columbia includes promotions on a half-year basis.
The plan is unique in the nation and is designed to make sure students learn how to read, write, and compute numbers in the grades were they should be learning these skills. The idea is to avoid advancing to junior and senior high schools those students who cannot read or do simple math, and to reverse the embarrassing trend in the D.C. public schools of having student test scores consistently fall below national norms.
Teachers must keep precise records of whether their students have mastered the skills being taught in each semester before being advanced to the next one. tPorter, a 27-year teaching veteran, walks around her classroom all day carrying a wide sheet of paper with each child's name on it and the skills mastered that day. Beside each child's name, she puts an "E," an "X," or a dot. The symbols denote whether the child has learned the skill, needs more help, or has totally missed the lesson.
This method of teaching students is part of an overall plan shcool officials have worked on for the past four years called the "competency-based curriculum." The plan was fostered by school Supt. Vincent E. Reed, who has staked his reputation on it as a way to ensure that students graduate from the public shcools with the math and reading skills necessary to cope with life.
Interviews with teachers, administrators and students have shown that untold numbers of D.C. public school students who graduate from high school are unable to do such basic tasks as reading a grocery store ad or balancing a checkbook, or have difficulty with college-level work. Reed and other school officials hope that by returning to instruction of basic, specific material in the elementary grades, pupils eventually will score higher on national tests and, more imporatantly, master skills that they will use the rest of their lives by the time they graduate from hight school.
All of Porter's second-graders now are in a class called 2A. Those who learn all or most of the skills taught in the fall semester will advance to grade 2B in January. Those who need help will be placed in a transitional class and be given extra help until they have mastered all the skills of 2A. They will pass into 2B only after they have mastered the same skills as the rest of their classmates.
Typical skills to be mastered in the first semester of the second grade include constructing contractions and possessives and recognizing synonyms, antonyms and homonyms.
"Years ago, when students failed, they stayed back in the same room . . . For an entire additional year they went over the same material they had the year before," explained Joan Brown, citywide coodinator of the pupil progress plan. "This time, staying back simply means the student will move when he's mastered the skills."
So it may happen, Brown says, that a student strong in reading, but weak in math probably will be placed in a 2B reading class but remain in 2A for math.
The plan recognizes that children learn at different paces and requires teachers to divide the class into different learning groups, with each group working at a different pace.
Inside the classroom, a teacher like Porter sees the competency-based curriculum and the pupil progress plan as merely "getting back to basics.
"All through the years we've expected students to learn certain skills. The only new thing here is that they now have to master 75 percent of the skills taught to be promoted. Now we're requiring them to learn a certain amount of skills within a certain amount of time," explained Alma Feder, Bruce-Monroe's principal.
Another new factor is that parents will be expected to take a more active role in their children's education. The parents will be called for conferences with their child's teacher at least four times a year now, instead of just once.
Teachers also will be sending home to parents lists of what the children are working on in school. Porter, for example, said she intends to send home vocabulary lists, which the children are expected to learn. I'm going to tell the parents," Tape these to the refrigerator, to the cereal box."
On a typical day, Porter starts her second-graders out with a "Word Bank" lesson in which they are given a series of new works. On one recent day the words were squirrel, leaves, pretty, colors, cooler, shorter, food and nuts. Then the youngsters were given a paragraph where certain of the words had been left blank and were asked to fill in the right word from the "word bank" of the day.
While some students were working on this excercise, Porter, a soft-spoken woman who speaks in the quiet, clearly enunciated, almost musical tones typical of elementary teachers, took aside a group of eight students who needed more practice in identifying synonyms. The teacher's manual -- or Bible, as Porter repeatedly calls it -- lists identification of synonyms as one of the "critical skills," a skill the second-graders must master before moving on to the next grade level.
On the board, Porter has taped a large sheet of paper and with a magic marker written a message: "Synonyms are words that mean the same but are spelled differently."
The children at the blackboard were those who the day before had dots or X's next to their names in Porter's roll book, showing that they had not yet grasped the concept of synonyms.
Later, Porter repeated the exercise, having the children match words written on index cards with their synonyms. Then she began again to work with the class as a whole, going to each child and looking over their word bank assignment.
The plan is as likely to succeed in Bruce-Monroe as in any school. Standardized test scores last year showed that its third- and sixth-graders were working well below their grade level in reading. They were about half a year behind in math. As in most D.C. schools, the student body is almost entirely black. The youngsters live in the neat, red brick row houses of the Colonial Heights neighborhood not far from Howard University.
Many of the parents work at assorted blue collar jobs, though some arfe connected with Howard. About 30 percent of the families are on welfare, according to Felder.
"The parents really seem to care about their children. The children come to school clean, their hair is fixed. If they have only one outfit to wear, t that outfit is always cleaned and pressed," Felder said.
Bruce-Monroe is an open-space school, which means there are no enclosed classrooms in the traditional sense. Rather, students of different grades sit in one large room. At Bruce-Monroe the room is carpeted and students sit at tables scaled down to size for them and keep their school materials in trays, rather than traditional desks. The rooms themselves are equipped with refrigerators, sinks and television sets, which give them more of a homelike quality than a traditional classroom.
Most of the newer schools in the city, like the seven-year-old Bruce-Monroe, have open space classrooms that lend themselves more easily to working with students in groups. This year, because of the teacher layoffs, many elementary school teachers, like Porter, find they have as many as 31 students in a class and that it is virtually impossible to give students much individualized attention.
For example, while Porter was working with one group of students on synonyms at the blackboard, the others in the class were supposed to be doing independent work. It was not long before those working on their own become rambunctious, began talking with their friends and strolling around the classroom.
"At this age, their attention span is short. They need individual attention. Heretofore, we had 21, 22, or 23 children in a class. It takes some real getting used to, working with 31," Porter said.
In the afternoon a math class was set up much the same way, with different small groups being sent to the blackboard to work with Porter at different times, while other students worked independently. On this day, the second-graders were working on adding two two-digit numbers.
Before the afternoon was over, the students who needed the extra help with synonyms got some additional practice. This time, Porter taught them to play a game. The children laid out index cards with words written on them, and then tried to match each word with its synonym.
One group of students played this game while Porter worked at the blackboard with another small group whose task it was to copy words correctly off the blackboard -- a vocabulary-building, spelling and handwriting exercise. o
Even though the school day ends at 3 p.m., the academic portion of it for the second-graders, at least, ends around 2 p.m. with a coloring excerise, designed to help the youngsters match numbers with colors.
School officials say the pupil progress plan will be foolproof if teachers follow it exactly as written, and parents cooperate, too. According to Brown, research studies have shown that if students are taught precisely as the pupil progress plan dictates, 90 percent of them will master the required skills.
Nonetheless, school officials are expecting some problems in the third grade. In many public schools, standardized test scores show that the third-grade students are working below grade level. "Unless a miracle happens, a child who has not yet mastereed skills required for second grade is not going to master the skills necessary to move on in the third grade," Felder said.
By the beginning of November school officials hope to have some idea how many pupils are grasping the necessary skills. At that time, parents will be informed whether their children are likely to pass or fail the fall semester, and what plan the teachers have to helping these children progress.