Homeroom period at Browne Junior High School in Northeast Washington has become the test period. There are tests in vocabulary, reading, math and how to take tests.
This no-nonsense approach to education also extends to student dress. There is a dress code. That means there is no eye makeup, purple or otherwise, there are no bare chests brimming from unbuttoned shirts, and no hair curlers in Browne hallways.
The toughness has paid off. U.S. Education Secretary William Bennett recently cited Browne "as a model for excellence" for its success in helping youths from deprived backgrounds compete academically.
Recently released test results showed that Browne's eighth and ninth graders scored above their grade level in most areas. Last year these students scored well below their grade levels. This year's scores placed Browne's students among the city's top secondary pupils.
"Some people call us a 'ghetto school,' " said Marguerite Pettigrew, principal at Browne, which has an enrollment of 669.
"We're sitting in the lap of all kinds of things around us. But our students believe in themselves and they work hard, and we have parents that are really supportive. They don't have a lot of money to give, but they are involved in the program here," she said. "They wanted a dress code here, so we have one."
Browne, perched on a small ridge at 24th Street and Benning Road NE, draws many of its students from the nearby Langston Terrace public housing project.
In the 1950s and '60s, Browne was one of the city's premier junior high schools. In those days, Browne and its neighbors, Charles Young Elementary School and Spingarn High School, were favorites among black middle-class parents.
Browne's student body was then almost equally divided between students from Langston and those from the compact working and middle-class neighborhood of single-family owner-occupied homes south of Benning Road NE.
When the last of those middle-class children graduated in the late 1960s, the school was dominated by those from Langston, one of the city's better-maintained public housing developments, and a neighboring large apartment complex.
Today, Browne operates in a businesslike atmosphere, yet appears to be a relaxed family where students feel that they are cared for and expected to perform.
Pettigrew, who has headed the school for 14 years, attributed much of Browne's success to teachers who in recent years agreed to use some of their summer months to analyze the students' scores on comprehensive standardized tests and find student weaknesses.
"There's nothing tested that is not taught," she said. "If you really teach the children and work on their weaknesses, you can bring test scores up."
Teachers, counselors, librarians and custodians all work together to provide students with a comprehensive education, clean, orderly classrooms and after-school programs in computers, mathematics, French and art that challenge and stimulate students, Pettigrew said.
This year, eighth and ninth graders matched or exceeded the national norm on most parts of the Comprehensive Tests of Basic Skills by as much as two years. Only in reading did eighth graders underachieve, scoring two months below their grade level. That score, however, indicated considerable improvement over last year, when eighth graders scored eight months below their grade level in reading.
Pettigrew admits that while teachers concentrate on pulling up student scores in one area, another area where students are strong may be neglected for a year.
That's the reason for the below-average reading scores, she said. Teachers concentrated on improving reading comprehension this year because these same students scored very well in reading vocabulary as seventh graders last year.
This year, reading vocabulary skills advanced at a slower rate with scores still a month ahead of the national average, while reading comprehension moved up seven months from 7.7 to 8.4 -- still four months behind the norm. The combined vocabulary and comprehension scores total 8.6, or two months behind the national norm of 8.8.
"We don't want our students to be good in math and bad in reading, good in vocabulary and bad in comprehension. So we really work at making sure they get all the bases covered," she said. "In the process, some of their scores may suffer."
"There's an air of healthy competition in this school," said Cynthia Clarke, who taught math for several years before becoming assistant principal. "Every department in the school -- English, math, et cetera -- wants to be known as the best. So you have everybody working hard for the students. Teachers don't work for the money: they work because they love children."
The Competency Based Curriculum, started in all District schools several years ago, serves as the basis for Browne's task-oriented philosophy. "With the CBC , you get back to the basics," said Diane Pinckney, a seventh-grade math teacher at Browne. "It is set up so that students know the steps they need to climb and they can focus on what they need to do to advance.
"And as teachers, we learn from each other," Pinckney said. "Teachers visit different classrooms to observe and learn what other teachers are doing right."
Marian Brown, a seventh-grade science teacher at Browne, said, "If I have an idea, but I don't have it all quite together yet, instead of the administration saying 'no,' they'll help me develop it."
Browne is also helped by the presence of three assistant principals, compared to one at most District junior high schools. Each assistant principal at Browne serves as a "dean" of one grade level, Pettigrew said. This arrangement helps students and teachers reach responsible supervisors and respond to problems quickly, she said.
The intensive junior high school instruction program that was implemented citywide in 1980 is also a part of Browne's formula for success, several teachers said.
Under the program, teachers agree to give homework assignments four days a week, students agree to maintain library cards and study hard and parents agree to check their children's assignments and provide quiet places to study.
Lina Turner, 15, who graduated from Browne this year, is so fond of her school that she stopped by recently just to say goodbye -- again.
"I love this school," she said. "The teachers are like moms and dads. They make sure we do our work so we can pass to the next grade. Going to this school was exciting."