They're still talking at Montgomery County's Fairland Elementary School about the smash hit Greek plays the sixth graders put on last year.
Under the direction of teacher Helen Cary, a special class of 26 poor readers did what "gifted and talented" students have done at other schools: They composed and memorized three dramas based on Greek myths, with pithy observations about modern times.
Among the young dramatists were 20 black, Hispanic and Asian sixth graders -- some who had been reading on a first-grade level -- whose work so delighted parents, teachers and fellow pupils that they were being stopped in halls for congratulations for days afterward, teachers at the eastern county school recall.
Yesterday, school personnel from all over Montgomery were talking about what Helen Cary has been practicing for years as a teacher: the breaking down of barriers that slow the educational progress of many minority group students. It was the 10th year that Montgomery teachers and other school workers have gathered for such meetings, which are mandated by the Board of Education as part of its effort to raise test scores of black, Hispanic and Asian youngsters.
As part of the program, Georgia State University educational psychologist and historian Asa G. Hilliard III lectured a gathering of teachers at Benjamin Banneker Junior High School, stressing that what is good for minority students is good for all pupils.
Adult supervision -- and lots of it -- has a dramatic positive effect on young people, Hilliard said, as do academic and recreational programs after school, horizon-expanding field trips, off-hours socializing, and exercises that boost vocabulary. Setting much higher goals and celebrating the diversity of student populations also are keys to progress, he said.
"There is power in teaching that can overcome any failures in the country," said Hilliard, former dean of education at San Francisco State University.
A day earlier, the leader of a group of parents that monitors county schools had accused the Board of Education of taking "a distant and aloof management approach" to improving minority achievement. James L. Robinson said in a report of the Citizens' Minority Relations Monitoring Committee that the board's effort to upgrade standardized test scores has been largely a failure.
But at Fairland, an aging school serving the burgeoning Rte. 29 corridor, staffers said that they are working to carry out much of the formula suggested by Hilliard.
Fairland already has an after-hours recreation-study program, and is hoping to set up late-afternoon busing to promote it, along with a "homework hot line" and a system of evening consulting hours for parents, counselor Pat Lotto said.
Fairland and other schools are placing particular emphasis on improving scores. Said Fairland Principal Thomas Poore: "If we fail to help kids prepare for the tests, we've failed them . . . . Kids live and die by those tests."
Fairland's three sixth-grade teachers, meeting later to come up with their own plan for motivating students, said that Cary's poor readers were greatly cheered by their success with the Greek plays.
Cary spent about three months on the project, helping the students read various modern and ancient versions of the myths and showing them film strips. She had done the same thing some years earlier with academically gifted children at Chevy Chase Elementary School.
The stories captured the imaginations of "kids we thought would never even be able to read, let alone memorize some of the lines," including one child who had not been able to speak English two years previously, Cary said. Production of the play also brought their parents to the school -- some of whom had never been in the building before -- and gave a measurable boost to the self-esteem of the students, said teacher Mary O'Haver.
Parents "could see that their children were really doing well," she said. "It had to have changed things at home for them."