Today, when the sixth graders of Highland View Elementary School invite younger pupils to admire the results of their newly completed social studies project on Africa, no one will be prouder of their maps and papier-mache masks than Raymond Owono, whose parents were born in the Cameroons.
"I felt great that I was learning more about Africa. My father sometimes told me stories about things that happened when he was living there," said the quiet-spoken 11-year-old, who has been a pupil at the Silver Spring school since third grade.
Highland View is one of the 14 racially integrated "magnet" elementary schools in lower Montgomery County whose pupils were reported this week for the first time to have begun to show higher academic achievement when compared with similar pupils whose schools do not have the special programs.
County school researchers speculate that the educational gains are attributable to the extra resources, special curriculums and "positive climate" created by the magnet programs, which are designed to desegregate predominantly minority schools by attracting white pupils.
Racially mixed schools in the lower county, with their highly transient populations, still tend to have lower average schoolwide scores on national tests. But the new study of sixth graders indicated that, when magnet programs in those schools are able to work with pupils for at least three years, they can produce results, including a heightened sense of self-worth among the youngsters.
Raymond and his classmates, a number of whom have acquired English as a second language, studied more than just history in their recent concentration on Africa: Highland View's magnet curriculum is interdisciplinary studies, meaning that reading, math and science are integrated into social studies lessons.
There were map-making skills and new words to learn such as "longitudinal" for the sixth graders; expository paragraphs to be written about the maps, and bar graphs to create on African agricultural production. Highland View's social studies teacher -- one of three additional resource teachers assigned full time to that school -- joined the three sixth grade teachers in teaching the nine-week course, so that the 68 pupils could get more individual attention.
In assessing the effect of magnet programs, county researchers compared magnet and nonmagnet sixth graders who had started out with the same California Achievement Test scores in the third grade and who had continued in their respective schools for three years.
By the end of sixth grade, the study found, magnet school pupils scored better on comprehension tests of Montgomery County curriculum. The results were consistent for all three-year veterans of magnets, whether or not they were enrolled in the special magnet programs within those designated schools, researchers said.
Magnet school pupils supplied correct answers to 10 to 18 percent more questions than did nonmagnet pupils, according to the study. Some observers of the school system, however, expressed skepticism that this statistical difference noted by the researchers was significant. But school system researcher John C. Larson said it was one of the first magnet studies in the country showing such "distinctly positive" findings.
An important factor in successful magnet schools is a climate in which children of all races feel they have a chance to succeed, partly because teachers' expectations are not biased by race, educators said.
"We try not to have a school within a school," with too much special attention focused on children being bused in, said Takoma Park Elementary's principal, Phinnize J. Brown. "We make sure there's not a difference."
"We have a different set of pressures, a different set of needs than in other elementary schools," in part because "many people have transferred their kids to your school," said Highland View's principal, Steven G. Seleznow, half of whose pupils are bused in from outside the school's Sligo Creek neighborhood. "There's a sense of consumerism that exists in a magnet school."
A national study of magnet schools published four years ago found that an innovative "entrepreneurial" principal and a staff committed to spending extra time with the pupils were crucial.
"You don't have a monopoly on the community, because if you don't provide a quality product, parents are going to pick up their kids and go to another place," said Seleznow, who oversees an enrollment of 360 that is 54 percent black, Hispanic and Asian and reflects some 50 cultures. What makes a difference, he said, "first and foremost, is the intensity of the teachers."
Raymond Owono's father Basil, who works at the Embassy of Chad, said he could have withdrawn his three children from Highland View when the family moved from the neighborhood to Takoma Park. But he said he had grown to like the environment there. "The teachers are very communicative and the principal is very involved and is very concerned with every kid," Owono said.
Before it changed its academic focus, Highland View was "just an ordinary elementary with increasing numbers of youngsters needing extra help," said Elizabeth LaFrance, whose two children attended the school. Now, with extra teachers and aides, "the kids are being educated more creatively, the classroom size is smaller, there's more individual attention and it has freed up the teacher to do a better job.
"There were much greater expectations of the teachers, and they had to meet those expectations," LaFrance said. "There was increased work for them, increased preparation time and increased working as a team using the interdisciplinary approach, but I personally feel it's paid off."
Veteran sixth grade teacher Jan Mills said that when she came to Highland View nine years ago, before its interdisciplinary curriculum was developed, "I used to have the same class every day. Maybe you'd read out of the textbook and you'd find a chapter on Africa and go through it. Today, it is only one source for us.
"It takes a lot more planning to create an interdisciplinary approach -- an old technique that has come into favor once more -- and as a result, "it's a lot more time-consuming to teach in a magnet," said Mills, who began teaching in the early 1960s. "It was like learning a whole new skill . . . . You have to give up some old ideas and jump in and hope it's going to work."