This is one in an occasional series of profiles of Southern Maryland schools.
When Penny Berg Nye arrived at Dr. James Craik Elementary School last year, the building was one wide open space. Teachers taught in classrooms with no walls, and the main office was nothing more than a desk plopped down a few feet away from the front door.
Something had to be done, Nye said when she walked into the building. So she arranged for partitions to be installed to create makeshift classrooms. Now in her second year as principal at the Charles County school, Nye is hearing praises from teachers who finally have walls to keep people from walking through their classes and interrupting their lessons.
The partitions are just one of Nye's projects to improve the school. Tucked away in Pomfret with an enrollment of 336 full-time students, Dr. James Craik Elementary School is considered one of the county's success stories. And the state has recognized that.
Last month, Dr. James Craik was one of the 94 schools that received a cash award from the Maryland Department of Education for significantly improving test scores over the past few years. The state handed out $2.75 million in cash awards to the schools.
This year, the competition was more intense, with an added requirement that schools improve across the board among all ethnic groups. That requirement knocked out at least 70 schools that would have won cash awards under the old standards.
With a 25 percent minority population, mostly African American, Dr. James Craik rose to the challenge. The school, the only in Charles County to win an award, received $31,050 for teacher training, new computer equipment, staff development, classroom supplies or other activities.
Indeed, the school's scores have shot up in the past five years. In 1993, Dr. James Craik students posted a score of 30.7 on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program. By 1998, that score had skyrocketed to 48.6.
The key to the improvement among all ethnic groups, Nye said, is the school's increased push behind reading and writing programs, with much of that effort coming within the language arts curriculum.
"Our language arts time is sacred," Nye said.
The students themselves are well versed in what teachers and administrators think will help them do well on the MSPAP. "If you listen in class like we do, it becomes easy," said 10-year-old Cassie Wilson, a precocious fifth-grader. "It's based on what you know and what you learn, so they can improve schools in Charles County."
On each grade level, most of the classrooms look the same. The uniformity was purposeful--intended to supplement the structured teaching of the curriculum.
A typical classroom has students sitting in groups of four. On each student's desk is a "flippy," a notebook that contains tips on writing. Tubs at each table contain library books. A portable word wall lists the trouble words of the month, words such as "could" and "again" that many students misspell.
Each day, fifth-graders walk into their classrooms and solve a problem of the day, a question that requires them to write a paragraph that explains a solution.
In the second grade, students are asked to write power statements or topic sentences. On a recent day, the students were assigned to write a paragraph explaining why they like their school.
"I learn to read better," was one of the three reasons Amber Freeman, 6, listed.
Her teacher, Martha Hickman, said she emphasizes writing because the MSPAP involves a lot of written work. "They're not just answering fill-in-the-blanks," she said. "They explain and describe. They highlight key words and questions. I want more back when I ask, 'What color is the girl's dress?' than 'The dress is red.' "
In the fifth-grade classrooms, students take part in a literature circle three times a week. They break up into groups to discuss a book, with one student serving as the discussion moderator.
"We're trying to get kids to think on their own, because in the real world, that's how it works," Nye said.
During one recent language arts class, students in the literature circle discussed a book called "The Pinballs," a story about three children living in an orphanage. One character had two broken legs. Morgan Dacumos, 10, drew a picture that she presented to her circle.
"I thought [this scene] was very powerful because Carlie's kindness made an impact when she noticed the conditions of Harvey's legs," she told them.
"You wrote lots of details," her classmate, Chris Dettanas, 10, told her.
When the students finish the books, their groups create projects. Some act out scenes from the book; others make board games.
At the end of each school day, there are 30 minutes of self-selected reading. Last year, the school began an after-school reading-with-karate program for students considered to be at risk. The program teaches discipline and self-confidence in conjunction with reading. The reading-with-karate program will return this winter.
Near the main office, which also has partitioned walls now, is the Senior Partners Center. Arranged with couches donated from local companies, the center is where senior citizens read with students after school.
There are more efforts ahead. Soon, the entire school will have a writing topic for the day. The first one will be a letter to the school district asking for financing of the partitions.
But there is more to Dr. James Craik than its reading and writing programs, parents said. The school's atmosphere is what keeps them satisfied.
"That allows the children to feel safe and secure," said Angel Willett, a parent and the school secretary.
The school offers parents several opportunities to get involved, Nye said. The school has pajama reading nights for parents and students. Shortly before students were scheduled to take the MSPAP, parents were invited to the school to discuss the exam.
Nye runs a tight but friendly ship.
Her daily rounds include classroom visits that usually include a one-on-one spelling lesson for one student and a pat on the head for another.
"You know, I really like the way you're in line," she told one student as she walked past a third-grade classroom.
For that kind of supervision over everything that happens at the school, parents are grateful.
Pamela Jenkins said her third-grade son transferred to Dr. James Craik from Walter J. Mitchell Elementary School in La Plata. Though she was worried at first, she and her son grew to feel comfortable with the school.
"It's a warm environment," she said. "He just came in and adjusted well."
Dr. James Craik Elementary School
* Opened: 1974.
* Full-time students: 336.
* Capacity: 439.
* Students qualifying for free or reduced lunches: 22 percent.
* Students with limited English proficiency: 0.7 percent.
* Principal: Penny Berg Nye.
* 1998 MSPAP standing: 339th out of 792 Maryland elementary schools, with a composite score of 48.6 percent.
* School mascot: Tiger.
* School motto: At Dr. James Craik, we educate.
* Neat fact: Last year, Dr. James Craik students read more than 7,000 books as part of the national Read Across America program.
CAPTION: Fifth-grader Kenneth Etheridge listens to his teammates read aloud.
CAPTION: Kirt Thorne, left, and Jasmine Watson act out a skit about a book their team read. Dr. James Craik places particular emphasis on its language arts curriculum.
CAPTION: Kelsey Cislo reads with her fifth-grade team. The students create projects about the books after they finish reading them.
CAPTION: Fifth-graders Tyler Wasky, left, and Jamie Adams play a game their team created about "The Pinballs," a book by Betsy Byars. The students take part in a literature circle three times a week.