If Bodkin Elementary School Principal Rocco Ferretti had any doubt that the rigid writing program he instituted to beef up his school's state exam scores was sinking in, that ended when he saw one parent's Mother's Day card.
"She brought it to me and said, 'You won't believe this,' " Ferretti recalled. "It was like, 'Dear mom, you are the best mother in the world for the following reasons . . .' Then it backed up the claim with three examples and summed it up with a conclusion."
Tracey Gold's 10-year-old daughter had, in essence, penned her card in the form of an answer for Maryland School Performance Assessment Program exams--a set of yearly skills tests that has brought about drastic, and often controversial, changes in the way schools such as Bodkin teach.
For Ferretti, the payoff for such strict adherence to the writing program came yesterday when he learned his school earned the highest passing rate in the state.
The northern Anne Arundel County school leapt in the rankings from 202nd out of 834 Maryland public elementary schools, to first. Fifth-grade reading scores jumped from a 40.9 percent pass rate to 74 percent, and pass rates on the science part of the tests rose from 63.6 percent to 90.8 percent.
"This was our breakthrough year," Ferretti said, beaming. "We couldn't be happier."
State officials responded to Bodkin's sudden ascension after years of mediocre performances on the test by double-checking scores--standard procedure whenever scores fluctuate wildly.
At Bodkin yesterday, teachers and parents were elated. They attributed the results to an aggressive--even obsessive--campaign to get children writing clearly, which is precisely what the test demands.
For years, Ferretti said his teachers were baffled by the school's low scores. The school, located near horse farms a half-mile from the Chesapeake Bay in Pasadena, draws students from a region with a median household income of about $50,000.
"Teachers knew they had kids who came from good homes, who didn't face many of the problems that are affecting other areas," he said.
Fed up, he said, they decided last year to overhaul their approach. The results of that campaign are now on view in almost every classroom, where suggestions about crisp writing are pasted on walls, and even physical education has a written component.
In a third-grade math class yesterday, teacher Deborah van den Berg had her students subtract 192 from 285. Then, just as they would do on the state test, she asked them to write a short essay explaining how they got their answer.
Although some parents have complained that this approach plays down fundamentals in favor of teaching directly to the test, van den Berg sees its advantages.
"It really helps them think the process through because they have to sit and write it down," she said. "They're learning just as much of the math, but now they're able to organize their thoughts and apply what they've learned."
Bodkin's principal had other ideas for improving scores as well. He asked teachers and parents to focus on the school's boys, who were scoring far lower than girls on the test. Last fall, Ferretti sent a letter to parents urging them to get their sons off the ball fields and into the house to study. He had teachers incorporate magazine articles on such themes as baseball and cars to get the boys more interested.
The tactic worked. Fifth-grade boys closed a 20-point gap in reading scores to just 4 percentage points. Ferretti's only concern now is proving that the success represents a major shift at Bodkin Elementary, not just a fluke.
His goal, he said, is to duplicate the work being done at consistently high-scoring schools such as Somerset Elementary School in Chevy Chase, which had been ranked No. 1 the last two years but this year slipped to No. 5.
At Somerset yesterday, any disappointment was overshadowed by pride in the students' overall excellent performance.
"You can clearly make significant strides on your academic program when there is continuity, when there's a vision of the academic side of the program being the main focus, when your teachers are well trained, and when you plug hard at this," Principal Alfred Sklarew said.
Sklarew said Somerset students focus on reading and writing skills, and synthesizing data. Teachers, among other things, focus on grade-to-grade continuity.
Staff writers Michael E. Ruane and Amy Argetsinger contributed to this report.
CAPTION: Bodkin Elementary School Principal Rocco Ferretti talks with fourth-graders Nicole Lee and Jeremy Rounceville at the school in Pasadena, in Anne Arundel County.
CAPTION: Mitch Herold, left, helps classmate Max Bode find a place in his reading. Bodkin, ranked 202nd in MSPAP results last year, came in No. 1 this year.