The surname of the principal of Fields Road Elementary School in Gaithersburg was incorrect in a story yesterday about the resources at two schools in Maryland. Her name is Gwendolyn Page. (Published 1/15/ 91)

At Fields Road Elementary School in Gaithersburg, Beth Figura teaches her third-grade class to check subtraction problems in a new way.

She hands each child a bright blue calculator, part of a kit she borrowed from the school library. "It's fun. You just press the buttons," an 8-year-old named Nicolette said as the students eagerly inspected the device.

Nearly a hundred miles away on Maryland's Eastern Shore, Janet Fountain also is trying a new approach to math with her third-graders at Preston Elementary School.

But she skips the lessons that require calculators. "It is one of those things where you don't have money to buy everything the program calls for," Fountain said.

The need to scrimp in math lessons is one of many differences in how and what the two schools can afford to teach. Fields Road is in Montgomery County, where the schools spend $6,001 for each elementary student, the most in the state. Preston is in Caroline, a rural county at Maryland's easternmost edge, where the schools spend $4,031, the state's least.

For the 29 students in Fountain's class, that gap translates into more than $57,000.

Such disparities, and their effect on children's education, are of acute interest to educators, politicians and activists. Money alone doesn't account for how well students learn, and there is disagreement over whether rich schools are necessarily better ones.

But in Kentucky, New Jersey, Texas and Montana, courts recently have ordered the state to devote more money to students in poor communities, sometimes at the expense of more affluent ones. In Virginia, a gubernatorial commission is about to recommend ways to lessen disparities in school subsidies.

This winter, Maryland legislators also will reconsider the question. "We are trying to provide the poorer subdivisions greater opportunity for a quality education for their students," said Del. Howard P. Rawlings (D-Baltimore), who intends to introduce legislation in the General Assembly session that began last week that would infuse more aid into Baltimore and Maryland's rural schools.

In case legislation stalls, as many expect it will at a time of budgetary hardship, several Maryland groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union are exploring a lawsuit.

To find out the difference money can make, The Washington Post visited third-graders -- students due to graduate from high school in 2000 -- in Maryland's richest and poorest school systems.

Montgomery's Fields Road and Caroline's Preston elementary schools are about the same size. Each contains what is for its county an average percentage of economically disadvantaged children.

Although it is poor, Preston is unlike a neglected inner-city school. Built in 1971, the school has gleaming waxed floors, enough textbooks to go around and teachers who say they are proud of where they work.

Like Fields Road, it can offer a sound education to average students. But it can't offer as many classroom amenities, as much guidance for teachers or the kind of special help needed by children who have trouble learning, or who are unusually bright.

Fountain said she would have liked to have been able to order the workbook that accompanies the new math text. "There are some things you feel are needed that you just can't get."

Figura, on the other hand, recently was issued an "artifacts kit" for a social studies unit on Japan, with pottery, maps, a Japanese comic book and tea. "A lot of things I ask for, we put in an order, and I usually get."

Preston is a community of 1,200 that is too small to warrant a stoplight. Many of the children's parents work at Preston Truck, a shipping company that is the largest local employer.

Some of Fountain's students live in town; more live in the flat countryside or in smaller hamlets with names like Harmony and Bethlehem. Four-fifths of the school's students are white, and one-third are poor enough to qualify for federal lunch subsidies.

Fields Road draws its students from the town houses, apartments and large houses that have sprung up within sight of the high-technology companies of Shady Grove. One-fifth of the students are black, one-fifth are Asian and one-tenth are Hispanic. The children come from 19 countries, and some are so new that they take special classes to learn English.

But when you walk into Fountain's and Figura's classrooms, one of the most striking differences is the number of students, a factor many educators think can affect how well students learn. Preston's 58 third-graders are divided evenly between two teachers, so that Fountain has 29. At Fields Road, Principal Gwendolyn Jones shifted some students so that Figura would not have more than 24 students.

Class sizes in Caroline have grown during the past few years as part of a deliberate but uncomfortable trade-off. While Montgomery has been shrinking its classes, Caroline has invested money in all-day kindergarten classes. It also has diverted money into teachers' salaries to try to stem what had been a 15 percent annual exodus in the county's teachers, many of whom left for higher-paying jobs.

Not all the differences between the schools are readily apparent.

In Montgomery, educators and politicians attribute their higher spending mainly to the bigger salaries they must offer because of the high cost of living in the Washington suburbs.

With 16 years of experience and a master's degree, Fountain is paid $38,000 at Preston. If she worked in Montgomery, her pay would be $50,056.

Preston has no school gym, so children exercise on the cramped school stage. It has less money than Fields Road to buy textbooks. Preston's part-time art teacher would like to teach pottery, but the school has no kiln; Fields Road just got its second one.

In Figura's third-grade class at Fields Road, seven children attend a free homework and tutoring class after school once a week. Nine went to a free summer school for average students last year, and others get instruction tailored to gifted children. When they were preschoolers, some attended a Head Start class, a federal program that Montgomery augments. These amenities are unknown to Preston's students.

The teachers at Preston receive less help too. To get ready to teach from the new math book, Fountain glanced through a sample copy that the principal left in the teachers' lounge for a few days last year. At Fields Road, Figura gets coaching on how to use Montgomery's new math program by a curriculum specialist who works at the school 2 1/2 days a week.

In addition to smaller classes, Fields Road offers children more kinds of professional help: a full-time reading teacher, a full-time principal trainee and a part-time "disadvantaged" teacher that Montgomery has given the school because its test scores last year were relatively low.

There is a playground assistant to free teachers from supervising recess some days, and two math aides who keep computerized records of every child's progress in addition, subtraction, geometry, measurement and the use of money.

Without such specialized help at Preston, Fountain thinks her school can provide a decent education for average students. But for unusually bright children, or ones who have trouble learning, "there are some . . . that need attention and aren't getting it," said Larry Anders, the school principal.

"We don't starve," Anders said. "We stretch."

Preston's school library doesn't have enough books or space to meet state standards, and last spring the librarian quit.

When Anders looked for a replacement, he couldn't find any applicants who were certified to do the job. So he gave it to a sixth-grade teacher, Agnes Sturtz, who had worked at Preston for 22 years but had no library training. She also is in charge of the school whenever the principal is away.

At Fields Road, the certified librarian, Tina Burke, is helped by two media aides.

Mary Sue Eldridge, the full-time counselor at Fields Road, has a daily routine this year for six boys in Figura's room who have been acting up in class.

First thing in the morning, they come to her office and sign a behavior "contract" for the day. They stop in again just before they go home, to review how the day went.

At Preston, counselor Mary McWilliams couldn't try such a technique because she must split her week between two schools. One boy in Fountain's class has been taken away from his mother this year, and his stepfather is in jail. "I am scheduled to see him once a week," McWilliams said. "But often he just appears at my door. Sometimes he just needs someone to sit down and play a game."

In the last seat in the last row of Fountain's class, a sweet, brown-haired boy named Trey fidgets most of the day. He scored at the very top last year on every part of the California Achievement Test. He also is hyperactive.

"Trey is very bored with paper and pencil things," Fountain said. "Here's a kid who would want to illustrate a story or tell someone about it."

If he were at Fields Road, Trey, like all Montgomery children, would have been tested during the spring of second grade to find out whether he is "gifted." And if he were in Figura's class, he almost certainly would be one of a small group of students to whom she assigns harder work and advanced library research projects.

But at Preston, Trey uses the same reading and math books as other children. No one has ever tested him to see what he might be capable of learning.

"Why identify gifted kids if we don't have gifted programs? What is the purpose?" Anders said. "When you're suffering for resources, let's face it, you're into the greatest good for the greatest number. Those children who are intelligent, we don't know how far they could go if given the chance."

....................Fields Road............Preston


K-6........................ 430................404


staff ...................... 32................ 23


enrollment.................. 55................ 58


students per

classroom .................. 25.3.............. 26

Pupils getting

federal lunch

subsidy..................... 18%.............. 32%


spending............... $6,0011............ $4,031



budget................. $9,550............. $7,200



Property tax

rate FY 91.............$2.81............... $2.49

Wealth per

pupil................. $360,538..........$108,270

Revenue per


increase in

property tax

rate ............... $2,376,640...........$31,958


per-pupil cost.......$6,347............... $4,304

Basic state

aid per pupil....... $389.................. 1,744

Classroom teachers and specialists.

SOURCES: Caroline and Montgomery county schools, Maryland Department of Education and Maryland Department of Fiscal Services