Teacher Tara Jackson peeled one exuberant fourth-grade boy away from the blackboard, directed another's attention to his math book and admonished a third who had jumped up, without explanation, and started to dance.
Four days before Christmas and 20 minutes after the closing bell at Birney Elementary School in Southeast Washington, the youngsters were not in a homework mood.
At Jackson's not-so-gentle urging, however, Johnathan Patterson put pencil to paper. Dandre Chow hunched low over a word problem. Alvin Johnson began multiplying, his lips moving in silent concentration.
"See, you all know this stuff," Jackson said, peering over one boy's shoulder to smile at a correct answer. "It's just a matter of reading the problems and taking each one step by step."
The daily homework session is part of a carefully constructed lifeboat at Birney that is slowly lifting 561 children from the academic depths. The school has made dramatic gains on the Stanford 9 achievement tests since 1997 and was one of the few schools in the District to improve significantly last spring.
Students whose home lives are torn by poverty and other problems arrive at Birney to find small, tightly focused classes, a strictly regimented reading curriculum and a host of counseling and tutorial programs that stretch into weekends and summer vacation.
"They spend more time at school than they do at home," Principal Yvonne J. Morse said proudly. "We set the routine, and we also set the structure."
Most Birney students remain at least somewhat below grade level, and Morse knows the school has a long way to go. But the percentage of students who are years behind has been cut in half. And the number who are excelling, though still small, has multiplied several times. The school is a poster child for D.C. School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, a rare success in her uphill struggle to overhaul the long-troubled system. She regularly cites Birney's progress in interviews and speeches and asks Morse to talk to other principals about steps she has taken to effect improvements.
Birney "mirrors what I'd like to see in every school. It's proven to me that regardless of where students come from in their home environment, it can be done," Ackerman said. "If it happens at Birney, it can happen anywhere."
Morse's first challenge when she arrived at Birney in 1992 was discipline. She introduced a strict conduct code, voluntary uniforms and a character education program that taught children honesty, integrity and conflict resolution. Eventually, student behavior improved enough for her to turn her attention to the classroom.
Morse sold her staff on a Johns Hopkins University reading program that features carefully scripted lessons and lots of repetition--ideal, she felt, for students with few books at home and little experience being read to.
She gave up art, science and other "specialty" teachers in favor of hiring extra classroom instructors and slashing average class size to just 18 students, well below the D.C. standard. Teachers must come up with their own art and science activities, but they have more time to plan lessons and work with individual students.
Shirley L. Dunham was surprised this fall to get only 13 fifth-graders. "It seemed like I was just . . . looking at a bunch of empty desks," she said.
Morse made the class extra small because the students' fourth-grade year had been disrupted by the abrupt resignations of several teachers. In hopes of avoiding such turnover this year, she hired a retired principal to mentor two first-year teachers and brought in a second guidance counselor so more students can be counseled in groups or one on one.
Youngsters with very low test scores were forced to repeat a grade and sent to summer school. In September, they were assigned to a tutorial program--staffed either by college student volunteers or teachers, such as Jackson, who are paid with school system or federal funds.
Morse, perpetually hoarse and in a hurry, is a constant presence in Birney's antiseptic-smelling hallways and bright classrooms. She keeps close tabs on her staff members, more than half of whom are new to the school because of the resignations last year and an effort to remove noncertified teachers from the roster. And she is determined to stave off the apathy that afflicts so many urban educators, worn down by students who arrive years behind and with little motivation from home to learn.
"You just can't let up," Morse said after a recent 13-hour day. "You've got to give the kids a lot of learning experiences. It has to happen during classroom time as well as during after-school programs."
Each morning at precisely 9:15, Birney students leave their classrooms and gather in even smaller groups for "Success For All," the reading program that Hopkins researchers have brought to 10 D.C. schools and hundreds of others.
Each group's teacher reads aloud for 20 minutes, filling a crucial void for youngsters who do not have story time at home. Then the students--grouped by skill rather than grade or age--tackle the material. They read silently, in pairs or in unison. Teachers follow their manuals precisely--from vocabulary exercises to discussions of character or plot. Children are tested frequently to see whether they have improved.
"Today's Day Four, so we're going to do reading comprehension skills," second-year teacher Derrick L. Dunlap explained recently.
Dunlap, who has a low-level reading group but a fourth-grade class that is among the school's strongest, bristles at the lack of flexibility. He would rather teach literature his own way, he said, and he does so by giving his fourth-graders extra assignments when they return from the group drills.
"If you can't teach reading," he said, "then you shouldn't be teaching."
Other teachers are more enthusiastic. Dunham loves that the dozen fourth-graders in her Success For All group all read at close to the sixth-grade level. Her fifth-grade students, in contrast, range in skill from second to sixth grade.
"It's so much easier to have a group of children in your classroom on the same level," she said. "They can move right along at a certain pace."
Morse said that Success for All, while rigid, is crucial for youngsters without a strong foundation. "If you're in a neighborhood where kids are not reading, you have to give them the basics," she said. "And then you can go to the creativity."
She plans to launch a similar 90-minute daily math lesson for fourth- through sixth-graders in the spring, again grouping youngsters according to skill level. Birney students score lower on the Stanford 9 in math than reading, and Morse wants to change that.
The 16 carefully penned letters, with colorful folders of student assignments, welcomed parents to Dunlap's classroom. Dear Mom, each child had written, Thanks for coming to Back to School Night.
Fewer than half were read by a child's mother that day.
A chronic lack of parental involvement is one of the problems Morse has not been able to solve. Although a few parents monitor their youngsters' homework and participate in school activities, most either dropped out themselves or are struggling with addiction or other issues that make it difficult to focus on school.
Birney students are overwhelmingly poor--all but 11 qualify for the federal government's free school breakfast and lunch program. They live in one of two bleak public housing projects on either side of the school, which sits atop a hill on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE and has a view of the Capitol and the Washington Monument. Morse says very few of her students, maybe one or two out of 10, have both parents at home.
A fifth-grader's brother was shot dead last month. Other youngsters have parents or siblings who are in jail. Morse described one household where the mother seems to be drunk whenever Morse calls. When the woman hears the principal's voice, she hangs up.
"If I could just get the kind of parent support that you need," she sighed one day, "then we could do a lot better than we are doing."
Instead, the school offers a kind of surrogate family through its counseling and after-school programs, which include tutorials as well as kickball, karate and other activities more affluent children are often taken to by mom or a babysitter. More than 200 youngsters participate. This year, snacks are provided with money raised by American University students who tutor at the school.
"She can't make their problems go away outside of the school, but in that school, it can be a safe haven for children," Ackerman said. "The school becomes--outside of the family--sort of the center of their lives."
Still, Morse also faces hurdles from the school system bureaucracy. She spent dozens of hours this fall trying to help her employees get paid after a new city payroll system botched paychecks. Last week, she offered to lend money to a teacher so he could travel home for Christmas.
"Kids are wonderful. I don't have any problem with the kids," Morse said in frustration. "My problems come from the adults."
Birney, like all D.C. schools, has at least one Internet hookup in every class. But only nine classrooms have enough electrical capacity for the links. Only six can plug in window air-conditioning units. The librarian blows a fuse if she uses the copier without turning out half the overhead lights.
An electrical upgrade--priced a few years ago at $39,000--would solve these problems. It's mired on a long list of systemwide building work that never gets done.
The school has recently triumphed, however, over another long-standing facilities problem. The badly discolored windows on its east side are being replaced. For the first time in years, students there will be able to see outside.
Birney was one of seven D.C. schools to qualify for a $15,000 award last spring for raising test scores by a certain margin. Morse is using the money for workbooks, classroom supplies and bonuses for teachers with top attendance or other accomplishments. She desperately wants to raise scores again this spring but is worried her staff may be too inexperienced, too easily frustrated. The computer teacher quit last month. A rookie classroom teacher may do the same.
Changing teachers mid-year can be disastrous for students. And, as Morse learned last winter, it's extremely difficult to find good people in the middle of the school year.
But there are solid reasons to be hopeful. Several students who are repeating a grade this year have blossomed, working hard in summer school and all fall.
Ten-year-old Dandre Chow is one of them.
"I hadn't really been listening very much" in school, he said. Morse sent him to summer school after he scored far below grade level in April on the Stanford 9 test. She had him repeat fourth grade under Dunlap's watchful eye and sent him to Jackson's after-school tutorial.
In class, Dandre is focused and attentive. His scores improved markedly on a fall Stanford test, and Dunlap expects him to be at grade level next spring.
During a recent lesson on the solar system, Dandre was one of the first to correctly compute the number of days (4,380) it takes Jupiter to revolve around the sun. Toward the end of class, he caught Dunlap accidentally writing "distant" instead of "distance" on the blackboard.
"It's supposed to be distance!" he whispered, writing the correct word in his notebook.
Then he raised his hand with a grin, eager to show his favorite teacher how much he has learned.
Birney at a glance
Students at Birney Elementary School posted some of the city's most dramatic gains on the Stanford 9 math and reading tests in the last two years.
Other facts about Birney:
Population: 561 students in Head Start through 6th grade. One student is Hispanic; the rest are African American.
Average class size: 18
Families qualifying for free/reduced meals program: 99%
CAPTION: Principal Yvonne J. Morse helps Tyrone Hunter draw in speech therapy class at Birney Elementary.
CAPTION: Lydia Moss stands and stretches with students after a reading lesson. Moss is a former principal who acts as a mentor for Birney's young teachers.