A Good School?

It’s Elementary
Spend some time in teacher Thomas Gray’s second grade classroom at Rolling Terrace Elementary School in Takoma Park and meet the diverse and problematic face of public education. At one table, a boy sits slowly sounding out his spelling words—city, slice, hurt. Nearby, another child is working at a more advanced level -- checking his topic sentences as he finishes the second draft of his biography on Satchel Paige. Three minutes in this classroom is all it takes to grasp what parents and educators mean when they discuss the challenges of meeting the needs of every child in the classroom. But Gray, a six-year veteran of Rolling Terrace, is unfazed. He works with one group doing “guided” reading while directing another to finish organizing their biography research topics. Pausing at a natural spot in the story, he asks me, a volunteer, to work with the child trying to decipher his spelling words. When the first kids finish their work, they are asked to lend a hand to some of the others. Some parents, in particular those of the faster learners, might be concerned to see their kids in a class with such disparate levels of ability. They might prefer to have their children working mostly alongside kids who are learning at the same pace. I am pleased, though, that my eight-year-old daughter Naomi is in this class. My husband Javier and I send her to Rolling Terrace because the school is an international magnet school that prides itself on its diverse student body—55 percent Hispanic, 20 percent white, 20 percent African American and 5 percent Asian American. He and I are from two different backgrounds and we want her in a school where diversity is the norm. For us, that means that the children should be integrated on all levels—not only by ethnicity and class, but by ability as well. Parents looking for a high-performing school would not turn to Rolling Terrace if they based their decision solely on student body numbers or test scores: Twenty-five percent of the students are not native English speakers and sixty-five percent are eligible for free or reduced lunch. Studies have shown a high correlation between test scores and poverty. The schools with high numbers of poor children are clustered at the low end of the performance bar, while the schools with small numbers of poor children gather toward the top. Rolling Terrace ranks just where you’d expect based on its economic demographics: toward the bottom. A School Within A School Rolling Terrace is home to a Spanish Immersion program, though, which attracts a substantial number of middle class families from all over the county. Last year 100 or so applied for the 60 kindergarten slots for this program. The parent body includes an impressive sample of a Takoma Park/Silver Spring “who’s who”: a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, a McArthur Grant winner, the Montgomery County Council Representative for District Five, along with a plethora of social activists, and government and human rights lawyers. And while the demographics of the children in the immersion program—50 percent white, 30 percent Hispanic and 20 percent African American—don’t match the

demographics of the school overall, it’s still an ethnically diverse mix. For Javier and me, there was never much question which school Naomi would attend. Javier is from Spain and Rolling Terrace is our home school, so the immersion program made perfect sense. The low test scores of the school were of little concern as neither of us felt these numbers say much more than who can take tests well. They certainly don’t tell you anything about all the important qualities besides academic achievement that a school may instill in your child: creativity, independent thinking, enthusiasm for learning, and learning to live with and make friends with different types of people. Yet, in a school with this kind of diversity, you find parents with very different goals and expectations. Some aim, for example, to get their kids into gifted and talented programs, honors and AP classes, and top colleges, while there are other parents working two jobs to get enough food on table, and yet are happy that their children are learning to read and write in English. Some parents, from countries where you don’t set foot in the school once you’ve dropped off your child, are pleased with how much the school encourages communication with their children’s teachers; other parents have pulled their kids from the school because they felt the administration was not responding to their complaints about their children being with a teacher who was not a good match for the child, or not being academically challenged. And of course, there all the parents in between. How do you make a school like this work for everyone? One way that the disparate educational levels of the children has been handled -either by design or default, depending on whom you talk to -- has been by separating the children in the Spanish immersion program from the rest of the school. Although open by lottery to any county resident, because the program attracts so many welleducated and middle class families, the resulting immersion classes consist primarily of a group of children from academically high-achieving families. The level of instruction in the immersion classes tends to be accelerated. For grades one through five, these children have historically traveled as a pack, attending math and science instruction in Spanish for half the day and then switching as a group to reading and social studies in English. Although the curriculum is the same in all classes in each grade, and the Spanish immersion program is supposed to only cover math and science instruction in Spanish, by keeping this group of children together all day, the program has created a “school within a school.” Some parents like this arrangement; others, ourselves included, were troubled that our kids were in classes that did not mix with the entire school. But two years ago when Naomi entered kindergarten, the immersion program was increased from 50 to 60 kids. When her class entered first grade, the school started integrating these children for the English portion of the day, and has continued to do so with her class and the subsequent grades. In Thomas Gray’s room, which houses this mix, he makes teaching to all of these kids at their own level look so easy that you wonder why it can’t be done in every classroom countywide. Gray has taught all combinations—reading and writing to immersion students, reading and writing to non-immersion students, and now, reading and writing

with half immersion and half non immersion kids. He feels this is the hardest mix he’s had. But it’s also his favorite and, he believes, the best educational model. “The higherachieving children teach the others motivation and self-esteem,” he says, since the academically struggling children want to bring themselves up to the level of the other kids. Cooperative learning, adds another teacher, is tremendously beneficial because the children who struggle academically are often the ones who model sharing, taking turns, and looking out for feelings of the others. Gray uses a teaching model called differentiated instruction, which entails teaching a lesson to the whole class and then grouping the kids to work on their individual skills derived from the lesson. With successful differentiated instruction, the faster learning children thrive because they are challenged at their level. While some teachers are more successful than others at implementing this model, the Title I funding the school receives to limit the class size in kindergarten through second grade to 15-17 students makes a huge difference: individualizing instruction daily for 15 kids is much easier than doing it for 25. Although differentiated instruction is the model for Rolling Terrace and many schools countywide, there are big differences among schools and even within schools about how flexible some of the groupings are, and with what frequency the kids are pulled out of the classroom for accelerated instruction. Unlike other schools, Rolling Terrace does not have an official gifted and talented (GT) program. Children tested as GT are offered “academic enrichment” programs, but these are conducted in the classroom or after school, as opposed to other schools, where the faster learning children may be pulled out of the classroom for specialized instruction. Within his class, Gray strives to keep all the kids together as much as possible. For example, when he teaches Junior Great Books program, an accelerated reading program, he includes all the children for much of it, and then assigns the more challenging parts to the students who can handle the work. Along with the many motivated teachers like Gray, Rolling Terrace has numerous support programs to help all of the children achieve academically. There are specialized levels of English-as-a second-language classes targeted to children according to their English skills. Reading and instructional support specialists are in and out of the classrooms helping bring kids up to grade level. The school also houses Linkages to Learning, a program that provides academic and family support; has two counselors; and provides free after-school curriculum enrichment, as well as Head Start. Afterschool academic programs for the fourth and fifth graders, ranging from remedial reading to accelerated math, are open to all the children. Rolling Terrace also conducts outreach to parents through its family room, where classes and programs such as English language instruction, cooking, or assistance with taxes are offered to parents. And while a cooking class may look like fluff, it draws in those parents who don’t participate in the PTA or feel comfortable at the school because they come from a country or culture where parents are not welcome or expected to be involved.

At these meetings, where the value of education is emphasized over and over again, parents learn about the school system and have the chance to get to know the school. Over time, explains Haydee Puertas, the parent community coordinator who runs the family room, parents participating in these programs become very involved in their child’s education. The school, of course, has its critics. I’ve spoken with parents who feel that their kids are not challenged, that some teachers don’t handle misbehaving children well, and that there is a lack of continuity with teachers, especially in the upper grades. This year, for example, the fourth and fifth grade immersion classes have changed math teachers three times. Most of the criticisms I’ve heard, though, come from parents of children in the immersion program. The parents with whom I spoke one morning in the family room, most of whom do not have children in the Spanish immersion program, didn’t have any sense that the school was underachieving or that their children were not getting a strong, solid education. “This school is phenomenal,” Ana Cordero, a mother of a boy in kindergarten told me, referring to how much contact she has with her son’s teacher. “In the Dominican Republic, where I’m from, not so much interaction with the school is permitted.” Cordero, like the other parents, was extremely pleased with the attention her child receives, the speed with which the school calls if there’s a problem, the enthusiasm and care of the teachers, and the resources available for the children. When I tell friends and family about the type of school Naomi attends, I’ve gotten responses implying that by placing her in an environment like Rolling Terrace, we may somehow be “sacrificing” her for an ideal notion of a greater societal good. But we don’t see it that way at all. Naomi has a multicultural background, and at Rolling Terrace she is surrounded by other kids who do too. Working and playing alongside these children, she is learning how she fits into society. One of the things that the simple ethnic demographic statistics—white, African American, Hispanic, Asian American—can’t possibly show, is how many children in the school are “hybrids” like her, children whose complex identities and mixed backgrounds—usually comprised of one North American parent and another from anywhere from Taiwan to Venezuela to India—don’t fall neatly into these simple classifications. When Naomi came home one day from school and complained that she wanted “to just be like everyone else,” I laughed, because at Rolling Terrace, there is no “everyone else,” just “everyone.” And, what are we sacrificing when every morning she asks me to give her double-digit multiplication problems over breakfast? Or when I see that she has eagerly taken up a challenge Gray presented to his class: if the children collectively read 3,000 books this year, he will let the children cut off all his hair. Or that every time I’ve stepped into a classroom at the school I’ve seen children actively engaged in learning? Rolling Terrace, for my child, has created a positive atmosphere, encouraged enthusiasm for learning, provided emotional support, and instilled the desire to

succeed. All of these are important qualities in of themselves, and, also necessary for her and all children to achieve academically. In this educational climate, if you can’t measure something, it’s generally not considered valuable. When I look at my child and what she’s getting out of Rolling Terrace, though, that’s all the data I need. END

Copy Right Diana Friedman 2003, Takoma Park Community News