‘No Child,’ No Problem: School In Ocean City Nails Its Target

OCEAN CITY, MD — The goal of the No Child Left Behind Act is that every child attain proficiency in reading and math by 2014. At most of the 1,455 public schools in Maryland, teachers and principals regard that scenario as improbable, even laughable.

At one school, the target has been met.

Last spring, all 184 students in the third and fourth grades at Ocean City Elementary School passed the Maryland School Assessment, or MSA, a battery of tests given by the state every year since 2003 to satisfy the law.

The school was the first in the state, apart from a few tiny special-education centers, to meet the goal that has defined public education this decade.

“We think of MSA as the floor, as sort of the basics of what all students should be doing,” Principal Irene Kordick said. “We shoot for the ceiling.”

The notion that every child should be able to pass a test of grade-level work has challenged, divided and confounded the education community. The law, signed by President Bush in 2002, holds schools accountable for the progress of all children, in the belief that each of them can learn. It’s a popular notion that few educators would publicly dispute, but it is a goal few schools in the region have been able to meet.

Four Virginia schools attained 100 percent proficiency last year on the Standards of Learning exams, that state’s measure of achievement under No Child Left Behind. One was Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a magnet school that serves many of the brightest students in Northern Virginia. The others: a pair of magnet schools in Virginia Beach and a small alternative high school in Richmond.

In affluent swaths of Montgomery, Anne Arundel and Howard counties, no school has attained more than 98 or 99 percent proficiency on the MSA. Top schools often are held back from statistical perfection by a handful of students receiving special education or learning English as a second language. Seven Locks Elementary in Bethesda, one of the most affluent communities in the nation, achieved universal proficiency in reading last year but fell short by three students in math, all in special education.

Some education leaders have said the No Child Left Behind law’s mandate is inflexible and unrealistic, particularly with regard to disadvantaged students. Much of the education community assumes the goal of 100 percent proficiency will be relaxed or abandoned well before the 2014 deadline.

But between now and then, the law requires that schools show progress toward the goal of 100 percent proficiency. This year, Maryland schools must show that at least 61 percent of students are proficient in math and 70 percent in reading, an increase of seven and five points, respectively, over last year’s targets. Many schools will not manage even that.

So how did Ocean City Elementary achieve perfection?

The school serves 568 students in a coastal resort town with an odd mix of families — in oceanfront condominiums, middle-class colonials and Coastal Highway trailers. The student population is 89 percent white, 5 percent Hispanic, 3 percent black, 2 percent Asian and 1 percent American Indian. Twenty-nine students have limited English proficiency, and 134 qualify for subsidized meals because of low family income.

The school’s administration, faculty and parents attributed the success to a campuswide approach that is unusually structured, relentless and consistent. Here, more than at most schools, classrooms look and sound very alive, and very alike.

Kordick, the principal, emigrated from Munich with her grandmother, mother and sister at age 6 and was raised in the slums of Cleveland.

She was seldom called on in class and almost never spoke, yet she managed to reach the fifth grade as an A student without having learned to read or write English.

“I never wanted what happened to me to happen to anyone,” Kordick said. “I think kids don’t talk enough in school. In fact, I think they’re told not to talk.”

When she became principal of Ocean City Elementary 11 years ago, Kordick initiated a policy called Ask and Answer. The school abolished the practice of teachers asking questions, students raising hands and the teacher picking one to provide the answer. Instead, students pair off and answer the question between themselves.

In a kindergarten class on a recent morning, students recited the plan for a morning activity: “We will construct caterpillars and butterflies.” Teacher Chris Lieb then said, “Think about what ‘construct’ might mean. Pair with your partner and tell your partner.” Chatter filled the classroom.

In an adjoining class, kindergarten student Hunter Wolf peered through a framed sheet of transparent plastic held against a window, the better to gauge the day’s weather. He turned to the class: “According to my picture, it is cloudy and rainy today.” Another schoolwide rule dictates that students speak in complete sentences.

Teachers and students at Ocean City work according to an ever-expanding list of norms, a document that now runs to five pages. Conceived by Kordick and padded with contributions from staff members, the norms include broad directives about perseverance and choice as well as specific rules: Never stop working until the time is up. Greet others with “Good Morning” or “Good Afternoon.”

It is an approach so distinctive, said parent Kim Holloway, that when students from Ocean City go on to other schools in the Worcester County system, “you can pick them out, one by one. They’re attentive, they’re respectful.”

The school boasts unusually small classes, most with fewer than 20 students, and a county-funded pre-kindergarten program. Assignments often mirror the structure of the statewide test, and students are assessed regularly on different areas of the statewide curriculum.

But Kordick and her instructional leaders said the focus on getting children to speak is key to Ocean City’s singular success on the MSA. In addition to attaining 100 percent proficiency last year, the school ranked first in Maryland for the percentage of students rated “advanced” — the highest of three performance levels, a step above proficient. Seventy-two percent of Ocean City students rated “advanced.”

“There isn’t anything magical about the things that we do,” said Karen Spangler, a resource teacher who has worked at the school for 37 years. “Over the years, they’ve been honed, they’ve been made better, and then they’ve been shared across the grades.”

Ocean City has one other slight advantage in statewide testing, which begins in Maryland at third grade. The school serves pre-kindergartners up to fourth grade; most elementary schools go to fifth grade. With only two grade levels tested, Ocean City faces less pressure compared with most elementary schools.

Having attained 100 percent proficiency, the school will face inevitable pressure to repeat the feat every year till 2014. The results of this year’s test, taken last month, are due in the summer.

“And yes, of course,” Kordick wrote in an e-mail, “we are anxiously awaiting our scores.”

Source: Washington Post

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