Students Take The Fast Track

`Accelerated learning' seeks to engage at-risk pupils, not relegate them to remedial classes. WHOLE-SCHOOL REFORM

AT 8:15 on a brisk Friday morning, rows of squinting students line the playground at Daniel Webster Elementary School. A small woman in a leather jacket and high heels is speaking into a microphone. ``Every class should have a `Student of the Week,''' booms the voice of principal Willie B. Santamaria to the crowd of students, teachers, and parents.

Welcome to the weekly awards ceremony at this elementary school on Potrero Hill in a poor San Francisco neighborhood. As Ms. Santamaria calls out the names of outstanding readers in each class, the students are surprisingly attentive. They clap enthusiastically for each award.

Hearing his own name over the loud speaker, one student gets flustered. Instead of running up to the front to get his award, he takes off in the opposite direction. ``This way, Jesus,'' his teacher shouts as she corrals him and heads him in the right direction.

Many of these students have just left the impoverished homes that line the streets of this drug- and crime-ridden neighborhood overlooking downtown. Many have only one parent to kiss good-bye in the morning. Of the 325 students, 257 are from families on welfare.

Such economic and social disadvantages often result in schools with poorly performing students and lackadaisical community support. But last year, these students showed the greatest gains in language achievement of all 72 elementary schools in the district. Their progress in mathematics came in a close second. In addition, parent involvement at the school has hit record levels.

Parents like Charlene Gousser faithfully attend the awards ceremony every Friday. This morning, Mrs. Gousser gets a pleasant surprise: Her daughter, Kimberly, is the ``Reader of the Week'' in her kindergarten class. After claiming her certificate, she proudly hands it off to Mom.

``They've really made parents feel more welcome here,'' Gousser says. Thirteen parents work as volunteers at the school each day.

All this progress began to percolate in 1987 with the introduction of an innovative educational theory developed at Stanford University, 40 miles to the south in Palo Alto, Calif. Education professor Henry Levin calls his approach ``accelerated learning.'' It involves nothing less than a complete transformation of schools.

Often, students considered ``at-risk'' of failure are pulled out of their regular classes and given remedial help or put in slower-moving classes. According to Dr. Levin, this causes them to fall farther and farther behind their peers so that many of these students are two years behind their grade level by the sixth grade.

The goal of an accelerated school is to have students catch up to the mainstream by the sixth grade. ``What we have in mind is learning more material in any given period of time,'' Levin says. The way to do that, he says, is to engage the teachers, and thereby the students, in a more participatory and dynamic curriculum.

Levin argues that disadvantaged children should be taught the way gifted and talented students are taught - by building on their strengths.

``You're not going to find them in the normal way,'' he says, ``because kids who have not been exposed to a lot of writing and discourse are unlikely to show themselves strongly in those areas.''

Many times, disadvantaged students are deficient because no one regularly engages them in stimulating conversation or activity.

``Normally they get worksheets in the school where they're supposed to silently work on really dull, routine, simplified stuff,'' Levin says. ``And in the home there is very little language other than everyday commands. And that's not what develops you intellectually or academically.''

The school should be a ``language-rich'' place, stresses Levin. Students at Webster are rarely found working at their desks while the teacher maintains silence. Teachers spend most of their time talking with their classes.

Accelerated schools do not separate students according to performance or testing, a practice known as ``tracking.'' Instead, children at different levels work together in the same classroom. In a third-grade class, for example, students read to each other in small groups. When the reader does not know a word or mispronounces it, other students in the group help.

While most education reform efforts take a piecemeal approach, Levin says, accelerated schools are encouraged to revamp curriculum, organization, and instruction all at once. ``Our program is a whole-school change,'' he says.

Webster was the first school to participate in the Accelerated Schools Project, which now is working with 53 schools in seven states.

``Perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of what we're doing is we're not starting out saying, `Give us $1,000 more per student and then we'll do something,''' Levin says. ``We're saying that we're going to do something with what we have.''

Although even the pilot project here has not had time to prove whether students can be brought up to grade level by the end of elementary school, uniform progress is encouraging. Virtually all the schools have seen improved attendance. One school in Missouri moved from the lowest-ranked attendance record to the top in 1989-90.

Both students and teachers have more regular attendance at accelerated schools. ``Unless teachers are happy, kids aren't happy,'' says Principal Santamaria. ``It's my responsibility to provide that for teachers.''

Twice a month at Webster teachers swap roles with Santamaria. While a teacher serves as administrator, Santamaria instructs his or her class.

``Traditionally, teachers just stay in their classrooms and do their thing,'' Santamaria says. ``Here, teachers own the organization and are responsible for the implementation of new ideas.''

Parental responsibility is another important aspect of the accelerated school. ``Parents have got to be part of the success story,'' Levin says. ``We're never going to do it if the parents don't take some of their own responsibility. Kids who don't read at home at all but who watch television are never going to be good readers. It doesn't matter what we do in school.''

It's a matter of facing up to responsibility, Levin says. ``There isn't anything that's going to happen in the state capitals or in Washington that's going to educate kids in these communities. If it doesn't happen at the school site or in the home or the community, it simply isn't going to happen.''

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