Teacher SWAT teams target old habits

Though challenging, new ideas from outsiders can reenergize teachers

What happens when a program matches some of the country's top professionals in early-childhood education with one of the nation's most-troubled school systems?

That's simple, says kindergarten teacher Felice Wagman.

"Except for marrying my husband," she says, the program is "the best thing that's ever happened to me in my life."

She ticks off how she has changed as a teacher. She's a better listener, she says, and has learned how to engage kids more effectively. Wagman thought she was a pretty good at what she did - but now, she says, she finds teaching more fulfilling and thinks her kids get more out of her class.

Mrs. Wagman is in her third year of an intensive professional-development effort at the Clinton Avenue Elementary School in Newark, N.J., where test scores were so low, says principal Lillian Burke, that when she took over three years ago, "I was interested in trying anything."

Newark's call to the Bank Street College of Education in New York was somewhat akin to inviting Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing to spend time with a struggling high school basketball team. The goal was to have outside experts take a magnifying glass to everything from classroom management to how students and teachers talk to each other.

As reform has become the stated goal of floundering schools across the United States, administrators and teachers alike seem more willing to turn outside for fresh ideas. Amid pressures for smaller classes, better teaching, and better test scores, more schools are opening their doors to all the help they can find.

It's not an easy process. Even under the best of circumstances, tensions can bubble up over newcomers entering an often-closed atmosphere and telling trained professionals how to do things better. Schools also may find themselves scrambling as new administrations impose different reform models.

Nevertheless, such strategies can be worthwhile. A new study by Education Trust, a nonprofit group in Washington that focuses on education in low-income areas, states that schools can makes significant academic gains when top priorities include continuing education for teachers and staff.

New Beginnings, as the Bank Street collaboration is known, has required a particularly high level of cooperation between insiders and outsiders. In these Newark classrooms, the Bank Street educators have functioned like SWAT teams. They flow into classrooms, assess the situation, and then administer aid.

To Burke, it's been worth the effort. "Before we had students sitting in rows at desks reading dittos," she says. "Now I see real work being done and the students much more engaged."

New Beginnings kicked off in September 1996, with Bank Street staff spending two to three days a week in 16 kindergarten classes in different schools. They observed the teacher and the classroom, taught occasionally, held conferences with the teachers, offered them suggestions, and discussed strategy.

Kindergarten teacher Theodosia Clark was one of the first to become involved in the program. Mrs. Clark says candidly that it wasn't easy to allow observers into her class, and even tougher to reexamine her teaching methods. "I always thought I was a good teacher," she says. "But my methods only went so far."

Bank Street preaches a "child-centered" view of education, with a focus on hands-on, experience-based learning. The teacher is seen as a facilitator rather than a lecturer. Classrooms are organized around "centers" so that even small children know where to find the right materials for projects, and are freer to act on their own. Teachers are encouraged to find out what children already know about a subject, and in the process, to discover where their natural enthusiasms lie. This helps them to see students as participants rather than passive recipients of information.

"I learned to listen better to the children, to find out what really interested them, what they already knew, and to build from that," says Mrs. Clark. This year she's teaching first grade and has one student now reading on a fourth-grade level. "I wasn't seeing that kind of thing before," she says.

"There's no chalk-and-talk," says Beatrice Collymore, state district deputy superintendent of Newark schools. "The Bank Street method enables teachers to engage youngsters in the early grades at a very high level, in a way teachers never thought was possible."

That's especially important in a system like Newark's, where, she says, "kids don't get the support that typically, suburban kids would have from their parents."

New Beginnings is now in 120 Newark classrooms in 24 different schools. The program covers kindergarten through Grade 2, and will expand into third grade and prekindergarten next year.

The full program includes summer and after-school workshops for teachers, occasional visits to other schools, and access to video tapes and reading material. Much of it is about nurturing teachers and treating them as professionals, says Burke, which is, unfortunately, "the opposite of what's happened here before." As a result of the training, she says, "The teachers are more confident, more creative, more willing to try new strategies."

But for all the enthusiasm of some of the program's participants, New Beginnings still faces some very stiff challenges.

One of the thorniest is accountability, a perplexing problem with children so young. The first students to be impacted by New Beginnings will take the standardized "Stanford 9" test next year, at the end of third grade. An internal evaluation of the first kindergartners to attend New Beginnings classrooms showed gains in several categories, with a particularly marked increase in problem-solving ability after just one year, says Carol. Lippman, director of New Beginnings.

But Burke worries that improvement in the first batch of test scores may not be dramatic enough to impress state officials. "It's not realistic to expect it all in two or three years," she points out. "It takes at least five to seven years to see really substantial results."

And Newark today is a city in a hurry.

For decades now, the school system here has struggled with dismal academic results. Two earlier reform efforts in the 1980s failed to improve conditions. In 1995, Newark became the third New Jersey school system to be taken over by the state.

In some respects, the takeover has been successful. Test scores have ticked upward, though gradually. In a city where only a quarter of 11th-graders passed a state proficiency test in 1993, average scores of 50 percent in math and 63 percent in reading last year left officials feeling encouraged - but far from complacent.

Next year, as part of a separate reform package, the state will require Newark and several other low-achieving districts to select reform models. The state's preference, Success for All, is distinctly at odds with the Bank Street method. Other models are more compatible with New Beginnings. The result either way may be an ineffective layering of reforms.

Other New Beginnings proponents worry that the program could disappear with its initial advocate, outgoing Newark School Superintendent Beverly Hall. When brought in more than four years ago to engineer a turnaround for the city's schools, Dr. Hall put an alliance with Bank Street at the top of her wish list. But Hall will leave at the end of this school year to accept a job as superintendent of the Atlanta school system.

Some state officials say they are confident that New Beginnings will receive full support despite Hall's departure. But Cathy McFarland, executive officer of the Victoria Foundation, which has poured $2.3 million into New Beginnings, says her group is still seeking assurance that the state is fully committed.

Lisa Bragg, a Newark mother of three, says she hopes to see New Beginnings in place for a long while. Her oldest daughter attended Newark's Bragaw Avenue School before the New Beginnings initiative, but all the teachers of her middle daughter, Ty-Lisa, now in first grade, have had the Bank Street training.

"I've seen the difference," says Ms. Bragg. Instruction is age-appropriate and "really grabs their attention." It's been a joy, she says, to have Ty-Lisa come home and ask immediately, "Mom, can we do homework now?"

* Send e-mail comments to coeymanm@csps.com

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