A young school has growth spurt in math, reading

It's report card time, and one-year-old Bronx Preparatory Charter School was just handed an assessment likely to keep everyone associated with the school grinning broadly throughout the summer.

The 100 fifth- and sixth-graders at this school in a hard-edged corner of New York City showed substantial academic gains over the course of the year.

In math, the students are performing at the 77th percentile on a nationwide comparison, a leap up from the 38th percentile in the fall.

In both reading comprehension and vocabulary, all students also moved up to the 38th percentile from the 28th during the same time period.

"Oh, that math department," jokes Kristin Kearns Jordan, the school's founder and director. "I'm only upset that they did such a great job in math that now nobody's paying attention to a 10-point gain in reading."

Ms. Jordan need not worry about a lack of attention. All charter schools are scrutinized on a regular basis, and their continued existence is dependent on showing improved achievement.

In an environment where many schools struggle to achieve a four- or five-point gain in math and reading scores, numbers like those at Bronx Prep are bound to catch the attention of both state regulators and fellow charter school directors.

But there's no magic to it, Jordan insists - just good teaching and a school culture that focuses on discipline and order.

In math classes, Jordan says, teachers began by emphasizing basic skills and memorization. Later in the year, as students showed a firm grasp on computation, they were encouraged to venture into more-complex applications.

Reading classes used a similar technique, she says, with an initial focus on building vocabulary and acquiring fundamental language skills. "But reading is bigger," she says. "You can't get there in a year in reading."

Despite the tough surrounding neighborhood and the fact that most of her students come from low-income families, Jordan patterned Bronx Prep on her alma mater, Phillips Exeter in Exeter, N.H., one of the country's most prestigious private schools.

Bronx Prep students responded to both the discipline and the school culture, Jordan says. "There's a tangible sense of purpose here," she says. "We talk to them daily about college." There is a highly structured environment at Bronx Prep, which Jordan thinks many students were seeking "so the good kid they really wanted to be could come out."

For the adults in the school, Jordan says the hardest thing about this first year has been learning to cope with exhaustion. She sees no rest in her immediate future, however. Jordan is currently working to raise $15 million to allow the construction of a new five-story facility for Bronx Prep around the corner from the space it currently leases from a church rectory.

Although she insists improved scores on standardized tests are not the sole or even most important indicator of a school's success - particularly not in its first year - Jordan does admit to a feeling of joy at seeing the gains. "I'm not instinctively a patient person," she says. "I'm glad I didn't have to wait to see this."

E-mail marjorie@csmonitor.com.

The Monitor first visited Ms. Jordan a year ago as she launched her charter school.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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