Saturday, November 27, 1999

At Bloom, students catch up

Over-age become over-achievers

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        In Room 7 at Bloom School in the West End, Mary Kay Kunkel is trying to teach the difference between a line of symmetry, rotational symmetry and point of rotation.

        In the back of the room, 13-year-old Donald Garrett gazes at a classmate's paper. He begins whispering. He stands up, stretches, and huddles in an animated conversation with two other students.

        Such behavior might prompt barked orders of silence from other teachers. But at Bloom, Mrs. Kunkel gives her charges an encouraging smile.

        Donald isn't talking Pokemon or pickup basketball; he's puzzling out the nuances of symmetry and rotation with his peers.

        Such peer collaboration is key to an ambitious reform Cincinnati Public Schools launched at Bloom this fall to reduce dropout rates. Experts say the new school could be a model for other districts.

        Bloom's “Back-on-Track” program offers students who are at least a year behind their peers an accelerated curriculum so they can catch up. Sixth-graders complete three years of work in two years; seventh-graders do two years of work in one year.

        Administrators blame early academic failure for the district's high dropout rate; average students are most likely to drop out.

        With only 540 students enrolled at Bloom, the accelerated program won't go too far in alleviating the district's dropout rate. About 4,400 of the district's 47,200 students dropped out last year.

        But administrators say it's an important first step. Other dropout recovery and prevention programs are planned, including a vocational charter school in which students rebuild ruined houses as part of their school day.

Many repeated grades
        As a neighborhood school, Bloom was troubled.

        It drew students from the West End, Over-the-Rhine, Mount Auburn, Camp Washington, Lower Price Hill and Walnut Hills. Eighty percent were low-income, and three quarters, African-American.

        Two thirds of new students had been held back at least one year in elementary school. Once at Bloom, more than a third were held back last year. A fifth didn't show up for classes daily. Proficiency test scores were dismally low.

        Bloom administrators knew they had to take dramatic action.

        Teachers adopted an accelerated “Back-on-Track” program for 30 students about eight years ago, and produced impressive results. Back-on-Track students scored higher than their peers on proficiency tests and had fewer discipline and attendance problems.

        So last spring, Principal Anthony G. Smith and Bloom teachers persuaded district leaders to overhaul Bloom as a magnet program with an accelerated curriculum. It opened in August as an accelerated school.

        At first glance, it seems like any other middle school.

        Morning announcements remind students about bus passes, report cards and athletic practice. Students' work hangs in classrooms. Teachers tell students to walk, please, don't run, in the halls.

Intensive learning
        But it's drastically different. Changes include:

        Block scheduling. Students meet for 90-minute classes in most core academic subjects, instead of 45 minutes.

        Self-contained classrooms. Students stay in classrooms while teachers travel between classes. The shift adds 20-25 minutes of instruction a day, totaling about 64 hours a year.

        Contracts with parents and students. Parents are asked to sign students' “trackers,” or homework assignment ledgers, daily. The contracts also seek commitments that students attend daily and parents meet regularly with teachers.

        More adults in classrooms. The average class size is 27, but the student-to-adult ratio is 15-to-1. Instructional assistants, interns and teachers who act as coaches assist teachers in all classrooms.

The linkage factor
        Less visible — but arguably more powerful — changes involve teaching and learning styles.

        Teachers emphasize themes, relating lessons in one academic subject to others. For example, social studies students survey one another; math students chart the surveys; and English students write about them.

        Also key are peer collaboration and interactive learning, in which students learn through stimulating activities instead of “drill and kill” worksheets and lecturing-by-blackboard.

        “In traditional teaching, students are supposed to absorb what you teach like sponges,” Ms. Kunkel said. “Well, it doesn't work that way. Kids are used to sitting passively and watching TV. We need to energize them more and show them how what they learn relates to the real world.”

        Teachers also “save the fluff” until after state proficiency tests, said Michael Turner, Bloom's accelerated schools coach. For example, a math lesson on volume wouldn't include spheres, cones and cylinders until late in the year because proficiency exams cover only volume of cubes and boxes.

Up to the challenge
        Seventh-grader Donald Garrett of Mount Auburn said he wanted more rigorous studies after getting serious about school.

        “The classes move along faster,” said Donald, who failed third grade. “I want to be a doctor, so I should be in the right grade.”

        Seventh-grader Dominic Alexander, 14, of Price Hill, agreed: “I just want to get caught up so when I graduate, I won't be older than the other kids, you know, and have a mustache in high school.”

        Hundreds of failing inner-city schools nationwide prove that remediation isn't the answer to sagging achievement, one expert said.

        “Instead of assuming there's something damaged with these students, we assume there is something gifted and talented in them. Slowing things down doesn't help them catch up,” said Henry Levin, professor of economics and education at Columbia University's Teachers' College, who launched the accelerated schools movement in 1986.

        “There's a lot of evidence these programs do work — as long as the entire school community buys into it,” agreed Estelle Young, an associate education researcher at Johns Hopkins University.

        There are 1,300 accelerated schools in 40 states nationwide. Locally, Middletown has five and Forest Hills and Oak Hills, one each.


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