At Carole Highlands, small groups spell success on MSA

Students at elementary school in Takoma Park work together to boost reading, math skills

Thursday, Jan. 11, 2007

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Brenda Ahearn⁄The Gazette
Carole Highlands Elementary School fifth-graders Damon Bailey, 10, of Langley Park (foreground) and Dominiq [sic] Stewart, 10, of Hyattsville participate in a reading comprehension exercise in preparation for the MSA tests, which will be given in March.

At Carole Highlands Elementary School in Takoma Park there is a quiet special forces operation going on. But it has nothing to do with the military.

Students in groups of five to seven are working to master reading and mathematics skills in preparation for taking the Maryland School Assessment in March.

In one reading group, Damon Bailey, 10, of Langley Park eagerly raises his hand, clamoring for a chance to show he knows the difference between explicit and implicit meanings.

Bill Ritter, regional assistant superintendent of Region 5 schools of which Carole Highlands is a part, said that it is one of the most impressive elementary schools since many of its students are poor or have limited English proficiency.

‘‘It’s one of the most severely impacted schools in the county,” Ritter said. ‘‘But they are always in the top five for [academic] performance for free-and-reduced lunches schools in the county year after year. ‘‘They must be doing something right.”

Teacher Ida Shekel went through reading comprehension exercises with six fifth graders who were having trouble. She advised them to keep reading to increase their comprehension abilities and not just rely on their school lessons.

‘‘The more you read the smarter you’ll get,” Shekel said.

Raquel Greenswood, 10, of Hyattsville agreed.

‘‘If we try and read more, [reading] could get easier,” she said.

Principal Helen Smith said that her special forces group students performed at the basic, or below grade level on their tests last year. Students in similar groups have raised their test scores.

‘‘We’ve used it in the past and that’s why we’ve been successful,” Smith said.

For example in 2003, 68.5 percent of third-graders were reading below grade level, but in 2006, that number was reduced to 40.3 percent.

Also fifth-graders taking the mathematics exam in 2003 only passed 24.1 percent of the time, but by 2006, that number had shot up to 76.4 percent of the time.

Students with limited English proficiency have also met their achievement goals for reading and math.

Those students limited English proficiency have met their achievement goals for the past three years.

They hope it will produce the same results this year when elementary and middle school students take the tests in mid-March.

‘‘We have to give those kids a boost in their areas of need,” said Smith. ‘‘These kids are the ones who need just that extra push; they’re almost there.”

Children in the small groups meet about twice a week for up to an hour. There are about 120 students in groups of five to seven students.

Ritter said Carole Highlands compares favorably or does better than schools that have similar populations of low income and limited English proficiency students like Riverdale, Lamont and Beacon Heights Elementary schools.

Smith praised all her students, the ones in the special forces groups as well as those getting MSA preparation in regular classes for their achievements.

‘‘These are such fantastic kids,” Smith said. ‘‘No one would know that more than 70 percent of them are on free-and-reduced-lunches.”

Of the 626 students at the school, 164 are listed as having limited English proficiency. Some 509 get free or reduced meals.

E-mail Guy Leonard at