By Marjorie Coeyman, writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
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. …