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
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
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
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
different schools. They observed the teacher and the classroom,
taught occasionally, held conferences with the teachers, offered
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. …