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Class Notes

Welcome to the Baltimore Curriculum Project's bi-monthly e-newsletter. BCP is a non-profit that exists to improve educational opportunities for all Baltimore City Public School students through direct operation of charter schools and advocacy of policies that provide equitable opportunities for all city schools and students. We believe that all students can learn when their teachers have effective tools and the training to use these tools; that all students deserve access to teachers with these tools and training; and that effective teaching tools are developed and improved through scientific research.

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In This Edition:


E. D. Hirch

Interview with Education Expert E. D. Hirsch, Jr.

E. D. Hirsch, Jr. is the author of the best-selling book, Cultural Literacy, and founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation. He is also professor emeritus of Education and Humanities at the University of Virginia.

In his latest book, The Knowledge Deficit, Professor Hirsch addresses the achievement gap in American schools. The book provides a map for creating a content-rich education that leads to reading mastery and to success on standardized and state tests.

In The Knowledge Deficit you cite evidence that there is a point of diminishing returns for teaching comprehension skills; that we should be teaching more content and less skills. This is a fairly radical idea since virtually all textbooks, as well as state and nationally standardized testing focus on “generic” comprehension skills.  What kind of reaction have you been getting to your book and this challenge in particular?

So far, the book has received praise from researchers who have bothered to write, and mostly silence from advocates of skill drills.   It seems that the tide of thought is shifting – especially since the early gains from following the comprehension-skills idea have not been followed by later gains, in later grades when reading scores really count for a person’s chances in life.  The ONLY long-range road to mature reading skill is general knowledge.

How can schools make time for teaching vocabulary and background knowledge to students who are several years behind in basic reading skills such as decoding?

How can one be “several years behind in decoding” when mastery of decoding should take just 1.5 years?   Typically 2 hours are allotted to language arts.   More than an hour of decoding/encoding practice for young children is unwise.   That would leave an hour for substantial reading aloud to children with accompanying discussion on topics that extend over several weeks.   That is what should be done.

What can be done when teachers themselves do not speak Standard English and communicate with mostly utterances?

This is clearly a situation that is unfair to children and should not be permitted to persist.  One possibility as a stopgap is to have the reading aloud done from professional recordings.

If the type of speech used in school is different from that used in the home, can this have an impact on behavior management?

School speech is different from home speech in most parts of the world.   This is not an unusual circumstance.  A principal aim of schooling is to teach school speech.   I discuss this issue in my new book.

Many teachers have not had what would be considered a liberal education and are, themselves, unfamiliar with much of the content of Core Knowledge.  In The Knowledge Deficit you state that college Departments of Education teach skills and rely on other departments to teach content, with little coordination.  What are the obstacles to increasing coordination between departments or having education departments teach more content?

The chief obstacle to teaching teachers what they need to know is the failure of schools of education to decide what content knowledge teachers need to know.  Once the schools of Ed decided they could advise other departments about what teachers need.  It is not teachers’ fault that they lack this knowledge; it is a signal failure of the Ed schools – perhaps their worst.

How does one address the knowledge deficits of teachers after college graduation and teacher certification?

The way it is done in Core Knowledge schools is by teaching what you didn’t know before.  Teachers are hugely enthusiastic about getting a good education by teaching Core Knowledge.   And now we have Core Knowledge teacher handbooks that supply the needed information.

Do you think the USDOE is subtly pushing for a national curriculum with Reading First as a tentative step in that direction?

Reading First takes a skills orientation to reading, and to that extent is very incomplete.  It is nothing like a national curriculum.   To see what that is like you can check with the curriculum of say Finland to see what a good one looks like.   It’s very content specific.  Rather like the Core Knowledge grade by grade curriculum.

How do you address the assertion that teacher creativity would be limited by a national curriculum?

It’s an empirical question, and the answer is that teacher creativity is ENHANCED by a set curriculum, because the students are ready to learn, having gotten in prior grades the content they need.   This is especially true when teaching methods are not prescribed.   There is a discussion of this point in a great book on education – The Learning Gap, by Stevenson and Stigler.

How would our nation deal with the dangers of special interests influencing the development of a national curriculum?

By making everything very open and public.   Right now hidden interests already rule, because the curriculum is hidden.  It is unknown.   That is an invitation to special-interest distortion.

How does one convince schools, school systems and States to wait for the long-term benefits of teaching word and world knowledge, instead of switching to another curriculum that promises immediate results?

A great question.   Maybe by pointing to the consistent failure of quick-fix programs in achieving real gains in reading and learning.

It seems that many education practitioners dismiss even the strongest research evidence.  Why do you think that is and how can it be addressed?

Don’t give up the ship.   Keep speaking truth to power and slogan and habit.

How do you respond to the criticism that there is too much to material to cover in a given year of the Core Knowledge Sequence? Do students have sufficient time to master to material?

This is a claim made mainly by those who have not taught CK.   There are several hundred schools that are doing so.    By now it is one of the most highly field tested curricula going, and it has been adjusted on the basis of direct practical experience.


Vocabulary-Building and The "Fourth-Grade Slump"
By Bob Marino


Reading is by far the single most important skill learned in school.  All academic learning ultimately relies on how well students read.  Once phonics has been mastered, the key to understanding what one reads is, quite simply, understanding the words one reads and the concepts they represent.

Until recent years educators have employed a broad spectrum of instructional approaches to reading—some highly effective, some abysmally ineffective.  After forty years of experimenting with various instructional methods, the research has in some respects, brought us back to the 1970’s DISTAR, the first Direct Instruction curriculum.

Five Big Ideas

After years of whole-language and other failed experiments researchers have identified vocabulary as one of five skill areas critical to effective reading instruction.  These same five areas have been at the core of Direct Instruction for decades.     

The Congressionally commissioned National Reading Panel, in its landmark meta-analysis of more than 150,000 research projects published in 1999, identified five critical aspects of effective reading instruction:  Phonemic Awareness, Phonics, Fluency, Vocabulary, and Comprehension.To be effective, any approach to the teaching of reading must systematically address these five areas.

 The study also identified direct instruction as the most effective instructional method particularly for children who are at risk of failing.  These “Five Big Ideas” as they are sometimes called, taught directly and explicitly, amount to a reading instruction protocol.  That is, careful, systematic instruction in all five areas virtually guarantees that all children, including the poor, the learning disabled and English language learners will master basic reading skills in the first years of schooling.

Nearly all recently published commercial reading programs now include phonemic awareness and systematic phonics instruction.  The Baltimore Curriculum Project’s Direct Instruction curriculum has always included these elements in addition to a strong reading fluency component.

Although the DI reading curriculum also focuses on vocabulary and comprehension skills, and although DI has been identified in the research as one of the two most effective reading programs, we are learning additional approaches to vocabulary instruction that will boost not only vocabulary acquisition, but comprehension skills as well.

Researchers have discovered a surprisingly high correlation between vocabulary and reading comprehension.  An assessment of a student’s vocabulary also measures, to a very high degree, his/her reading comprehension.  This clearly demonstrates the vital importance of teaching vocabulary, teaching it early and teaching it well.

The Fourth Grade Slump

The current “gurus” of vocabulary instruction including, Andrew Biemiller, Isabel Beck, Margaret McKeown, Michael Graves, Steven Stahl and William Nagy have described effective approaches to the teaching of vocabulary to address what is commonly referred to as the “fourth grade slump.”

Teachers are familiar with the “fourth grade slump.” They find that many children who were “A” or “B” students in the early years, from pre-kindergarten through third grade, begin to fail at about the fourth grade level. 

Here’s why:  Children who know a word’s meaning, and can easily sound it out, learn to read the word with little or no difficulty.  For example, young children learn to read words such as lunch, bike, or mailman easily—words that are easily sounded out and whose meanings are known.

At about fourth grade, the reading vocabulary in commercial reading programs takes a quantum leap to much higher level vocabulary.  Children living in poverty, learning disabled, or of limited English facility begin to encounter many words whose meanings are unknown.

Encountering these words requires students to interrupt their reading as they simultaneously attempt to identify the words and understand the concepts that they represent.  For example, even though children can easily sound them out, learning to read words such as inhibit, consistent, or belligerent, when encountered in the intermediate grades, is much more difficult if these words and the concepts they represent are completely unknown.

This double challenge dramatically impedes reading progress causing, or at least contributing heavily, to the “fourth grade slump.”  Our researchers also point out that the words children learn to read in the primary school years, words such as dog, happy, and play are words that virtually all children already know.  In fact, a year of primary school has been found to add no significant amount of new vocabulary to a child’s store of known words.

The Importance of Context

We have traditionally taught children to figure out the meaning of an unknown word by using “context clues,” that is, figuring out the meaning of the word using the context in which it appears. But what if the child has no knowledge of the context itself? 

E. D. Hirsch, Jr., author of the Core Knowledge Curriculum, points out that children may be able to figure out the meaning of a word using context clues unless the context is also unknown. Professor Hirsch argues that since vocabulary and reading comprehension are almost perfectly related we should concentrate more on instructional content such as science, geography, and history, and the vocabulary inherent in these studies, and less on comprehension strategies of limited effectiveness.

Hirsch cites studies which demonstrate that beyond a certain number of lessons, additional instruction in selected general comprehension strategies does not improve children’s reading comprehension. These concepts can be easily demonstrated to adults:  Even well educated adults who presumably have excellent comprehension strategies may not understand an article in a professional psychiatry journal where neither the vocabulary nor the context is known.  Additional instruction and practice in generic comprehension strategies would obviously be of no use whatsoever.

Given what we now know about the role and importance of oral vocabulary, the Baltimore Curriculum Project is taking steps to improve our children’s vocabularies beginning in pre-kindergarten.  If we teach robust oral vocabulary in the early years, students, when they encounter these words at about the fourth grade level, will easily understand what they are reading.  Good-by to the “fourth grade slump!”  Continuing to teach rich oral and print vocabulary in the upper elementary through the middle school years will provide our youngsters with the tools they need to master all of their academic subjects now, in high school and beyond.




Education is not filling a bucket, but lighting a fire.

- William B. Yeats, poet (1865-1939)




Hampstead Hill Featured Twice on Channel 13

Click to View Hampstead Hill Video

On March 26 Channel 13 featured Hampstead Hill in an Eyewitness News SchoolWatch Report. The report focused on Hampstead Hill's high student achievement and effective reading program.

"What we try to do is move children from learning to read to reading to learn as quickly as possible. All of our kindergarteners can read here," said Principal Matt Hornbeck.

Hampstead Hill is a zoned charter school, which means that all neighborhood children are guaranteed a space in the school. There is a waiting list and lottery for students outside the school's zone. View the video here.


Click to Watch Food for Life Video

Hampstead Hill's Food for Life Program was featured in an Eyewitness News Health Watch Report on June 1. The Food for Life Program, in its second year, takes students on a "culinary tour of the world." Food Educator Ariel Demas incorporates science, social studies, music, art, mathematics, and chemistry into her classes.

BCP would like to congratulate Hampstead Hill and the Food for Life Program on this well-earned news coverage. We would also like to thank the Weinberg Foundation, Fusion Partnerships, Inc., the Food Studies Institute, and Whole Foods Market for their support in bringing healthy eating habits to Hampstead Hill Academy. Visit http://wjz.com/health/local_story_152145200.html to view this news video.


BCP Welcomes New Staff; Bids Fond Farewell

BCP would like to welcome Phil Folkemer and Robert Marino to our team. Phil is taking over for Joanna Musumeci as the new Director of Tutoring. Before joining BCP, Phil volunteered with the Peace Corps in Uganda as an Education Systems Facilitator. In this role he organized and led educational workshops for teachers, secondary students, and community members. Phil has also worked as an after-school tutor in Columbia, Maryland and as a Calculus TA at the University of Maryland, College Park.  He holds a B.S. in Mathematics from the University of Maryland, College Park.

Bob Marino has joined BCP to develop a vocabulary acquisition program for our schools. His research will inform the development of Collington Square's new Language and Writing Center, which is funded by a grant from the Goldsmith Family Foundation.

Mr. Marino began his career as a teacher in the Baltimore City Public Schools. He served as a Language Arts Specialist, Principal, Area Resource Coordinator, and Coordinator of Direct Instruction. In 2001 he was appointed by Congress to the Expert Review Panel for the national Reading First initiative. From 2002 to 2004 he served as the International Literacy Consultant to the Ministry of Education in the Republic of Guyana advising that government on the redesign of their Language Arts curriculum for grades pre-kindergarten through grade six.

BCP would like to bid a fond farewell to Joanna Musumeci, our outgoing Direct of Student Support Services. Joanna worked for BCP for 4 years. Her main responsibility was managing BCP's SES tutoring program. Under Joanna's leadership, the program grew from providing 29 students with 971 hours of tutoring during the 2003-2004 school year to providing 106 students with 4631 hours of tutoring during the 2005-2006 school year.

Joanna leaves us to pursue a Nursing degree at the Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing. We wish her good luck in her future endeavors.


BCP Schools are "Outward Bound"

Outward Bound climbing wall

During the month of April middle school students and teachers from City Springs, Collington Square, and Hampstead Hill participated in Outward Bound Insight Programs. These state subsidized one-day adventure programs are held at Outward Bound’s Leakin Park campus. For many of our students this was the first time they had ever visited a large wooded park.

Each group spent the day outside working on challenges that required teamwork. The Outward Bound staff used these activities to encourage good communication and leadership development. Throughout the day Outward Bound staff members assessed each group's progress and presented activities to strengthen each group.

After each activity the students discussed how the group's interaction had hindered or helped progress in the task. Students learned about cooperation, respect, and inner strength. The day's overall theme revolved around the idea that groups can succeed through teamwork.

In order to foster group self-reliance, teachers and staff members encouraged the students without offering assistance. "Insight was an opportunity for teachers to step out of their role as the one providing answers and watch the students develop their own group strategies," says Jeff Krick, BCP's Director of Student Support Services and organizer of the trips.

The morning's activities helped the groups build a foundation of communication and trust which was essential for the afternoon's more demanding activities. In one such task, students had to climb a 40 foot tower while their teammates held safety ropes.

"I saw students with different comfort levels working together to encourage all of their peers to give it their best effort at something new like the climbing wall,"says Mr. Krick.

"All of these activities gave the students something fun to focus on while challenging them to define success as the whole group accomplishing their goals together."

Mr. Krick is developing an Advisory Curriculum for BCP's schools, which emphasizes social skill-building. The Outward Bound Insight program supports this goal, while improving relationships between teachers and students. 

The Advisory Curriculum seeks not only to provide instruction, but also to create a sense that each child has a connection with an adult in the building whom they can rely on. As part of the advisory curriculum, Mr. Krick has been teaching a weekly mini-course in Leadership Games at Collington Square.

"I chose Outward Bound’s Insight programs as a way to supplement our efforts at an advisory curriculum. Our middle school students are going through adolescence and learning their place in their peer groups. As a school community we need to make sure our students not only understand clear boundaries but also how to communicate, lead, and cooperate to achieve goals. We want to encourage them to develop the positive social skills that will make them effective team players in society."

Student and teacher reactions to the program have been very positive. Students became increasingly invested in the activities as the day went on.

"Each student pushed their comfort zone because of the strong support around them and I was pleased to see students, who often use peer pressure in isolating ways,  really bonding together," says Mr. Krick.

"I saw the groups of students starting out the day assuming the same roles they have at school with some kids on the inside and some kids outside.  Being mixed up from their normal cliques and given fun challenges that required cooperation was wonderful in fostering better communication and support among the students."

"The teamwork demanded by the more complex tasks would have been too much to ask when they got of the bus in the morning, but by the afternoon they had learned more about themselves and strengthened their group so they were successful."

More Outward Bound programs are already planned for the Fall. Mr. Krick looks forward to the positive impact the program will have on students next year. "Hopefully they will come together as a team in their class groups at the beginning of the year and we can help them transition their successes at Outward Bound back into success in the classroom."


MSDE Visits BCP Schools

MSDE Visit
Principal Matt Hornbeck talks with Teresa Knott and Patrick Crain

On April 25 representatives from the Maryland State Department of Education toured City Springs School, Collington Square School, and Hampstead Hill Academy. Visitors included Patrick Crain (Director, Office of School Innovations), Teresa Knott (Coordinator, I-PAS/Challenge Schools Initiatives) and David Arnett (Coordinator, Office of School Innovations).

Also joining the tour was David Stone, head of BCPSS’ Office of Charter Schools and Innovation High Schools. BCP was pleased to have the opportunity to show off all the exciting things that are happening at our three schools since they became charters.

At Collington Square the tour focused on:

  1. The school’s expanded extended day offerings, including an additional hour and a half of instructional time each day for all middle school students.
  2. The new instrumental music program.
  3. A new second grade teacher, who helps to reduce class size in that grade.
  4. New instructional assistants who provide one-on-one attention to students requiring additional assistance.
  5. New computer and audio-visual equipment.

The tour of Hampstead Hill highlighted the new state-of-the-art science lab donated by Struever Brothers. The lab was outfitted through funding from the Goldsmith Family Foundation and an MSDE charter grant. The tour also focused other school improvements made possible by the MSDE grant such as new:

  1. Middle school textbooks
  2. Appropriately-sized furniture.
  3. Student lockers.
  4. Computer equipment.

At City Springs the tour focused on:

  1. The “Banking on the Future” program, which educates middle school children about financial responsibility.
  2. The challenging Middle School Academy curriculum.
  3. The comprehensive behavioral management program. 

Tour members were excited to hear about the Goldsmith Family Foundation grant awarded to City Springs for the 2006-2007 school year. This grant will allow the school to expand its already outstanding behavioral management program to include a focus on restorative justice. 

BCP would like to thank Pat Crain, Teresa Knott, David Arnett, and David Stone for visiting our schools and for their ongoing support. We would also like to thank the Goldsmith Family Foundation and Struever Brothers for their ongoing commitment to improving Baltimore City's public schools.




Sorority Honors Principal Whelchel, Candace Gough & Jamal Ruffin

Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority Crest of Arms
Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority Crest of Arms

On April 23, Principal Whelchel and students Candace Gough and Jamal Ruffin were honored at the annual meeting of the Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority's Alpha Alpha Sigma Chapter. Mrs. Whelchel was presented with the 2006 Educational Award. Candace was the first-place winner in the Mwanimugimu Essay Contest and Jamal was the second-place winner.

Guided by its slogan, "Greater Service, Greater Progress," Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc. has developed national programs that focus on community service, leadership development and academic support for young people. BCP would like to congratulate Mrs. Whelchel, Candace and Jamal on their awards. We would also like to thank the Alpha Alpha Sigma Chapter for recognizing their achievements and for helping to improve the educational system in Baltimore City.


City Springs Fair and Talent Show

City Springs rewarded its students for their hard work during the school year with a school fair and talent show on June. Students played games, danced, made t-shirts, ate popcorn and had an all-around good time. At the talent show a number of students displayed their singing and dancing skills. The event included a fashion show and ended with a dance-off, where students and a few brave teachers took the stage.




Collington Mini-Class Presentations

Hip Hop Theater
Students from Koli Tengella's theater class perform a scene about bullying.

Collington Square students demonstrated a variety of skills during the Mini-Class Presentations held on June 1st and 2nd. Collington's Mini-Classes are held Friday mornings at 8:00am.

Students from the Leadership Games Mini-class demonstrated one of their many games, which builds trust, teamwork, and communication skills. The class is taught by Jeff Krick, BCP's Director of Student Support Services.

Ms. Yoder's pottery students displayed an impressive array of claywork. During the semester they learned to use a pottery wheel and other methods for working with clay.

Beautiful quilts were presented by the Quilting Class, which was taught by Robin Fidler, a volunteer from the Church of the Redeemer. Students learned to create both patchwork and applique quilts.

The Theater Class performed several original scenes, which illustrated positive ways to deal with the serious problems faced by middle school youth. The class was taught by Koli Tengella through the Creative Alliance. The Creative Alliance is a community based non-profit organization that presents and promotes the arts and humanities.

Students from Ms. Lancaster's Fashion Class put on a high-energy fashion show. Ms. Lancaster has professional modeling experience and started the class after several of her students requested her to do so. Lady Foot Locker provided free outfits for a portion of the fashion show.

BCP would like to congratulate the teachers and students on their hard work and wonderful presentations. We would also like to thank the Creative Alliance and Lady Foot Locker for their continued support.


Collington's 8th Grade Graduation

Click to watch Collington Closing Ceremony video

Excitement was in the air at Israel Baptist Church on June 8, as Collington Square held its Second Annual 8th Grade Closing Ceremony. Students, parents and teachers participated in a rousing celebration, which included a keynote address by Baltimore City Council President Sheila Dixon.

Collington parent and staff member, Ms. Veronica English, performed the parent dedication with the song "Hero." The entire 8th grade sang their class song, "Unwritten" by Natasha Bedingfield, while parents and teachers sang and danced.

Students were honored for outstanding achievement in math, language, history, science and computers. Special honors were given to Netta Chaney, Class Valedictorian, and Kierra Alsup, Class Salutorian. The ceremony culminated with a slide show prepared by Collington teacher Miss Humphreys and closing remarks by Principal Eason.

Two-thirds of Collington's 8th grade students have been accepted by Baltimore City Citywide high schools and specialized program high schools including: Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, Western, Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical , Paul Laurence Dunbar, Digital Harbor, Baltimore Talent Development, and Carver Vocational-Technical.


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Ben Carson Scholarship Winners

We are proud to announce that Christina Araviakis (7th grade) and Paul Duff (5th grade) are the 2006 Carson Scholarship winners from Hampstead Hill Academy. They were awarded $1,000 college scholarships from the Carson Scholars Fund and are eligible to be Carson Scholars every year through grade 12.

Recipients of the Carson Scholarship must be nominated by a teacher, have a minimum 3.75 GPA, and write an essay. The Carson Scholars Fund was founded in 1994 by Johns Hopkins pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. Benjamin Carson and his wife, Candy, to recognize and reward students in grades 4-11 who strive for academic excellence and demonstrate a strong commitment to their community.

BCP would like to thank the Carson Scholars Fund for their generosity and congratulate Christina and Paul on this exceptional achievement.


"Hampstead Hill Nights" Outdoor Concerts

Hampstead Hill students dancing

The Second Annual Hampstead Hill Nights was a grand success. Parents, staff, students, and community members celebrated during four Thursdays of food and live music in May. The celebration included music from the Best of Baltimore City Jazz Bands, and Sons of Pirates

Hampstead Hill's own Mr. Berry warmed up the crowd as the opening act each night and his band, Tony Berry and New Money, headlined the first night.

"Hampstead Hill Nights is yet another reason why our school is getting such good buzz in the neighborhood," says Principal Matt Hornbeck.

"We want to make the school irresistible to everyone and Hampstead Hill Nights is one more way of attracting new families to our wonderful school community."


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