'Demonstration' of learning success for Lowell

08/02/2007
By Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online.

By SUSAN McMAHON
Sun Staff

CHELMSFORD In front of her second-grade class, teacher Kate McLaughlin carefully places green blocks on the floor in front of her circle of students.

"How many tens do I need for 84?" she asks.

Hands shoot up into the air. Answers are given. Eight rectangular blocks are pushed forward.

"How many ones do I need?"

More hands. More answers. More blocks are moved around.

Welcome to second-grade math at the Lowell Demonstration School.

The basis for the school, a preschool-through-fourth-grade public school on UMass Lowell's west campus in North Chelmsford, is a hands-on, child-centered approach to education, a progressive philosophy in an MCAS world.

McLaughlin's class uses blocks filled with smaller blocks as a concrete way to teach addition and subtraction to second-graders. In the classroom next door, the Eiffel Tower weather report is posted in one corner of the room. A French cafe, complete with teacups and a tablecloth, takes up the other end.

"We're the grown-up version of open education in the 1960s, but we're very, very accountable for what we do," said Ann Benjamin, the school's director.

When it began 11 years ago, the Demonstration School was viewed as the foundation of progressive education in Lowell, using a trilingual model to engage children from every linguistic background.

Now the school is on the brink of change with a planned move to the Lawrence Mills within the next few years and a subsequent expansion in the number of classrooms and students. The school is currently at 74 students and one classroom from preschool through fourth grade. The goal is to accommodate 200 students, and house two grades at each level.

The hope is that with a larger number of students, the school can perform statistically viable studies of its students' performance, thus providing information about the perceived success of the progressive model to all Lowell schools.

But with its small numbers, the school has shown some accomplishments. In fourth-grade English on the MCAS, every student at the Demonstration School scored at needs improvement or higher. Only 8 percent of fourth-graders scored in the warning category on the math scores.

In comparison, 21 percent of students districtwide scored in the warning category on the English portion of the test, and 40 percent on the math.

And school officials hope its language model in which classes are taught in English and students also learn Spanish and Khmer can become a prototype for the rest of the school district in a post-bilingual education era. Several teachers and aides can speak Spanish or Khmer in addition to English, and are able to provide assistance to students whose native language is not English about half the school.

Students go on to middle school not just with a basis in two secondary languages, but ingrained with the culture of other ethnicities, such as groups of students learning traditional Cambodian dances.

"I like learning languages," said 8-year-old Kevin Tamayo. "It's fun."

The school was born in the midst of the Cambodian wave arriving in Lowell, when the district was attempting to deal with the burgeoning language needs of its population. The UMass Lowell Graduate School of Education and the Lowell public schools collaborated to form a new institution where language acquisition did not mean eradicating a child's native culture.

The Lowell school system got a new school with a progressive language acquisition model; UMass Lowell had an elementary school on-campus that provided a good learning environment for master's and doctoral candidates in the education program.

Many teachers now at the Demonstration School first arrived as student teachers in the university's graduate program.

And it's the teaching geared toward the knowledge that each child learns differently that is the key to much of the school's success, Benjamin said.

"It's what happens from 9:05 in the morning to 3:25 in the afternoon that makes a difference," she said.

Susan McMahon's e-mail address is smcmahon@lowellsun.com .