They were dancing in the halls at Sandalwood Elementary School in Essex and for good reason.
The Baltimore County elementary is one of only two in the state — the other is on the Eastern Shore — to earn recognition as a National Title I Distinguished School for the 2011-2012 year. The staff has hung a banner proclaiming the award in bold letters near the front door, across the lobby from a large billboard filled with photos of smiling academic achievers, who are the newest Sandalwood Star Students.
Minutes before dismissal Friday, "Jingle Bell Rock" blared from speakers and hundreds of children piled out of classrooms to line dance, jump, crisscross their feet, clap their hands and end with arms in the air.
In an initiative to reward students, those who record 10 days of perfect attendance with no late arrivals or early departures are invited to drop everything and dance in the halls with their teachers.
"It gets your energy up, especially if you are twisting," said third-grader Arthur Brandon.
His classmate Carlos Pagan-Cruz took a more scientific approach. "Dancing gives your blood more oxygen and gets your heart pumping," he said. "And that's a good thing."
So is a national award that acknowledges the school's progress in closing the academic achievement gap among students. Based on Maryland School Assessment testing data, Sandalwood scored highest among the 400 Title I schools in Maryland. This marks the third consecutive year that a Baltimore County school has been honored. Chadwick Elementary in Woodlawn won the award in 2009, and Milbrook Elementary in Pikesville earned the designation last year.
Title I, a federally funded program, provides additional resources for schools with high populations of economically disadvantaged students. About 85 percent of the nearly 500 Sandalwood students are eligible for subsidized meals at the school. An equally high percentage live in subsidized housing and too many children are homeless, said Principal Phillip Byers.
"There are more and more homeless children every year," he said. "This school has to be an oasis that boosts their spirits."
The student population is more than 80 percent minority. Nearly all the children walk to classes from the surrounding community. The predominance of rental housing creates constant fluctuations in enrollment.
"Ours is a diverse group of students, many of them without the advantages most of us have," said Colleen Fitzmaurice, special education teacher. "Theirs is not a level playing field. It is up to us to make a difference, and Title I funding helps us with that."
Byers said he has seen steady, often remarkable progress since he arrived four years ago. The fifth grade's reading jumped nearly 20 percentin the last four years with nearly 90 percent of the class reaching proficiency. Third-graders have gone from 51 percent proficiency in math five years ago to nearly 92 percent this year.
"Our kids know that help is here for them before and after school and during lunch," said Byers, who is among the noon-hour tutors. "We build on their successes and make sure they stay enthusiastic about school."
The faculty's team approach, the high standards set for student behavior and a willingness to recognize and meet students' needs all contribute, he said.
"We have the lunch tutoring bunch, the homework club and everyone pitching in," said Kelly Baron, fourth-grade teacher who has been at Sandalwood for 15 years.
Weekly classroom meetings for staff, the availability of counseling and intervention services and numerous after-school recreation programs all contribute to the positive learning atmosphere, Byers said.
"One of the strengths here is the staff works as a team," he said. "We have strategies in place and the children are responding well to them."
That teamwork is apparent every other Friday at dismissal. During Dance Friday, the children engage in lively, well-rehearsed dance steps, thanks in part to Laura Klug, physical education teacher.
"They have done the Electric Slide, the Madison and really like the '50s dance era," Klug said.
Third-grader Kailea Golden said, "It is fun learning new things."
Pride in the award that, Byers said, belongs to the entire school community added more spring to those steps.
"It is really great for everyone to be recognized for the hard work and the extra hours," he said.