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PUBLIC SCHOOL 20 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan is one of the poorest elementary schools in America (99 percent free lunches), but also one of the most thrilling. Many of the children live in tenements, come from broken homes, move from apartment to apartment. Yet they made so much improvement on their state test scores in the last four years (from 27 percent reading at grade level to 51 percent) that the state education commissioner himself sent a special letter commending their braininess.

Cheng Liu, a fourth grader who was in three schools before P.S. 20, noticed the difference right away. "This school has lots of teachers," he says. "Like music, like art, like computer, and there's speech and dance and even more I can't think of."

When Dario Gonzalez, a shy boy, arrived in September, he was surprised that this was a school where the fourth-grade teacher had time to talk to him personally. "Before, I don't know how to organize my stuff, I don't really know how to write a paragraph or anything, they don't tell me that stuff," he says. "Miss Torres told me how to put in one idea, about punctuation, everything like that."

Ronald Moran knew he wasn't reaching his potential, because his sixth-grade teacher, Jerry Kerne, told him. "I should have 80's because my teacher said. He had high expectations for me. Everybody did." Yet Ronald was getting 60's and worse. "My vocabulary tests, 50's." Ronald likes Mr. Kerne a lot. "He gives you a lot of chances. He don't scream so much." But for reasons no one could explain, in class Ronald was angry, edgy, impatient.

Fortunately, at P.S. 20 there are extra adults around to help a classroom teacher. It was the music teacher, Willie Mack, who unlocked Ronald. A trumpet was the key. Ronald took lessons at school, and Mr. Mack gave him a trumpet to take home. After school now, Ronald slips into the fifth-floor stairwell leading to the roof of his building and practices "One Note Samba."

"If I'm doing some wrong stuff, I take the trumpet and it eases me," Ronald says. "I can use the trumpet to release me." Lately, people around P.S. 20 have noticed, Ronald's a new Moran. "I started learning to take things more easy," he says. "Instead of 50's and 60's, I'm getting 80's — 70's, the lowest."

P.S. 20 is one of those little-known jewels of the New York City public school system, although the people who make their living delivering quality education to poor children know. Jack Welch, the former chairman of General Electric with the big-bucks lifestyle, may get front-page news coverage for helping the city with its new principals' training institute. But with no press coverage at all, P.S. 20's principal of 26 years, Dr. Leonard Golubchick (Dr. G) recently attracted 45 principals from all over the city to his school for a daylong seminar on how it's really done.

Dr. G talks about how he finds extra local, state and federal money to hire additional teachers and integrate the arts into the curriculum, thereby avoiding mindless drilling, captivating even wiggly little boys like Cheng, Dario and Ronald, improving their language skills and raising test scores.

He talks about the grants he found to hire two dozen substitutes and free his classroom teachers for a daylong reading seminar by P.S. 20's full-time literacy specialist, Jan Colucci. He gave the 45 principals a tour of the Learning Fair that his children worked on for two months, featuring computerized PowerPoint presentations on famous New Yorkers, New York architecture and the new designs for the World Trade Center site.

But of all the tricks he's learned, by far the most important is reducing class size. "The first line of defense," he preaches. "My philosophy is you can't have a good education with 30 to 35 per classroom." It is no coincidence, he says, that P.S. 20's test scores have gone up since 1999, the first year of a state program that provided $140 million to reduce classroom size in elementary grades across the state.

Before the legislation, two-thirds of New York City children in Grades K-3 were in classes of more than 25; now one-quarter are. This was badly needed in New York, which has the 10th-largest elementary-class sizes among the 50 states.

Sadly, the best education reform Dr. G has seen in 38 years as an educator is about to be killed. Like most states, New York is facing harsh economic times, with little hope of help from a federal government that also has a war to fight. Gov. George E. Pataki says he has no choice but to kill the class-size program. And he is not alone. In flush times, 32 states passed class-size legislation; now many, including Florida and California, are moving to roll it back.

Who cares?

Joan Kane, a fifth-grade teacher who has 26 students but used to have 35. "The difference?" she says. "I know the kids. I know what to do for them. With 35, I tried, but I got overwhelmed."

Mr. Mack says: "I remember 34 to 36. I didn't have enough chairs."

One of the thrilling things about P.S. 20 is that so much has been achieved in a school where English is not the native language for 52 percent of students. The school is 54 percent Hispanic, 39 percent Asian.

April Yee remembers having 32 children in her first-grade Chinese bilingual class; now she has 24. So when Zun Han Zheng races up with his essay on spring, she has time to read it on the spot.

Zun Han wrote: "I likes spring so much. I don't want the spring to go. I can fuy a kite, smim, and I play in the park. I has lot of fun."

"You've edited?" Ms. Yee asks.

"I edited it already," Zun Han says, and Ms. Yee eyeballs him. With 24 students, it's like smimming upstream, trying to sneak one by on Ms. Yee.

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