'Success for All' improves skills


April 14, 1993|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,Staff Writer

Thirteen children sit on tiny chairs, their attention captivated by a gray elephant puppet. "NNNN" says the elephant. "NNN."

"Put on your thinking caps!" says the teacher. "What letter do you think goes with that sound?"

"N!" shout the children, squirming in eagerness, tracing the letter in the air with fingers as imaginary pencils.

Puppets, singing and writing in air may seem unusual fodder for academic discussion, but research from this prekindergarten class at Dallas F. Nicholas Sr. Elementary School shows a new curriculum developed at the Johns Hopkins University may help low-income students learn to read better.

Dr. Robert E. Slavin presented the results of the research to the American Educational Research Association in Atlanta yesterday.

Called Success for All, the program was developed by Dr. Slavin and his wife, Dr. Nancy A. Madden, of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Research on Effective Schooling for Disadvantaged Students. Since it was introduced at Abbottston Elementary School in 1988, the program has spread to 70 schools in 16 states.

The research, gathered from 13 sites, shows that by the third grade, Success For All students are seven months ahead of students who did not participate in the reading program, Dr. Slavin said.

There are other hopeful signs: In Baltimore, the number of children in kindergarten through fifth grades in participating schools who are held back a grade has dropped from 11 percent to zero. Rates of absenteeism also have dropped. At Dallas Nicholas, for example, attendance is about 94 percent, up from 87 percent.

"Critics say that programs always work in the area that [they are] developed," says Dr. Slavin. But "this research shows how the program can be robust and implemented in other areas."

The eight Baltimore schools in the program -- including Abbottston, City Springs and Harriet Tubman -- are some of the most disadvantaged schools in the city.

The program is based on prevention and early intervention, says Dr. Slavin. Each school has a family support team made up of teachers, parents and counselors who are ready to help before any problem -- whether it be lack of eyeglasses, a discipline problem or an illness -- begins to hurt a child's performance.

"We try to meet the needs of the whole child, the whole family," says Aldena Dixon, the principal of Dallas Nicholas. "We have to take up the slack for a lot of the things that aren't available to them."

Every eight weeks, students are tested. If a student's progress flags, the child is immediately assigned a tutor to work with until the student is up to speed. Twenty-five percent to 50 percent of the class may receive tutoring in a given year.

Another cornerstone is abolition of traditional reading groups in a classroom. Reading classes are made up of children grouped according to reading -- not grade -- level. Thus a teacher may have third-, fourth- and even fifth-graders in one class.

This way, says Dr. Slavin, reading teachers spend the allotted 90-minute class period focusing on one group, rather than dividing their attention among several.

Again, the students and the groups are evaluated every eight weeks.

Alphie the puppet is an important part of the program, too. Even before kindergarten, the students learn about letters, words and stories. Younger students listen to stories -- and retell them. In kindergarten, "We are giving the kids the mental architecture for reading," Dr. Slavin says.

The program isn't a panacea, Mrs. Dixon says. But the children at her school who have participated from first through third grades do show improvement.

And there are hidden advantages: Because they are able to focus on one lesson, Success for All teachers are better prepared and feel more confident, she says. The frequent testing provides direction and reinforcement for instructors as well as students. Indeed, the potential for change every eight weeks for teachers and students eliminates the risk of falling into a rut for both sides, she says.

Designed to fit within the education budgets of inner-city schools, Dr. Slavin says, the program will save money in the long run because holding a child back a grade is less efficient than investing in early intervention.

And the ideas behind Success for All are sprouting: Roots and Wings, a project that applies the underlying concept of the reading program to the entire school curriculum, was begun in St. Mary's County. And two pilot programs aimed at students who have learned to read through Success for All are being tried at Winston and Lombard Middle Schools.

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