Program helps students reach for reading skills Instructional effort aids pupils before they fall too far behind their peers

January 21, 1996|By Sherrie Ruhl | Sherrie Ruhl,SUN STAFF

Jeremie Rose hated to read when he started second grade at Halls Cross Roads Elementary School in Aberdeen, and his mother, Sybil L. Robertson, didn't know how to help him.

But after immersion in REACH, a daily, one-on-one instructional program, Jeremie, 7, enjoys reading -- and success stories such as his have school officials envisioning its expansion throughout Harford County.

"It's been like night and day," said Mrs. Robertson, who shared in her son's feeling of accomplishment. "I learned along with him; it makes us both students."

The REACH (reading achievement) program -- initially funded in 1991 through a federal program for the county's 11 poorest schools -- provides help to first- and second-graders before they fall too far behind their peers. It uses repetition and homework to teach children to be independent readers.

More than 75 percent of the children who had fallen behind in reading are at or near grade level by the time the half-year course ends, said Sandra R. Wallis, who designed and oversees the program.

The school board has been so pleased by the program's success -- and cost-effectiveness, through the use of instructional assistants -- that it voted recently to add $232,000 for an expansion next year to North Harford Elementary and two other schools still to be chosen.

"This is a program that makes a real difference. We want to see it in all 31 elementary schools," said school board member Ronald Eaton. In its five years, the program has reached 2,000 children.

It will cost about $77,000 for each of the three schools to hire four instructional assistants and buy materials for the program. Reading specialists -- experienced teachers with master's degrees in reading -- train and manage the assistants. An assistant's pay of about $15,000 annually is less than half a teacher's salary.

"I'm normally vehemently opposed to using instructional assistants to teach children because the children who need the most help get the adults with the least training," said John Pikulski, an expert on early reading intermediation and a professor of education at the University of Delaware. "But in this case, it works fine because the instructional assistants are being intensively trained to do exactly what the children need."

Similar programs are found in Anne Arundel, Calvert, Cecil and Charles counties, according to the state Department of Education.

Children at Halls Cross Roads meet with their reading instructors in a sunny, colorfully decorated room. On a recent morning, six children, each with an instructional assistant, sat apart and read aloud from small illustrated books. About 29 children are being helped there on a daily basis.

After class, children get to take home an activity pack with a book to read and other activities, Mrs. Wallis said.

Parents meet with administrators at the beginning of the year to learn how to help the children. A party is held at the end of the year, at which the children show off their reading skills.

"A lot of parents don't understand how to read to their child, and once the parent gets involved, the child tends to stay involved," Mrs. Wallis said.

In addition to Halls Cross Roads, REACH is in these elementary schools: Edgewood, Magnolia, William Paca/Old Post Road, +V Roye Williams, Bakerfield, Hillsdale, Havre de Grace, Meadowdale, Joppatowne and Dublin.

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