Turning little ones into able readers Children: They come to school to learn. And to learn anything, they first must learn to read. It sounds simple, but it's not. A journey through two struggling Baltimore elementary schools continues.

November 18, 1997|By DEBBIE M. PRICE AND STEPHEN HENDERSON | DEBBIE M. PRICE AND STEPHEN HENDERSON,SUN STAFF

Eeeow. Ya ya ya ya. I'm not gonna. I'm not gonna. Eeeow." The 6-year-old girl jumps up and knocks her chair to the floor. "Ya ya ya ya ya," she screams. The words are impossible to make out, but the meaning of this is clear. No one is going to teach anything to anyone until this child is calmed down.

First-grade teacher Betty Pierce is a veteran of 29 Septembers, but on this first day of school at Lyndhurst Elementary, the tiny wild-eyed creature catches her off guard. They were doing the days of the week drill - what day is today? - and when Pierce didn't call on her, she flew into a shrieking fit.

Her cries crescendo and then drop to a whisper as she recedes into her own world.

"Come on turtles, let's get her," the child mutters to herself.

Turtles?

It takes Pierce two days and more tantrums to figure it out. The child, in her fits of rage, is calling on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. To do what? Karate kick the teacher?

Pierce has four grown children, and she would be retired by now if she hadn't taken time off to stay home with her youngest child. She loves teaching, and she loves these children. But it gets harder each year to keep up with a bunch of 6-year-olds whose minds have been filled with cartoon turtles popping out of the sewer. Powee. Zap.

How is she ever going to get them to buckle down and read?

The children who attend Lyndhurst live in West Baltimore neighborhoods that straddle the poverty line. Some of them come from homes filled with books and games, where mom and dad work and grandmom is there in the afternoon. More than two-thirds come from homes poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. And then there are the saddest few whose dirty clothes and wild outbursts bespeak of home lives at which the teachers can only guess.

First grade is a foreign country. Those children who were in kindergarten last year at Lyndhurst attended for only half a day, and it was playtime.

Before Pierce can teach them anything, she must teach them how to stay in their seats. How to walk in a line. How not to hit or kick or spit. Accomplishing this much could take all fall.

Pierce tells the children of Lyndhurst, Baltimore public school No. 88, that the school lunchroom is "not a cafeteria. It's Cafe 88," a fancy restaurant. Wait for your free lunch card. No screaming allowed. And don't even think about throwing food.

Pierce is establishing the rituals of school. The rules are the only thing that will keep these children focused. But for the children, the blitz of procedures and commands is dizzying.

Walking to the restroom, clutching a wooden hall pass, Josh is finally overwhelmed. By this time last year, he would have been home from kindergarten, taking a nap.

Already today, Pierce has told him six times to take his seat, at least three times to stay in line and several times to stop grabbing things off the bulletin board.

He shakes his head and asks, "What kind of school is this?"

Pierce is alone with these 29 children at the beginning of the year. No aide, no volunteers. Just her. She might as well try to hold an armful of puppies.

She scans the room, already noting the ones with promise and the ones who will need all she can give.

Randy is quick with words and ideas, but his devilish grin suggests there is nothing he won't do if he thinks it funny. Michone and Cydni could be superstars, reading ahead of the class, but seated together, they are trouble. Jamie cannot distinguish capitals from small letters, and mouthy, smart Josh eats glue.

Most of the children can write their names. At first, that is an encouraging sign. But when Pierce switches the name tags on their seats the second day of school, some of the children wander about the room in confusion, unable to find their new seats.

These children can pen the letters, but they could be drawing circles and squares for all they understand.

Where to begin?

Pierce's tools to teach reading are the same as those available to most Baltimore public school teachers. Worn Harcourt Brace Jovanovich primers filled with short stories. Homemade posters. Her imagination.

She doesn't have phonics books to teach children the sounds of the letters or how to sound out words. Pierce believes in phonics training for beginning readers, and she wishes she had those tools for her children. Lyndhurst Principal Elaine Davis had promised a phonics program this year, but the school didn't have enough money to buy it.

The school has been put on notice by the state Department of Education, which has threatened to take over if student performance does not improve. Scores on the state tests - the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) - have continued to fall, despite their best efforts. Only two third-graders received satisfactory scores on the reading portion of the tests taken in May 1996.

Such failure cannot continue.

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