Phonics OK'd for city schools Officials will develop new curriculum for elementary students

'A work in progress'

Some schools will be able to participate in whole-school reforms

March 15, 1998|By Stephen Henderson | Stephen Henderson,SUN STAFF

The Baltimore City school board gave the go-ahead yesterday to development of a citywide, phonics-based elementary curriculum -- a move that could end the years-long practice of scattered and piecemeal reading instruction in city schools.

The board hopes that the new curriculum -- part of more than $65 million in reforms that make up the board's first-year initiatives under a legally mandated master plan -- will help boost chronically low reading scores among city elementary school students. The phonics-based curriculum will be used in kindergarten through fifth grade.

The board's go-ahead means city school officials, led by interim schools chief Robert E. Schiller and Searetha Smith, chief academic officer, will soon reduce the 15 or 16 current reading curricula to one or two.

In addition, between 10 and 15 schools will be allowed to participate in whole-school reform efforts such as Success For All and Direction Instruction that include their own phonics-based curriculum. Direct Instruction is already used in several city schools.

"What we're trying to do here is bring a level of consistency that we haven't had in our instruction," Schiller said. "By having a set curriculum with specific expectations and by providing materials and training for that curriculum centrally, we are eliminating the kinds of shortfalls we see now in schools all over the city."

By law, the district's master plan must be handed to state legislators and the state Department of Education today; but because it's a Sunday, the board will submit plans formally tomorrow morning.

The reforms formalized by the board yesterday include more than $3.8 million to purchase the new reading curriculum, $10 million to continue the class-size reduction that began this year and another $4 million to continue after-school academies.

The plan also calls for $15 million in increased instructional time for students, $1.9 million for additional middle school reading materials and nearly $3 million for development of new high school math and English curricula.

Money for the initiatives comes from the $50 million in additional state aid and reallocation of existing funds.

Scattered approach targeted

It is hoped that the citywide reading curriculum will help reduce problems that Schiller says were evident the day he arrived in Baltimore.

The number of different programs, combined with a high mobility rate among elementary students, means that one child could experience several different reading approaches by second or third grade.

The results of that scattered approach are obvious and disappointing, Schiller said: On the statewide third-grade reading assessments, fewer than 20 percent of the city's children did satisfactory work last year. On a districtwide reading assessment in September, city students on average were two grade levels behind by the time they reached fifth grade.

"We've got to be able to make sure that every child achieves a basic literacy level, no matter which school he or she attends or how many times they move," Schiller said.

Phonics in early grades

Schiller said that whatever reading curriculum is chosen will concentrate heavily on phonics instruction in early grades. Children will systematically learn letters and sounds and how they combine to make words and sentences.

In third grade, the curriculum will branch out toward language arts instruction, such as reading aloud and writing sentences, and focus less on drills.

School officials have already begun to evaluate the existing reading curricula and to look into the schoolwide reform efforts -- they will approve, Schiller said.

On Tuesday, they will report some of their findings to the school board. They will identify the chosen curriculum within the next few weeks and begin ordering the materials and setting up training for teachers.

Board member C. William Struever, chairman of the board's planning committee, said the board's actions mark a significant step, but cautioned against assuming that anything is set in stone.

"What we're saying here is that this is something we want to do, and the people responsible for it happening should begin working on it," said Struever. "But this is very much a work in progress. We will be learning from the public input we get about these proposals and evaluating and re-evaluating the plans as we go along."

Parents protest cuts

The board's approval of the master plan and its reading curriculum was nearly upstaged yesterday by an angry group of parents who showed up to protest cuts needed to balance this year's budget.

More than a dozen speakers assailed the board for allowing Schiller to cut school-based expenditures and order a return of $20 per pupil to school coffers to patch a $7 million shortfall in funds.

They suggested everything from getting rid of central office staff to cutting school board members' salaries in half (they actually -- receive no compensation) as alternatives to going after school-based funds.

"You're making our children pay for the mistakes of adults," parent Morgan Wheeler told the board. "I don't think the money you need should come from our children."

In response, the board agreed to delay final decisions on budget cuts until more public discussion of the deficit could take place.

School board President J. Tyson Tildon said the board is willing to entertain ways to cover the shortfall without affecting children. But one way or another, the deficit must be addressed, he said.

"There may be some clever, creative solutions that we're not thinking of, and we want to give people a chance to share those with us," Tildon said. "But we cannot let this system operate with a deficit. We will not."

Pub Date: 3/15/98

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