Emergency' puts reading on fast track Lessons: At 14 troubled city schools, half of the classroom day is being devoted to teaching reading.

September 13, 1998|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

When Principal Elizabeth Turner saw her school's test scores dive for the third year, she decided the old ways of teaching could not continue.

"This was a state of emergency, and the way to deal with that would be to focus on reading and math pretty much to the exclusion of everything else," she said.

That meant pouring all of the resources of her Tench Tilghman Elementary School into handling the crisis, starting with the first day of the new school year Aug. 31. She decided to double the time spent on reading every day, to three hours and 30 minutes.

So, from 8 o'clock to 9: 30 every morning, all teachers -- whether their specialty is art, physical education or speech -- must be in the classroom helping homeroom teachers with reading instruction.

Tench Tilghman is among the city's 14 worst-performing schools, all of which are devoting half of the school day to reading.

Those schools have been placed under the direction of Jeffery N. Grotsky, a former Harford County superintendent of schools who this summer was named one of nine area executive officers for the city system.

Grotsky has adopted the same approach to reading and language arts for all of the 14 schools.

"To a great extent, we have not been focused enough on teaching children to read," said Grotsky. "If kids can't read, they can't understand science or social studies."

With the backing of the principals, he said, he decided every child would spend close to half the day on learning reading, writing and comprehension.

Students in the low-performing schools generally do not have many books at home, Grotsky said, or parents able to reinforce the learning at school.

Three hours of instruction in reading might seem like a long time, Turner said, but children aren't getting bored because they move around the classroom and into different kinds of work. For instance, she said, students work in large and small groups on tasks such as reading books, vocabulary skills and writing.

After two weeks, it is too early to tell how well the new program is working, the principal said, but the children seem ready to learn.

Next week, textbook consultants will help principals and master teachers at all 14 schools with getting the most out of the three hours of reading instruction.

This fall, the city schools have bought for all elementary students new textbooks that teach reading through phonics. "It is going to take teachers a while to adjust to that program," Turner said. "They have all the materials they need. It is a matter of changing the process."

Training the city's elementary school teachers in the new methods this summer was an important step toward improving test scores. A move to teach reading through phonics in Baltimore County two years ago has been credited with a significant increase in reading comprehension scores there in the spring.

But Grotsky said schools in his area might have to take another step in the fall of 1999: advancing students to the next grade based on mastery of skills rather than on age.

He said first- and second-graders at the same level could easily be in the same classroom. "What we need to do in the 14 schools is not to allow kids to move through the system before they have mastered the skills," he said.

"We fail the kids," Grotsky said. "We move the kids when they are not ready to move."

Pub Date: 9/13/98

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