A 'Success' story for young readers Learning: A phonics-based program developed in Baltimore is hailed across the country, but critics point out that the evaluators of Success For All designed it.

November 15, 1998|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

ASBURY PARK, N.J. -- "Sad Sam" is the book of the day in Janet Raines' first-grade classroom at Bangs Avenue Elementary School.

Mario and Chris, a pair of 6-year-olds, read the book as partners -- sitting side by side, facing in opposite directions.

"Sad Sam can do trrrr ," Mario begins.

"Tricks," says Chris, following along in his own book.

Back and forth they go, while Raines moves about the room, encouraging her 14 students grouped in similar pairs.

On this October morning, exercises in "partner reading" are being repeated in 1,130 Success For All schools across the nation, from this faded East Coast resort to Chase Elementary in Baltimore County to the inner-city schools of Los Angeles.

Designed at the Johns Hopkins University primarily for elementaries with a high percentage of children from poor families, Success For All replaces scattershot approaches to reading instruction with a highly structured, phonics-intensive approach that changes how children are grouped, taught and tested.

Among urban elementary-school reform efforts these days, it is the hottest program in the country -- widely perceived as successful, though not without its critics.

A New Jersey court recently recommended it for use in hundreds of schools in low-income areas.

But even though Success For All was created and first tested in Baltimore, continues to be tightly dictated from here and is used in 21 Baltimore County schools, it is not being used in a single Baltimore City school.

"We're proud of Success For All, except in Baltimore," says Robert E. Slavin, the Hopkins researcher and father of the program.

The program was born when Slavin was approached by city education leaders in 1986 and asked to restructure a school, Abbottston Elementary near Memorial Stadium, so that no child would fail to read.

The experiment eventually involved five city schools.

While Success For All's results at the five Baltimore schools gained national attention, the program died here by the mid-1990s.

"It died from benign neglect, which is not unusual in Baltimore," acknowledges Walter G. Amprey, who resigned last year as city school superintendent. "There's plenty of blame for everyone, including me.

"A program like this has to have leadership from the top. I should have been on top of it, but I wasn't, and my emphasis on site-based decision-making made it easy for a new principal at the schools to simply drop out. I regret that now."

Adds Kalman R. "Buzzy" Hettleman, a Baltimore consultant and former city school board member who was among those who approached Slavin 12 years ago: "Bob has changed the national conversation by focusing on the best practices that are backed up by research."

End to frustration

At Thurgood Marshall Elementary, another Asbury Park school, Kathy Ahl, a Success For All facilitator, agrees. She says the program ended her 26 years of frustration as a reading teacher "while we wallowed about with one program after another, one publisher after another."

Success For All "brings together all of the elements that make for a good reading program and puts them in a highly organized pattern," Ahl says.

More than that, the program virtually restructures entire schools -- so much so that, before it goes into a school, 80 percent of the teachers must commit to it.

The program starts each day with reading.

Marching to the cheery tune of "Good Morning, Good Morning," every child, book bag in hand, goes off to a 90-minute reading period that is the bedrock of Success For All.

The period is deliberately sacrosanct, devoted exclusively to language arts.

At Bangs Avenue Elementary in Asbury Park, Raines' first-graders know the routine. The first activity is a drill in the phonics of "Sad Sam," written by Slavin.

"My turn," Raines says. "Sssss, aaaa, duh. Sad. Your turn."

The students repeat: "Sssss, aaaa, duh. Sad."

"Good! Now my turn. Sssss, aaaa, mmmm. Your turn "

Follow the script

This is tightly scripted. Success For All supplies hundreds of thin paperback storybooks to each of its schools, as many as 50 per grade in numbered sequence.

They are carefully designed to build students' awareness of the sounds of the language. Any deviations from that sequence must be approved by a facilitator stationed at each school.

"You don't want a robotic classroom," says Gerry Karol, Bangs Avenue's facilitator, "but you don't want everybody going off and doing their own thing.

"We fumbled around for years before SFA."

That was before 1992, the year Bangs Avenue became New Jersey's first Success for All school.

Now all three of Asbury Park's elementary schools are in the fold -- and the program has been recommended for 319 other elementaries in 28 of the state's poorest districts as part of a settlement of a state school finance lawsuit.

Reading instruction in Success For All's early grades relies heavily on phonics.

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