New effort sees results Reform: Revamping the way reading is taught in elementary school has led to some improvement in test scores.

December 21, 1998|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

At Thomas Johnson Elementary School in South Baltimore, teachers can't get away from the school's mission statement even when they take a bathroom break. It's up there on every stall wall: "By June of 1999, 70 percent of our children will be reading on or above grade level as measured by the system's standardized test."

It is just one small sign of the zeal with which dozens of city elementary school principals, like Thomas Johnson's Tom Bowmann, are approaching the teaching of reading since a school reform effort began 18 months ago.

The school board has revamped the teaching of reading by investing in a new textbook series, lowering class size in the early grades and instituting after-school programs for children who need extra help.

The efforts seem to be paying off. State test results released two weeks ago showed city third-grade reading scores rose about 5 percentage points so that 16 percent of pupils performed satisfactorily on the test.

City teachers and principals are not excusing poor test scores by saying parents don't care and children are coming to school with few basic skills.

Instead, they are talking about reaching goals that might seem nearly impossible, enlisting the support of parents, seeking community grants, begging for tutors, and trying to instill in demoralized teachers a renewed sense of hope and energy.

"I think there is more of a camaraderie and a focused effort to teach reading," says Searetha Smith, the curriculum and instruction officer for the city schools. "Teachers are investing a lot of time and energy."

At Thomas Johnson, every pupil is taught reading for two hours every morning. Every professional in the building -- the librarian, music teacher, school psychologist, social worker, speech pathologist -- moves to classrooms to assist homeroom teachers. No pupil is pulled out for special programs during that time.

At 17 of the lowest-performing schools in the city, the same strategy is being used. But they teach reading and writing for three hours a day instead of two.

And these schools have decided to group children by ability for reading instruction, says Jeffery Grotsky, an area executive officer who oversees low-performing schools. Teachers were having difficulty teaching pupils with a wide variety of abilities in the same class, he says.

To some degree, city principals and teachers who have seen improved test scores at their schools report a new level of cooperation between teachers and principals and a new focus on consistency.

"My whole point is that it is working because everyone is giving it their all," says Carol Johnson, a fourth-grade teacher at Hilton Elementary, a school recently honored with a $30,000 award from the state for a consistent rise in test scores.

Reform of the city schools began in the summer of 1997 when a new school board was jointly appointed by the mayor and governor. The board decided to reduce class sizes and institute after-school academies at elementary schools.

This year, the board adopted a phonics-based textbook series, "Collections for Young Scholars" by Open Court Publishing Co., for kindergarten through second grade; for later elementary grades, it chose Houghton Mifflin's "Invitations to Literacy." The board spent $3.8 million to buy the books and retrain elementary school teachers to use them.

For many teachers, the change has required a major switch to phonics, emphasizing word decoding. They had been using the whole-language approach to teaching reading -- an approach stressing comprehending literature instead of decoding words.

Despite the many changes and the city's improvement on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program test, Smith says, the system is only beginning its reforms.

City public school pupils are still testing far below their peers nationwide and throughout the state. On the MSPAP reading test, 16 percent of third-graders scored satisfactorily in the city vs. 44 percent statewide. On a national standardized test given last spring, city third-graders scored in the 29th percentile, ranking way behind children just a few miles away in Baltimore County.

Smith is considering ways the reading program can be adjusted to help provide language skills that many pupils lack. She would like to set aside more time in the school year for teacher training and more time in the day for teachers to meet with one another.

It's a concern echoed by Mildred Monroe Elementary School Principal Verlynne Hutson-Herring. "Teachers need to have planned available time to get staff development," she says. Her teachers have given hours of their time, coming to school early and leaving late. "How long can you ask them to do that? Teachers are getting tired."

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