On the second floor of Canton Middle School, in a classroom adorned with posters proclaiming the most elementary rules of reading, Liz Harris fights a daily battle to make readers of preteen illiterates.
Her sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders look more like young adults than children, but their reading skills are no better than the average third- or fourth-grader's. Principal Craig Spilman has test data that suggest 80 percent of this year's sixth-graders read below third-grade level in September. About 50 percent of last year's sixth-graders showed up at Canton with similarly dismal reading skills.
They are pupils who are easily baffled by words such as "request" and "minus." And even when they manage to sound out unfamiliar words, chances are they don't know what they mean.
"These kids were shortchanged in elementary school," says Harris. "Ideally, they would have learned all of this before the fifth grade. But that's the ideal. This is the reality."
At Canton, these nonreaders get help, thanks to teachers such as Harris, a reading specialist with more than 20 years' experience. Spilman hired Harris and three other reading specialists last year as part of a schoolwide effort to boost basic reading skills.
Canton is the exception in that regard. At most other middle schools across Baltimore, where the average sixth-grader is reading about two years behind grade level, reading specialists, phonics books or basic reading classes are nearly as rare as diamonds.
With one in 15 city eighth-graders passing the state reading exam, some school officials are saying they will examine the middle school curriculum, and approaches such as Canton's might become more common throughout the city.
"I think reading is a major issue in the middle schools," says Betty Morgan, the district's chief academic officer since late last fall. Middle schools had reading specialists and a reading curriculum about a decade ago, and it might be time to replenish those resources systemwide, she says.
Morgan said many children who aren't reading in middle school might have dyslexia or other disabilities, and the district might need to adopt programs to deal with those problems.
"We need to look at a variety of strategies," Morgan says. To boost miserable reading scores in the early elementary grades, the school board has added teachers and new materials. But in later elementary grades and middle schools, the board decided early last year that an emphasis on literature would be better.
That strategy was begun in the schools last September. Shortly thereafter, officials started to wonder if it was a mistake.
At Canton, Spilman says, he and his staff have had to think outside the constraints of traditional middle school philosophy to address their pupils' needs. "We really don't have a blueprint for what we're doing because, as middle school teachers, we were never expected to be reading specialists," he says. "But our philosophy here is not to make excuses. We had to do something."
Spilman has thrown every available resource at his school's reading problem.
Starting in the 1996-1997 academic year, his efforts to assign all teachers -- even math, science and social studies instructors -- to teach reading led to some improvement in the students' writing, but not in their reading.
So he hired Harris and the other reading specialists and designed a curriculum around the Wilson reading series, phonics-based textbooks originally intended for adult nonreaders.
In Harris' early-morning class at Canton, the drills are about the basics, not much different from what you'd find in an elementary school class.
She asks the children: Why do you say "froh-zen" instead of "frah-zen"? Why does "a" make a different sound in "Jane" than it does in "Jan"?
Five months into the school year, most of her pupils are making progress. Those who were nonreaders are beginning to read simple words. Those who were a few years behind in September are moving toward grade level. But 20 minutes in Harris' classroom makes it clear how much more needs to be done.
Ronald, one of Harris' sixth-grade pupils, says "reviv" when he looks at "revive." Twelve-year-old Shanell stumbles over words such as "crisis." And Jason, a red-haired boy with a freckled face, can read "beset" after a few tries but says he has no idea what it means. He is in the eighth grade. Next year, he'll go to high school.
Spilman has special education teachers holding reading classes during free periods and will add two classes taught by aides this year. By next month, Spilman says, about 350 of his 700 pupils will have a daily reading class. Spilman has gotten the money for the added staff and new materials by shifting funds around and capitalizing on the school's Title I income, federal funds allocated to schools according to how many children live in poverty.