Howard looks to improve reading

Schools to spend nearly $3 million in multiyear effort

April 02, 1999|By Erika Peterman | Erika Peterman,SUN STAFF

Despite having one of the best reading performance records in the state, Howard County school officials are preparing to invest nearly $3 million in a multiyear effort to improve reading at all levels.

County pupils traditionally have earned relatively high reading scores on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, and the county's fifth-graders have improved their reading scores by more than 15 points in the past two years. But scores of eighth-graders have been especially disappointing, and school officials see room for improvement.

Allan Starkey, the school system's language arts coordinator, said the system is serving a growing number of children who struggle with the subject.

"When I was a classroom teacher I taught only at the high school level. I could confidently say that I never taught a kid who couldn't read, meaning I never taught a kid who couldn't decode text," Starkey said. "Today at the high school level, I couldn't make that kind of statement. We do have a growing number of kids who can't read."

Starkey explained that some children who are behind in reading came through the whole-language program, which did not emphasize word analysis. The county is also educating more pupils who attended school in other school districts, and more foreign-born pupils who speak another primary language.

"We have a growing number of ESOL [English As a Second Language] students, so those kids aren't decoding at all," Starkey said. "That's one of the reasons we're going to need reading specialists at the high school level."

The school system's 22-point plan -- which focuses on hiring more staff and expanding instruction -- would be phased in between 2000 and 2002. Presented last week to the school board, it would cost $2.75 million to carry out, with $834,000 included in next year's operating budget request.

The plan comes amid growing pressure, in Maryland and nationally, to improve reading performance, especially among younger pupils.

Among the steps proposed in a report to the school board on improving reading instruction:

Schools with high transience (25 percent turnover or more annually) need a teacher to assess new pupils and plan classroom activities to meet their needs. The teacher would also work with the pupils one-on-one and in small groups to accelerate their reading progress, if necessary.

Reading Recovery, a one-on-one program designed to help first-graders who are poor readers, should be placed in schools that get extra support in math and reading based on the number of pupils who receive free and reduced-price lunches. This would require 13 more teachers.

High school students who do not pass the Maryland Functional Reading Test and other "less able" readers would be required to take a reading acceleration class, in addition to their regular English class.

Reading support teachers would be assigned to three of the county's "focus schools," schools that receive extra resources because of lower performance. Each teacher would be based in one school but serve others assigned to them on an equal basis.

Middle school pupils reading below grade level would have access to Reading Intervention Services, including one-on-one and group help to improve reading performance.

The Academy of Reading Program -- including computer lab students -- would be brought to several middle and high schools to help pupils who read more than two years below grade level. The Academy of Reading Program provides computer software designed to help reading-disabled pupils.

The extended-day kindergarten program would be expanded from five focus schools to all nine.

"It's something we probably should have been doing for a long time," said Superintendent Michael E. Hickey. "We'd like to improve the reading level of virtually all the students in the school system."

A team of educators met monthly to create the improvement plan. One of their concerns is a general decline in reading performance that occurs when pupils enter middle school. Mirroring a statewide trend, MSPAP reading scores for the county's eighth-graders fell last year, with 34 percent scoring at least satisfactorily.

A number of new initiatives are aimed at that age group: additional reading specialists, reading tutors, a middle school reading committee and an intervention program targeting low-performing readers.

Hickey believes providing pupils with extra support in reading may have an impact on other subjects as well.

"Kids don't just read in English" class, Hickey said. "They read in science, they read in math, they have to have good reading skills in social studies."

Pub Date: 4/02/99

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