Reading plan seems to work

The Education Beat

Tour of city schools indicates Open Court investment paying off

May 09, 1999|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

MAY IS NOT ONLY for tulips and lilacs. It's the month of blooming young readers and writers.

Those kindergartners and first-graders who were so unsure in September now read with bravado, happy to show off for visitors. The best of their work is posted in classrooms and hallways.

Baltimore teachers also are more confident. Many had doubts about the school board's decision last year to adopt a phonics-oriented program from the Open Court Publishing Co. for beginning readers.

But if my impressions from a tour of schools Wednesday are anywhere near accurate, the $3.8 million Open Court investment is paying off.

I saw lots of kids reading at or above grade level, and at the William S. Baer School for the severely handicapped in West Baltimore, I saw the miracle of middle-school pupils triumphantly sounding out words -- their first genuine reading experiences.

Here's what Open Court has accomplished in nine months:

It's produced citywide consistency. In a system with pupil turnover approaching 50 percent at some schools, it's important that Johnny can easily adapt when he leaves Patapsco Elementary in Cherry Hill and moves in with an aunt near Matthew A. Henson Elementary in West Baltimore. On Wednesday, first-graders in both schools were reading the same story.

It appears to have improved teacher morale. That's a dangerous generalization in a system with 6,000 teachers, but I found unusually high satisfaction with Open Court, even among teachers who opposed it a year ago.

"It takes you step by step," said Veronica McDuffie, first-grade teacher at Henson. "It introduces a different sound every day, and then it blends the sounds into words and really high-interest stories. Reading has become very easy for these children."

It has forced the schools to expand language arts instruction to as much as three hours daily. At Patapsco, pupils begin the day reading 30 minutes in a program called "The 100 Book Challenge." Some have read 200 books this year.

It's improved behavior. "It didn't happen overnight," said Deborah Moore, a consulting teacher at Henson, "but I've been watching carefully. When a child learns to read, his self-image shoots up, and his negative behavior goes down."

Make no mistake: There's a long way to go.

Open Court officials estimate that 10 percent of the several hundred primary teachers in Baltimore have yet to master the program, in place this year from kindergarten through second grade. And some teachers simply refuse to use the Open Court curriculum.

I took the tour with Blouke Carus, who founded Open Court in 1962 at his kitchen table in Peru, Ill., and with Mary McAdoo, the publisher's coordinator in Baltimore.

Open Court was a family enterprise until four years ago, but it couldn't compete in the rapidly consolidating textbook market. Open Court is now part of the McGraw-Hill empire, but Carus, who will be 72 next month, stays on as a consultant. (Carus' company still publishes books and several children's magazines.)

"What more satisfaction could anyone want than watching a child learn to read with something you helped create?" Carus said Wednesday,

The last words, though, belong to Karen Rocourt at the Baer School.

Described by her principal, Shari Johnson, as "heroic," Rocourt has been a teacher for 25 years.

She pointed proudly to a bulletin board, where her severely handicapped 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds had painstakingly cut out and posted the letters in the word "dinosaur."

"We spelled a word for the very first time, didn't we?" she said, to smiles and nods all around.

"We've been rockin' and rollin' all year," said Rocourt. "Can I say that Open Court has made competent readers of all these children? No. Can I say it's broadened their horizons? Absolutely."

Pub Date: 5/09/99

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