Saturday classes reinforce skills

Studying: A District of Columbia program puts children who need help in classes that use the same curriculum as weekday classes.

May 09, 1999|By Stephen Henderson | Stephen Henderson,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- It used to be that Saturday mornings were set aside for children to have fun -- watching cartoons, playing outdoors or just sitting idly around the house.

That's no longer true in Washington, where children in virtually all the District of Columbia system's 146 schools are sitting in classes and hitting the books on Saturdays to boost their reading skills.

As part of the Saturday STARS program (Students and Teachers Achieving Results and Success), the students sit in class from 9 a.m. to noon, with the same teachers and the same curriculum they see during weekday classes.

This Saturday schooling is mandatory for children who have scored below average on standardized tests or received failing grades in English. But many more children are showing up for the classes, which began in January, just to get extra help.

The idea, according to D.C. officials, is to increase the amount of quality instructional time children spend in class learning to read.

"The whole goal of this district is achievement now, and we realize that Monday through Friday just isn't enough for some of our children," said Denise Tann, a spokeswoman for the system. "To compete on the Stanford 9 [national standardized test] and in the world, they've got to have more time with reading."

It's an idea that is catching on across the country, and here in Baltimore: that six hours a day, five days a week may not be enough time in class for children who pose ever more-challenging learning problems for teachers.

Many school systems are experimenting with extended days and year-round schedules. As part of Baltimore's current reforms, schools are holding after-school academies to work on reading skills, and in 19 schools this summer, failing second- and fourth-grade pupils will attend summer reading classes.

Some schools also hold Saturday academies and weekend programs, and Morgan State University, Towson University and Coppin State College hold academic classes for Baltimore area students on weekends.

Nothing in Baltimore, though, is quite as radical as what's happening with Washington's Saturday STARS program. The idea for the program, says Tann, sprang from a successful summer session run last year for children who were behind in reading.

Teachers and administrators began in the fall to think about ways to keep the summer momentum going.

"At first, we came up with the idea of having a reading teacher in every school," said Mary Gill, the system's director of elementary programs. "But we couldn't find enough certified reading teachers, so our superintendent, Arlene Ackerman, thought of the tutorial academies."

Gill and others designed a curriculum that focuses on vocabulary and comprehension. They are using the same Open Court series of books in place in Baltimore schools.

About 600 of the system's teachers were trained to work in the program. Money for the program is coming from a Schools of the 21st Century Grant.

Since the program began in January, thousands of children have participated.

Tann said that since the summer program took place, teachers and principals have seen results. Stanford 9 scores in the system went up slightly, and teachers are reporting that students' in-class reading skills are improving.

"We're not seeing leaps and bounds, but we're seeing a difference," Tann said. "It's working."

The system might not see more tangible results perhaps until next year, but plans are already being made for this year's summer program, and for the Saturday program to reappear in the fall.

"We all know Ms. Ackerman has this vision, and we've got to make it happen," said Pam Anderson, the system's director of research and evaluation. "People are responding, because we know we have to improve our achievement. We don't have a choice."

Pub Date: 5/09/99

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