Boston ready to turn page

Literacy: Everyone gets behind an ambitious plan to help third-graders read well

June 25, 1999|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

BOSTON -- Nearing the midpoint of an ambitious plan to have all third-graders reading well by 2005, some leaders in this city called the "Athens of America" are believers. Maybe, they say, Boston will move beyond rhetoric and become the first American city to pull it off.

The 4-year-old campaign, ReadBoston, has enlisted almost every city organization even remotely involved with literacy. Of about three dozen such urban-literacy coalitions across the nation -- including a longtime initiative called Baltimore Reads -- ReadBoston is one of only a few focusing primarily on children.

Since the campaign began in 1995, Boston reading scores have begun slow improvement "a little sooner than we expected," says Margaret Williams, ReadBoston's executive director. "There are a lot of other factors to consider, but we're overjoyed, and we've got more than half of the campaign to go."

The Boston campaign puts more than 1,000 trained tutors together with low-performing children, solicits 100,000 books each year in a "Books for Kids" campaign and coordinates summer reading camps for 3,000 -- among a plethora of activities. In its first three years, it channeled $7.1 million into the effort.

Some of the initiatives are sponsored directly by the coalition, but many more are operated and financed by public agencies and private companies nudged and coordinated by ReadBoston. "We are not a program," says Williams. "We act as convener, broker and catalyst for connecting resources with those who need them."

Ninety organizations are involved in partnerships with ReadBoston, including the school system and some 30 individual public schools.

At O'Hearn Elementary in the working-class neighborhood of Dorchester, Principal Bill Henderson expertly negotiates the hallways, using his cane to point out Read-Boston's impact on the school.

About a quarter of O'Hearn's 225 students have a handicap of some sort, and the principal is blind. "I can't read print, but that doesn't mean I shouldn't be literate," says Henderson.

Henderson insists that all parents read with their children every night. Despite some setbacks, he's achieved 90 percent participation in two years.

Among other tactics, O'Hearn gives books to the families of newcomers and to students on their birthdays. A ReadBoston grant also pays for O'Hearn teachers to read in students' homes and promote home reading.

"Every child has a reading contract," says Henderson, "and we take very seriously the breaking of those contracts."

Trained reading "partners" -- among them, local college students receiving federal AmeriCorps benefits, members of a Jewish coalition, a police district commander, a retired teacher -- visit O'Hearn's classrooms during the school day and three times a week after school. ReadBoston helps coordinate the volunteers, including O'Hearn's volunteer "reading partner liaison."

Henderson says he's optimistic about the prospects for ReadBoston, "especially since the superintendent [Thomas Payzant] is on board and has made literacy his own top priority."

The principal says he's most proud of some of his disabled students who have sharpened their literacy skills "and become inspirations to the whole school. Barring a miracle, some of my students will never read at grade level, but they can improve. You never overcome some disabilities, but you can work around them."

Boston's campaign is unusual in that it began with an emphasis on children. A similar child-oriented effort, the Reading Campaign in Seattle, now in its fourth year, was launched by the late school superintendent there, John Stanford, as part of his commitment to making reading that system's top priority.

Other urban-literacy campaigns -- in Baltimore, Houston, Atlanta, Cleveland, Dallas, New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Washington -- all began with an emphasis on adult literacy and only recently turned attention to early reading.

Baltimore Reads

Says Maggi Gaines, Baltimore Reads executive director: "We were created 11 years ago by the mayor, but somewhere along the way we recognized that learning was a family-assistance issue, and it didn't make sense for us to be working only with adults."

So Baltimore Reads has added children's pieces to such well-known adult programs as the Ripken Learning Center. There's the after-school Reading Edge, as well as book-collection drives and other efforts aimed at improving family literacy.

"Back in the beginning," says Gaines, "we saw literacy primarily as an equity issue. It was seen as only right that we provide a second chance to people whom society had failed the first time around.

"Now we've come around to seeing literacy as an economic development issue. Without solid basic skills, you don't get to play in the park of employment, and you're less likely to encourage your children to learn to read. So if we don't get to the parents, we're abandoning still another generation."

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