Season of learning fills summer days

Enrichment: Children in annual program are given chance to boost their skills with the help of college students.

August 05, 1999|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Donald Williams could be spending his summer days playing in the streets of East Baltimore and swimming at the neighborhood pool. Instead, the 7-year-old is sitting in a classroom at Madison Square Elementary School, continuing his race to read.

"I like learning how to read and how to spell," says the soon-to-be second-grader. "It's hot, but I'll do better next year in school."

Enrolled in a phonics-intensive program known as Teach Baltimore, Donald is working on his beginning reading skills with two local college students in a class that never grows larger than 14 pupils.

"The kids pick it up so quickly when there are so few students to work with," says Donald's teacher, Monica Pride, a senior this fall at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "You can give every one of them a lot of attention."

Begun in 1993 by a Johns Hopkins University undergraduate to help students pass the basic skills exams required for Maryland high school diplomas, Teach Baltimore has now settled on a single focus -- teaching young children to read during the summer.

For 350 children from 11 city elementary schools, the program offers a chance to beef up their reading skills at five summer academies before they enter first and second grade in the fall. The same students will continue to be eligible for the free eight weeks of summer classes in 2000 and 2001, even if they move to other schools.

"We wanted to focus on these kids while they were still young and help them before they have much time to fall behind," says Matthew Boulay, founder and executive director of Teach Baltimore. "That's where we think we can make a real difference."

In a long-term study of Baltimore students, Johns Hopkins University sociologist Karl Alexander found that the summer can be a critical period of learning.

While poor children might start school with lower skill levels than children from wealthy families, they also tend to make less progress in elementary school, falling further behind -- a gap almost equal to the lack of learning during the summer, Alexander says.

By testing the children enrolled in Teach Baltimore each spring and fall for the next three years, Geoffrey D. Borman, an associate research scientist at the Johns Hopkins University's Center for Social Organization of Schools, will try to see how much the program improves their achievement -- and whether it's a promising solution for struggling young readers.

Parents and teachers say they're starting to see a difference.

"My son is finally getting it with reading," says James Joyce, whose 6-year-old son Harry will be in the second grade this fall at Dr. Bernard Harris Sr. Elementary. "Right near the end of the school year, reading was just starting to make sense for him, but then it was time for summer. I'm glad he has this extra time because he's really learning and reading a lot more at home."

To build on the skills learned during the school year, Teach Baltimore's teachers use the same reading programs used by the pupils' regular classroom teachers.

At four of the five academies -- Barclay, Dallas F. Nicholas Sr., Madison Square and Steuart Hill elementaries -- that means using a phonics-oriented program from the Open Court Publishing Co. Teachers at the remaining site -- George C. Kelson Elementary -- use Direct Instruction, a heavily scripted program that also is phonics intensive.

"Both programs give very specific direction for what teachers should be doing," says Nadine M. Finigan, Teach Baltimore's education program specialist. "That makes it much easier for the teachers."

While the summer begins with "a decent amount of review," by the end most classes "are already pushing ahead to give the kids a boost for the fall," says program coordinator Jody Kaplan.

From its start, Teach Baltimore has recruited area college students as teachers and relied on grants from local groups such as the Abell Foundation, Civic Works AmeriCorps and the Morris Goldseker Foundation. The Johns Hopkins University donates office space and other support.

This summer, teachers are being paid a $1,000 stipend, which works out to less than $2 an hour for more than two weeks of full-time training and eight weeks of instruction. Those teaching two summers are eligible for $2,300 grants for college tuition.

"Even without the $1,000, I would do this," says T. C. Haddock, a senior at Goucher College this fall who hopes to become a teacher. "This is great experience to learn whether teaching is for you."

Classes run from 8: 30 a.m. until 2: 30 p.m., which includes time for the children to eat free breakfasts and lunches.

Though most of the morning is devoted to reading and writing, pupils also get instruction in math and science, as well as time in the afternoon for activities involving art, music and drama. The program also includes weekly field trips to places such as Washington's National Zoo, Port Discovery and local swimming pools.

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