Phonics raises reading scores for Sacramento

Uniform instruction plays key role

success gives Baltimore hope

September 27, 1999|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- The turnaround here in reading is stunning.

From 1998 to 1999, first-grade reading scores in Sacramento jumped from the 54th national percentile to the 61st. Second-graders leapt from the 35th percentile to the 50th.

And this took place in a school system in which almost two-thirds of the students come from low-income families.

For teachers such as Julie Peterson, there's no secret behind this city's newfound success in reading. "It's the instruction," says the first-grade teacher at Ethel I. Baker Elementary School. "We finally have the same plan for every teacher in every school, and we're all comfortable teaching it."

Now entering their third year with a districtwide, phonics-intensive curriculum, Sacramento and some of its adjacent communities represent the cutting edge of reading reform not just for California but for urban school systems across the country -- particularly Baltimore.

No longer are the elementary classrooms of Sacramento filled with a hodgepodge of instruction, featuring almost as many reading programs as there are teachers. Instead, teachers across the city are on the same page, trained to use techniques supported by the latest research into reading.

"We're showing that with good instruction, it's possible to teach even poor children to read," says Norm Tanaka, principal of Thomas Jefferson Elementary, one of Sacramento's top performing elementaries despite the fact that about 60 percent of its pupils come from low-income families, about the same proportion as for the city.

Hope in Baltimore

Like Sacramento's elementary schools, almost all of Baltimore's 120 elementary schools are using the Open Court reading series, a phonics-oriented program that gives the city a similar new consistency in reading instruction.

Baltimore began Open Court a year after Sacramento. In test results released last month, Baltimore saw its biggest gains in first-grade reading achievement -- as did Sacramento after its first year working with the program.

And Baltimore educators are hoping that Sacramento's greater successes at the end of the two-year mark offer a glimpse of Baltimore's future.

"This is what we are expecting and would hope to see in Baltimore," says Betty Morgan, the city school system's chief academic officer. "After the initial year of any new instructional program, you would expect to see the real effects at the end of year two, and that's what I'm cautiously optimistic we will see."

Still, there are plenty of differences between Sacramento and Baltimore. Sacramento is less urban, has a lower concentration of poverty and is more ethnically diverse than Baltimore.

But Sacramento educators say that Baltimore's expectations are realistic. The California city has set the goal of having 90 percent of its first- and second-graders score at the 50th percentile nationally by 2001 -- a far cry from the 35th percentile they believe pupils were reading at in 1997.

"We're nowhere near where we want to be, but we're getting there," says Sharon Van Vleck, who oversees Sacramento's reading reform.

As the children who have spent their entire school career in a consistent reading program move forward, Sacramento educators believe the system's reading scores will continue to jump grade after grade.

Comfortable

The biggest change in Sacramento schools in the past year is that teachers are starting to feel comfortable with the new reading series -- a key factor, education researchers say, in producing test score gains.

"The first year, you're teaching every lesson with the manual tucked under your arm, almost reading along to make sure you get it right," says Karen Thomas, a first-grade teacher at Thomas Jefferson. "Now, I know what I'm doing."

Walking from Thomas' classroom to Jamie Green's first-grade classroom next door, it's obvious that the same reading program is in use. One lesson flows into the next -- practice detecting letters and sounds by changing "take" into "ake," rhyme with the song "Down by the Bay," work on writing the letters "R," "S" and "T."

On the other side of Sacramento, teachers at Baker Elementary are teaching the same lessons. The point of the district's new curriculum is for every teacher to teach the same way with the same materials.

"I can walk outside the classrooms, and all I need to do is look through the windows to see that they're all doing Open Court," says Jan Ehlers, Baker's principal.

Every child at Baker qualifies for subsidized lunches, and they're as diverse as California itself -- 30 percent white, 30 percent black, 30 percent Hispanic and 10 percent from other ethnicities, including Vietnamese and Hmong. As in most schools in neighborhoods of high poverty, pupil turnover tends to be high, with families hopping from apartment to apartment.

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