CHARLESTOWN — First of seven parts
CHARLESTOWN -- When it comes to reading achievement in Maryland, this small Cecil County town's elementary school stands out.
In contrast to the state's fiat reading scores overall this year, Charlestown Elementary School's third-graders improved on that portion of the state exams. So did the school's fifth-graders.
And no one at Charlestown was surprised, for there isn't a beginning reader at the school whose skills aren't being checked at least three times a year.
"If you wait for the state testing, you're waiting too long to do something," says Charlestown's principal, Carolyn Teigland. "You need to assess the kid regularly, and if they start to fall behind, you need to give them the help so they can catch up."
In the statewide struggle to boost early reading achievement, elementaries such as Charlestown offer hope and guidance on how to improve scores.
Its formula for success: experienced, consistent classroom instruction; regular testing of children's reading skills; swift and direct help at the first sign that pupils falling behind.
But such changes are slow in coming statewide, largely because many of Maryland's schools continue to be dogged by inconsistent instruction.
"What is uplifting is that you see individual schools and even a few systems where there has been a real consistent improvement in reading instruction," says state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. "What is not uplifting is that it is not happening in enough places."
This year, only 48 percent of the state's elementary schools managed to improve on their third-grade reading scores.
And only one in 10 elementary schools across the state has improved for each of the past three years, according to an analysis by The Sun.
Grasmick estimates that Maryland may not see substantial test score gains in early reading until the 2001 state exams.
Standards for teaching
More than two years after Maryland began its effort to reform early-grade reading instruction, the state is still trying to lay the foundation to ensure that all pupils are reading on grade level by the end of grade three -- and continue reading on grade level through middle school.
The state has developed its most specific guidelines ever -- known as content standards -- for teaching students to read. It has also secured a $14.2 million federal grant to improve the skills of be-ginning readers from low-income families, largely through a heavier emphasis on instruction in phonies.
This fall, the state school board approved an ambitious plan requiring schools to test children in early grades and give them intensive tutoring if they fall behind in reading. Eighth-graders with poor reading skills will be required to attend summer school before entering high school, a plan that requires funding from the governor and General Assembly.
By next fall, more school systems will be teaching beginning readers in smaller classes -- but instruction may suffer from an influx of less experienced new teachers. Gov. Parris N. Glendening has pledged an extra $10 million to reduce class sizes, expanding the effort beyond the $1.7 million he gave Montgomery County this school year.
In the Baltimore area, school systems are also stressing improvements in reading instruction:
* In Baltimore, the city is holding fast to the effort begun last year to introduce a consistent structured reading curriculum in all elementary schools. The Open Court program produced modest gains in reading skills in its first year, and school officials hope that even bigger improvements will be seen at the end of this school year as teachers become more com-fortable with the program -- an improvement that has been seen at the end of its second year of use in other urban districts.
* Baltimore County schools are continuing a back-to-basics approach to reading installed when Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione took over in 1996. But poor middle-school reading achievement has prompted the county to develop a new reading guide for seventh- and eighth-grade teachers.
* Anne Arundel County elementary schools have stopped teaching phonics as part of other reading lessons. Recognizing the research that indicates letter-sound relationships are critical for early reading success, the county's reading program now calls for separate, explicit lessons in phonics.
* In Howard County, elementary schools are being encouraged to juggle staff to give pupils more time in reading instruction.
* Carroll County elementary teachers are starting to test pupils' reading skills twice a year, then tailoring lessons to bolster weak skills.
* Harford County's middle schools are bringing reading instruction into such classes as physical education and music in an effort to boost lagging eighth-grade reading scores.