At Fifth District Elementary School in Baltimore County, pupils are so serious about improving their reading skills, some of them chart their progress on tests in notebooks. Every one of them knows the school's motto: "Keep reading."
Three reading tutorials, pupil-driven literature clubs and a school day revamped to enable pupils to cycle more easily through reading workshops seem to be paying off.
On state reading tests, the percentage of Fifth District third-graders scoring at a satisfactory level rose from 42.4 percent in 1994 to 78.7 percent in the spring.
"At Fifth District, none of our students falls between the cracks," says Principal Susan H. Deise, who shares tips with other administrators eager for similar results. "We truly do monitor student progress frequently. I can confidently say that I know where every kid is in reading."
At the Mount Carmel school and others across the county, educators are using reading assessments more frequently to focus attention on reading skills such as understanding sentence structure, sounding out tough words and learning vocabulary through context.
But it wasn't always so.
Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione made it clear that he wanted Baltimore County schools to focus on early reading instruction in 1996, shortly after he became superintendent, saying he wanted all children to read at grade level by the end of second grade.
To meet that goal, county educators adopted a reading curriculum called "word identification" that calls for specific early instruction in phonics, or letter-sound relationships, to help pupils decode words.
All 102 county elementary schools have reading specialists -- positions that were lost in some schools in the early 1990s -- and more schools are setting aside time for supplemental reading instruction to aid pupils lagging behind.
The strategy seems to be working countywide.
By the spring, 87 percent of the county's second-graders were reading at or above grade level, according to scores on the Comprehensive Tests of Basic Skills, a nationally standardized exam.
Countywide, reading scores by third- and fifth-graders on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) have improved -- rising as much as 17 percentage points since state officials started the annual battery of exams in 1993.
"There is no doubt that we are headed in the right direction with our early reading program," Marchione said. "At every elementary school I visit, reading is the No. 1 priority. That's what I wanted them to do and they are doing it. It's very gratifying."
Baltimore County's reading crusade is likely to continue after Marchione retires in June. Members of the county school board say they are determined to improve reading abilities at all grade levels -- especially after a dip in reading scores by county third- and eighth-graders on this year's MSPAP exams.
This year's results perplexed county educators, who celebrated gains in third- and fifth-grade reading scores last year.
"There's been so much dialogue about [this year's] results," said Roberta G. Bukovsky, director of elementary curriculum and instruction. "But we still feel that we have the right reading curriculum in place. We've kept the focus on reading and we've seen positive results."
School officials want to do even better. And they're confident that a new reading resource guide -- a thick binder full of information about state reading standards, county reading curriculum and a sample reading lesson -- will help schools raise reading scores.
"For the first time, we will have all reading information in one place," Bukovsky said. "It should strengthen our reading program."
The county's 26 middle schools also are in the midst of a minor reading instruction revolution, says Paula Simon, who coordinates reading instruction at the secondary school level.
Flummoxed by a seven-year slump in eighth-grade reading scores on the MSPAP, administrators and teachers are trying to bring reading instruction to every middle school classroom -- including science and math. "It will be a big leap, and it's not going to happen overnight, but we hope it makes those test scores move," Simon says.
In the summer, specialists will put together a reading guide for teachers to help seventh- and eighth-graders who are struggling. A reading guide for sixth-graders was distributed three years ago.
Still, county educators agree that the sooner a child gets help for reading problems, the better. And that's why teachers at Fifth District -- a leader in the use of reading tests -- are crazy about numbers.
Deise, the principal, says: "Data is no longer separate from instruction. It's an integral part of teaching."
By studying test results, Fifth District teachers know what each child needs -- whether individual tutoring through the school's "Reach for Reading" program or group work with a paid parent helper in its "Soar to Success" program. "Eager Readers," a third reading tutorial, uses parent volunteers to check pupils' language fluency.
And a reorganization of the day at Fifth District has made it easier to reduce class size by breaking pupils into small groups for specialized reading instruction.
While a group of third-graders participates in a literature group or book club, another set might learn social studies. Teachers work in teams to coordinate schedules and subject-matter.
"What we are talking about is flexible grouping so that children receive explicit skill instruction to meet their particular needs at that time," Deise says.
Although Deise is proud of her school's progress, aided in part by a low poverty level in its neighborhood -- and state grants that help pay parent tutors, she doesn't claim to be a miracle worker.
"We have the same issues as any other school," she says, referring to parents who don't attend teacher conferences and pupils who enter first grade at lower reading levels. "We just put a different twist to them."