Making time for reading

Program: Harford's "Goals 2000" tries to integrate reading skills in all academic disciplines.

January 01, 2000|By Lisa Respers | Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

It's a Wednesday morning at Aberdeen Middle School, and the silence is almost deafening.

The halls are empty, and not a single phone rings in the Harford County school as everyone from pupils to staff participates in the "Drop Everything and Read" program. The weekly 20-minute reading sessions have become a huge hit at the school.

"Even my secretaries read," says Aberdeen Middle School Principal Gladys Pace. "I think that the students seeing the administration reading sends the message that reading is important."

The break for reading is part of Harford's ambitious "Goals 2000" program -- a state-funded partnership with Goucher College that aims to reinforce reading skills in such classes as physical education and music, where language arts aren't usually stressed.

School officials say it is an example of a countywide effort to continue making sure elementary pupils grasp the basics of reading and ensuring that middle school students improve their reading skills.

"Harford County has really been trying to focus its efforts at the middle school level in terms of reading," says Doris Williams, supervisor of English and language arts for Harford County's public schools. "We didn't want all of the teachers to become reading teachers, but what we did want is for all teachers to use effective reading strategies that would help the students to better understand content."

The effort to reach older pupils appears to be working. Harford County eighth-graders placed first in reading and writing in the 1999 Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) and first overall in the state, rising from fifth last year and 14th in 1994.

Harford's third-graders ranked third statewide in reading, writing, language, science and social studies, while fifth-graders ranked third in all areas except language, in which they were fourth.

Overall, 56 percent of Harford students performed satisfactorily on the tests, which is about 2 percentage points lower than last year.

Williams, supervisor of English and language arts, says officials are struggling to determine the reason for the decline even as they look for ways to improve third-grade reading scores and build upon the strong performance by eighth-graders.

"It's a problem all across the state," Williams says.

To address some of the problems of elementary pupils, officials say they will focus on teacher training for kindergarten through third grade, in addition to modifying summer school programs to focus more on reading. Williams says the system is also applying for a federal grant to help develop a family literacy program and other programs.

School officials hope those programs will be as enthusiastically received as "Goals 2000." Under that program, about 50 teachers from every subject area at Edgewood and Aberdeen middle schools spent a week last summer learning how to better incorporate reading strategies into their lessons. The two schools -- which both exist in the shadow of Aberdeen Proving Ground -- were chosen because they often rank lowest in the system despite steadily improving reading scores.

At Aberdeen Middle School, officials face the challenges of a relatively inexperienced teaching staff, as well as high pupil turnover and a number of pupils who have never attended school in Maryland before and are unfamiliar with MSPAP.

"We do a lot of reading to be informed in my class, things like following instructions, rules on the wall and writing narratives that they share with the rest of the class as well as reading articles on health," says Aberdeen physical education teacher Courtney Cullison, who participated in the summer program. "Reading is a part of everything we do every day."

During "Drop Everything and Read," pupils crowd along choral benches in a music room, silently turning pages of a book or magazine.

In a computer class, sixth-grader Stephanie Settle reads the "Pokemon Handbook" with rapt attention as classmate Johnathan Wohrbaugh flips through a magazine.

"It's fun," 12-year-old Johnathan says of his reading break. "You find out interesting things when you read."

Pub Date: 1/01/00

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