Intensive summer help pays

Study: Children in the Teach Baltimore program outscored 81 percent of their peers.

January 09, 2000|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Pupils who received intensive extra reading help last summer in a program developed by Johns Hopkins University students outperformed others who didn't take the classes, according to the first-year results of a study at 11 Baltimore elementary schools.

The study found that kindergartners and first-graders who regularly attended classes in Teach Baltimore outscored 81 percent of other pupils when they returned to school in the fall for first and second grades.

"This would seem to be common sense, but the fact is, there isn't very much research on the effect of a summer program," said Matthew Boulay, founder and executive director of Teach Baltimore. "It was a question begging for research."

Begun by Boulay in 1993 when he was an undergraduate at Hopkins, Teach Baltimore originally aimed to help Baltimore students pass the basic skills exams required for Maryland high school diplomas.

But last summer, the program settled on a single focus: teaching young children to read during the summer.

The program gave 350 children from 11 city elementary schools the chance to improve their reading skills at five summer academies before they entered first or second grade. Pupils were assigned to classes of no more than 14, with two college students working as teachers.

By tracking the children's performance on citywide testing in spring and fall for the next three years, Geoffrey D. Borman, an associate research scientist at Hopkins' Center for Social Organization of Schools, will try to see how much the program improves achievement and whether it's a promising solution for struggling young readers.

"The preliminary results are encouraging, that if children actually attend the program regularly, lo and behold, they benefit from it," Borman said. "How they do over the next two years will be the real test, to see if the summer help will prevent them from progressively falling behind."

The same pupils will continue to be eligible for Teach Baltimore's free eight weeks of summer classes this year and next.

Next summer, the program expects to expand by 50 percent by adding the next group of pupils moving from kindergarten to first grade, said Boulay, who is teaching this year in a New York City public school.

Borman's study compares the performance of Teach Baltimore pupils with children whose parents tried to enroll them in the program but weren't selected because of lack of space -- essentially comparing two randomly selected groups of children whose parents want them to get summer help.

In a separate long-term study of Baltimore pupils, Hopkins sociologist Karl Alexander has 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, Alexander learned. That gap is almost equal to the lack of learning progress by poor children during the course of a summer, according to Alexander.

The Teach Baltimore study is examining whether that gap can be overcome with intensive summer help -- something that Borman and Boulay say has not been the focus of much research.

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

At four of the five summer academies -- Barclay, Dallas F. Nicholas Sr., Madison Square and Steuart Hill elementaries -- that meant using a phonics-oriented program from Open Court Publishing Co.

Teachers at the remaining site -- George C. Kelson Elementary -- used Direct Instruction, a heavily scripted program that also is phonics-intensive. Though most of the morning was devoted to reading and writing, pupils also were instructed in math and science and had time in the afternoon for activities involving art, music and drama.

Teach Baltimore relies on local college students who are paid a small stipend for the two weeks of full-time training and eight weeks of classroom instruction.

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