Bellwether district for teaching reading

Approach: The system in Montgomery County is on an all-out campaign to improve instruction and gain results for children.

April 06, 2000|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

GAITHERSBURG -- With vaunted test scores, well-paid teachers, high-achieving parents and steady stream of Merit Scholars, the Montgomery County school system has long been the envy of much of the rest of Maryland.

But now Montgomery is earning another reputation: It is Maryland's bellwether system in reading instruction.

The school system is completing the second year of an intensive campaign to start reading instruction earlier, return phonics to the curriculum, train teachers year-round, devote more instructional time to reading and lower class size in the critical early years.

Most Maryland districts are attempting some of this; Montgomery wants to have it all.

In this churning, rapidly growing system where the children of Cabinet secretaries and illegal immigrants sit side by side and one in four students is eligible for free lunches, educators are aiming first at 3- and 4-year-olds and concentrating on the schools of highest poverty along the county's central corridor.

They're basing their approach on cutting-edge brain and instructional research conducted by the National Institutes of Health, conveniently based in Montgomery. The same research was noted last week by Texas Gov. George W. Bush in proposing a five-year, $5 billion plan to improve the reading skills of children from low-income families.

"That research tells us that if you get to these kids early, allow enough time, have a well-trained teacher and a proper class size, you can have a fundamental effect," says Jerry D. Weast, Montgomery's new superintendent.

Weast has invited all of the county's preschool agencies, public and private, to join him in the effort. He's proposed that literacy packets be distributed, along with birth certificates, to new parents.

Montgomery's reading push is evident at Rosemont Elementary in Gaithersburg, where Principal Paul Schnitman and his staff are emphasizing the first R from stem to stern, basement to attic. The sign in front welcomes visitors to the "State Reading Champ" -- a boast that the school won a school-of-the-year award last month from the Maryland chapter of the International Reading Association, an educators' organization.

Schnitman says he decided to boost reading about three years ago when he noticed that math scores "were going nowhere. When I looked carefully at the situation, I realized the reason we couldn't move the math scores is that the kids couldn't read."

Reading class sizes at Rosemont are limited to 15 pupils in the early grades; typically, they once had 25 or more. Teachers are released monthly from classroom duties for seminars on reading instruction, and Schnitman says staff development "has become a part of the culture of our school."

Virtually every square inch of Rosemont's hallway and classroom walls is covered with posters with reading themes. "Basal readers," textbooks with controlled vocabulary like the Dick and Jane readers of yore, have been discarded for picture books and other literature, allowing the teachers to individualize instruction, says reading specialist Laura Evans.

"We have small-group instruction, but the groups are always changing as we adjust to the needs of students," says Evans. "There is no one-size-fits-all in reading."

In Rosemont's primary classrooms, several reading activities take place at once. Some students might work one-on-one with a teacher or aide; others work in designated "zones" -- for example, a "read-along zone" where children read a book while they listen to it on tape or compact disc.

Reading lessons are elaborately planned and structured and often involve writing. In Paula Young's first-grade class, students read several versions of a Ukrainian folk tale, "The Mitten." Then they write their own version, rewriting, revising and editing over a period of weeks. Young types two versions of each child's final product, one for school, one for home.

As a group, Rosemont's pupils are not particularly well-off. The school is 13th poorest among county elementaries, with a poverty rate of 54 percent and a pupil mobility rate of 35 percent. Schnitman says he's using Title I money -- standard federal aid to help schools in poor areas -- "as strategically as I can to reach as many kids as I can as early as I can."

The earliest of his charges are in Rosemont's two prekindergarten classrooms. In one of them one morning last week, Jochebed Angbazo, 4, grasps a "reading stick" -- a small apple atop a Popsicle stick -- and points to the words as teacher Hilary Dymond reads aloud from "Bear Facts."

"You'd be surprised how much they can do at this age," says Dymond. "They're sponges. If I make it clear what I expect of them, they'll perform."

Dymond says all 20 kids in her morning class can spell their names, and a few are "emergent" readers, meaning they're not fluent but beginning to get the hang of it. Her classroom, like all others at Rosemont, has a word wall where new words in pupils' growing vocabulary are posted.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.