Time-out sessions for reading

Benefit: Intensive reading instruction helps pupils at alternative schools.

May 28, 2000|By Ron Snyder | Ron Snyder,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Sixth-grader Jonathan Chavis works diligently at a computer on a Monday morning, excited about school work for the first time he can remember.

Antoine Newman, Chavis' 14-year-old classmate, rushes to a reading station to grab the latest Sports Illustrated after his teacher is pleased by the progress he made during class.

At Inverness Center - one of five alternative middle and high schools in Baltimore County - reading teacher Allison Traxler knows firsthand the effect intensive reading instruction can have on pupils with behavior and/or learning problems.

"There are kids here with attendance issues and behavior issues," she said. "But research shows that, if you offer children something consistent and that is motivating for them, it will work."

The Dundalk school is one of several regional alternative schools in the county that serve students who have been referred from their home schools because of such problems.

The schools handle no more than 75 students at a time, for periods ranging from as little as an academic quarter to a year or longer.

In many cases, educators say, behavioral problems are closely linked to learning difficulties, especially reading problems. Traxler said she gets pupils who do not like to read, have difficulty reading and some who can barely read at all.

Making things more difficult, she meets with her pupils for an hour a day, two or three times a week - depending on the school's schedule.

To make the best use of her time, Traxler devised a teaching plan that uses learning stations tailored to pupils' different needs.

The reading station includes an audiotape that complements a story; a computer station has programs to help with vocabulary, comprehension and spelling from first- to eighth-grade levels; and at another station, Traxler works one-on-one with pupils.

"A lot of the problems these children face are due to the fact that they don't believe reading can help them or they have become disenchanted with reading," said Traxler, in her first year at the Inverness Center.

"It's important that I earn their trust right away to show them that I care and want to help them," she says. "One way of doing this is offering them the option to read books that interest them."

Her job is made more complicated by the age range of her pupils -11 to 15 years old.

"We can't really label kids as sixth-graders or seventh-graders here because of their range in ages," Traxler said.

"This is one reason I set up the reading stations the way I did, because with each student working at an independent station they don't feel like they are being labeled a member of the `smart' group or the `dumb' group," she said.

Early results show that Trax-ler's methods are effective.

Inverness Principal Robert Pettebone said at the end of the third quarter the reading level of pupils in the middle school has increased by nearly an entire grade level.

"It is unreal - the positive effect reading can have on children's lives," said Pettebone. "Therefore, we have to parallel the children's reading schedules with their language arts schedule to make sure they are getting at least an hour of reading a day."

Before a pupil is sent back to the "home" school, the teachers at Inverness will meet with teachers and guidance counselors at that school.

"It is a difficult transition to go back to a home school where they won't receive as much individual attention as they would here," Pettebone said. "This is why we meet with representatives from their home school to let them know what works well with a student, what their strengths are and what their weaknesses are."

Chavis, who has been at Inverness since January, said he feels that his experience at the school has been a positive one.

When he first arrived at the center, he was failing reading. The next quarter he earned a C, and he now has a B.

"I wasn't a very good reader when I got here and I didn't listen to [the] teacher very much," he said. "But I have had a lot of talks with Ms. Traxler, and she has helped me improve my grades."

Another pupil who has benefited from Traxler's assistance is Robert Abbott. The 13-year-old classmate of Chavis isn't very fond of books but loves working on the computer.

"Sometimes I get to class, and I don't feel like working," said Abbott, who acknowledges he likes reading the newspaper. "Other times, like when I am on the computer, I really get going to work."

Traxler teaches in the middle school and does reading staff development for the high school.

That will change next year when Pettebone plans to add another full-time reading teacher for the high school.

"Reading is so essential to the growth in students," he said. "I could have added another type of teacher, but I felt a reading teacher would be the most beneficial here."

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