Can-do schools break the mold

Models: Rich or impoverished, black or white, these highly effective schools excel at teaching pupils to read.

May 28, 2000|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

At Martin Boulevard Elementary School, small is beautiful: The eastern Baltimore County elementary does everything to teach reading in small groups or one on one.

The school devotes so much attention to thinking small that its reading specialist's classroom has been split in two -- one side for the teacher to work with small groups of kids, the other side for a half-dozen cubicles for individual tutoring.

Many elementaries would love to do this. Some use popular but expensive programs in which one teacher tutors just a few kids a day. But Martin Boulevard does it by hiring a handful of parents as tutors.

They work individually for 30 minutes a day with a higher percentage of the school's beginning readers than tutors at most elementaries -- in a much more cost-effective way. And the extra help isn't limited to those who are behind.

The school even provides one-on-one tutoring for kids who are reading at grade level. "We make sure that they get an extra boost, so there's no danger of them falling behind," says Toni Livolsi, Martin Boulevard's reading specialist.

"A lot of our kids can benefit from an extra half-hour a day of one-on-one reading, so why shouldn't we find a way to give it to them?"

Martin Boulevard's strong emphasis on small-group instruction and tutoring for all its students helps make it a standout school when it comes to teaching reading.

Statistically, its pupils' achievement on reading tests outclasses all other Baltimore County elementary schools when student demographic factors are held constant, according to a Sun analysis.

Such schools are so rare that researchers call them "outliers" or "maverick schools." Yet, The Sun study found that each of the four largest school systems in the Baltimore metropolitan area has particular schools that -- regardless of such factors as income, race, attendance and pupil mobility -- do a notably better job than others at teaching reading.

These schools each have a lot to show parents, educators and policy-makers about the most effective ways to teach this most basic of skills.

And with learning how to read adequately by third grade now well established as critical to children's futures, elementary schools in Maryland and across the nation are desperately searching for ways to improve how they teach reading.

Yet few parents or even educators get the chance to see what really works. Few school systems go to the trouble of identifying which schools are having the kind of success that makes how they're teaching worth replicating elsewhere.

To be sure, it's easy to praise the highest-achieving schools, those meeting the standards on Maryland's annual exams and topping the charts on tests of basic reading skills. As across the nation, those schools tend to be in better-off neighborhoods, teaching children from homes full of advantages.

But it's much more difficult to identify schools that excel at teaching reading to the children they happen to have been assigned -- rich, poor or in between. These schools don't necessarily show up as top performers, but they're the ones making the most difference in their students' lives.

Somehow, these elementary schools find ways to teach reading better than their peers. They may be particularly effective at giving the children of poverty a much greater chance at success than other low-income schools. Or they're taking well-off children, who ordinarily might achieve well, to greater than anticipated heights.

To identify these exceptional schools in the four largest area school districts -- Baltimore City and Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Howard counties -- The Sun hired a Johns Hopkins University researcher to analyze test scores and student data from every one of their elementaries.

Four schools that work

This series is a journey through four of these schools, at once idiosyncratic and instructive. These schools stand out for many of the same reasons -- consistent practices that seem simple enough to apply at almost all schools, but that often aren't. These schools:

Firmly ground initial reading instruction programs in teaching letters and sounds -- the approach known as phonics -- whether they're teaching inner-city children or suburbanites.

Arrange reading instruction so that it takes place in the smallest groups possible. Pupils are regularly tested to catch those falling behind before it's too late, and remedial tutoring is readily available.

Are fiercely protective of schools' most precious resource -- the minutes of the school day -- trying at every turn to maximize the amount of time devoted to academics and, in particular, to reading.

Are run by principals who are not so much administrators as instructional leaders, demanding of their teachers that these factors are at work in their schools day in, day out.

None of this is a secret. Such success factors are on the lips of educators everywhere. But the big difference at the four schools profiled in this series is that the talk has been turned into action.

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