At this year's school budget hearings in Anne Arundel County, some of the most passionate pleas for funding came from parents of struggling readers.
Threatened with the loss of money for teachers in a program called Reading Recovery, parents successfully won $155,000 in local funds to make up for state and federal cuts that threatened the reading effort, which provides daily, one-on-one, 30-minute tutoring sessions to a selected group of low-performing first-graders.
It was a vote of confidence in an expensive but popular program that school officials in Anne Arundel County insist is cost-effective, though each Reading Recovery teacher in the 21 participating elementary schools serves only eight first-graders a year.
"The schools that currently have it in place have the highest levels of poverty and serve the needs of children that lack experience with language and bring few literacy skills to first grade," said Barbara J. Gross, coordinator of Anne Arundel County's Title I program, one of the Reading Recovery's main funding sources.
"They need a one-to-one tutoring situation to give them a chance to catch up. Without the program, I feel that many would be left behind or placed into special education."
But while Anne Arundel County officials have demonstrated a commitment to Reading Recovery - and while use of the program has grown nationally over 15 years - critics point to high costs and question pupils' ability to sustain reading gains.
"Clearly a question about Reading Recovery is, for those children for whom it is effective, do other approaches have the same effect for a lower cost?" asked G. Reid Lyon, chief of the Child Development and Behavior Branch of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
"It is incumbent on schools to get serious about evaluating these programs, because the research primarily has been done by people who work for Reading Recovery."
Reading Recovery was developed more than 20 years ago by New Zealand educator Marie Clay as a remedial program targeted to the lowest 20 percent of readers in first grade. Through a cadre of specially trained teachers, the program offers daily tutoring to those children for a certain period.
In the 1998-1999 school year, the program served 142,149 children in more than 11,000 schools nationwide, Reading Recovery officials said. In Maryland, 2,478 children took part in the program in seven school districts, including 396 children in Anne Arundel County.
Reading Recovery statistics show that more than 80 percent of first-graders who complete the program bring their reading level up to the average in their classrooms.
But Lyon said a 1995 independent study determined that the Reading Recovery findings did not take into account children who didn't do well in the program. Children complete the program- or "discontinue," in Reading Recovery terms- when they finish 20 weeks of individual tutoring.
"What happens to those kids who do not discontinue?" he asked. "That is, those kids who do not get any better."
Lyon said recent research shows that many children with reading difficulties need more direct instruction in phonemic awareness- something that isn't stressed in Reading Recovery. Phonemic awareness is recognizing the sounds that make up words.
The Anne Arundel school system provides direct phonics instruction through WordMasters, a supplement to the language arts curriculum for kindergarten through second grade that was introduced this school year. The teaching guide sets out specific week-by-week lessons in phonics and phonemic awareness.
And children who completed Reading Recovery during the 1998-1999 school year - those who received the 20 weeks of individual tutoring - finished the program on grade level, said Donna Spencer, a Reading Recovery teacher trainer.
She said school officials are working on another study involving second-graders and third-graders to determine whether the gains made in first grade were sustained.
Given the alternatives for children who reach third grade with poor reading skills - special education or repeating a grade - Spencer said Reading Recovery gives the county its money's worth.
Gross, the Title I coordinator, said the work of the county's Reading Recovery teachers extends far beyond the individual tutoring sessions. The 54 teachers also run small "literacy groups" for second-graders, organize staff development programs on reading instruction for classroom teachers and literacy nights for parents.
"These people are top-notch trained individuals," Gross said. "They provide fantastic support for the entire primary reading program."
At Brooklyn Park Elementary School, Reading Recovery teacher Shelly Agnes began a recent tutoring session with first-grader Douglas Pyles by setting a timer for 30 minutes.
Douglas immediately started reading out loud from small storybooks.
"Make sure it makes sense and sounds right," Agnes reminded him.
When Douglas stumbled over the word "pecked" in the sentence, "A parrot pecked," she told him to look at the picture. Douglas guessed "bit."
"I actually see a `p' at the beginning of the word," Agnes said. "`P' and `b' are kind of tricky."
As the session continued, Douglas used magnetic letters to spell new words on a board. He wrote a sentence about buying new tennis shoes. Agnes then cut up the sentence into separate words and asked him to put them back in the correct order. Before Douglas returned to class, Agnes let him choose some books to read at home.
School officials say that, for some children, Reading Recovery is as important a reading tool as phonics instruction.
"It's an answer for many children," Gross said.