Starting in September, the Baltimore school system will dispatch a new corps of reading "coaches" into 32 elementary schools to help teachers, much the way the coach of a sports team helps his players.
School officials are using $1 million of this year's extra funding from the state to give teachers in-classroom support and training in reading instruction from those who know it best: reading specialists.
"We're going to put them in there and they're going to be our experts," said Patricia E. Abernethy, director of curriculum and instruction for the 98,000-student district.
Reading coaches have been placed in Baltimore schools before, but the 32 new positions will bring the system "very close" to its goal of having a reading expert in each of its more than 100 elementary buildings, Abernethy said.
One large urban school district, Sacramento, has used reading coaches with considerable success. The school system there uses the same textbook series for the primary grades as Baltimore, SRA/McGraw-Hill's Open Court.
"Reading coaches will help improve instruction in the classroom because they help teachers improve the programs. ... They're going to facilitate the greater success of all students because they will be more knowledgeable than the average teacher about language development, which is a precursor for reading," Abernethy said.
The reading coaches will be funded by the city's $55 million "remedy" money from the state, an extra allocation being used in part for academic programs ranging from pre-kindergarten to high school reform.
The reading coaches will not work directly with pupils, as tutors do. Rather, they will serve as professional development resources for teachers, helping bridge the gap between the theory and practice of teaching reading, and providing feedback about what works and what doesn't.
In collaboration with the nonprofit Safe and Sound Campaign, a 10-year drive to improve the lives of children, city school officials convened a Reading by Nine task force last year to evaluate the system's approach to reading instruction. In May, the task force recommended, among other things, providing a classroom-based reading coach for every 10 teachers in the elementary grades.
Charlene Cooper-Boston, chair- woman of the group of more than two dozen administrators, principals and other education advocates, said the choice of the term "coach" was deliberate.
"We thought [this term] would signal that this person's task was to promote staff development for teachers around reading, being a support just like a coach does when you're playing baseball," said Cooper-Boston, who oversees one of the school system's elementary areas.
School officials say a growing amount of research shows that classroom-based teacher training is more effective than other types, such as workshops, because it is more immediate and hands-on. The task force recommended that the schools spend 80 percent of the time allocated to professional development on classroom-based training during the school day.