Literacy chief eager for newest challenge

The Education Beat

Director: Tom Bowmann hopes to improve reading skills citywide the way he turned around a troubled South Baltimore elementary.

September 02, 2001|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

CHILDREN'S BOOKS line the North Avenue office of Tom Bowmann, and they're not there for decoration.

"I try to read one every day," says Baltimore's first director of reading. "It's amazing how reading a child's book with adult eyes puts a different light on things. It's very helpful in my new job."

Bowmann, 50, will need all the help he can get. All he has to do, as prescribed by a school system "Reading by 9" task force in a report issued in May, is get a handle on the city's many reading programs, evaluate them, eliminate the ineffective ones and beef up those that work.

That's just the beginning. He also must develop a "comprehensive professional development plan" for teachers, lobby for full-day kindergartens, figure out what to do about schools with no libraries and promote literacy across the city.

All this, and accomplish it without spending a whole lot or alienating entrenched interests at school system headquarters and in the schools.

Still, if anyone can do it, perhaps Bowmann's the man. In four years at Thomas Johnson Elementary in South Baltimore, he transformed one of the city's worst schools into one of its best. He's aware, he says, that it's harder to bring about change from within the North Avenue bureaucracy than from a principal's office, "at least in the short run."

But Bowmann didn't abandon his natural ebullience when he left Thomas Johnson, and he's characteristically childlike in his eagerness to get on with it.

Here are some of the challenges:

Just a few years ago, the hour-long reading block was expanded to 90 minutes and then two hours. When schools open Tuesday, Baltimore teachers will devote three uninterrupted hours a day to literacy activities, incorporating such subjects as art and social studies.

Bowmann will have to fend off those educators who are already complaining that the system is going overboard. "There's no separating literacy from anything else in life," he says. "The skills ... of literacy are transferable to math, science, art, music or whatever."

Following state guidelines, the city is to use a "balanced literacy" approach, but "balanced" doesn't mean a mindless mishmash. A big part of beginning reading is learning the sounds of the language (phonemic awareness) and how to decode language, known as phonics. Teaching these skills requires hard work and linguistic knowledge that's not in the repertoire of many teachers, both veterans and newcomers.

That, says Bowmann, is why hiring 32 new reading coaches in the summer - nearly every elementary school will have one - "is a milestone in this system."

In 1998, Baltimore spent $3.5 million on two reading textbook series, Open Court for kindergarten through grade 2 and Houghton Mifflin for the upper elementary grades. Reading scores have been on the rise since, but Bowmann suspects they might level off this school year or next.

Bowmann is aware that there is resistance to the more phonics-oriented Open Court, but he witnessed its effectiveness at Thomas Johnson and doesn't need convincing.

"Open Court is an excellent program," he says, "with a lot of thought behind it and a great deal of integrity. I want to make sure we're implementing it with its design intact. ... Teachers can't just put their own spin on it."

Bowmann asks, "What do we do for those kids in schools without libraries? It's maybe half of the schools with how many students? Maybe 50,000?"

To address that problem, Bowmann says he'd like to put "leveled readers" in every classroom. These are books divided into levels by reading abilities, so that even the weakest readers have something to read, and children can progress to more difficult reading as time goes by. An import from Philadelphia called the 100 Book Challenge is Bowmann's model.

But it's expensive. Bowmann says he could do the job in Baltimore for $3.5 million, but he doesn't sound optimistic.

The all-day kindergarten was a large part of his success at Thomas Johnson, Bowmann says. "What [it] does is take things off the plates of third-, second- and first-grade teachers. It's phenomenal."

But if leveled readers are expensive, all-day kindergartens are really expensive and require more state aid at a time when the economy is cooling.

One of the chief functions of a reading director is to involve parents, businesspeople and the public in the literacy effort - in short, to do public relations for reading. The new Baltimore office is patterned in part on one in Houston, where Superintendent Rod Paige, now U.S. Secretary of Education, appointed a cabinet-level reading czarina, Phyllis Hunter, whose duties included mobilizing public opinion behind reading.

Hunter put leaflets in every school promoting the importance of reading and explaining the reading program in each grade and the system's expectations of parents.

Bowmann doesn't have quite that visibility - he reports to the chief academic officer, Cassandra W. Jones - but when he gets around to glad-handing on behalf of literacy, his personality should make him a natural.

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