Educator knows families are key to kids' success

Teacher: Mary Ruth Higgs makes a point of involving parents in their first-graders' reading education.

October 21, 2001|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

GREENSBORO - First-grader Hanna Booth won't turn 6 for another week or so, but she's already read 80 books, carefully charting their titles and authors on a daily log pasted in a file folder - work she knows will bring a treat from her teacher, Mary Ruth Higgs.

Quickly rattling off the titles she's read on her own or with her parents each night since classes began at Greensboro Elementary School in rural Caroline County, Hanna clutches her latest favorite: Thumbelina.

"I like to read a lot of books so I can practice," Hanna says. "I read the most books because I wanted to get a brand-new book. We all read books, and our moms and dads read sometimes."

And that, says Higgs, is the idea behind two complementary reading programs she developed with her five-member first-grade team - work that won her recognition as Caroline County's top teacher in the recent Maryland Teacher of the Year competition.

"This is not about reading; it's about building something with parents and creating a love of reading the kids will take with them in life," Higgs says. "We're teaching the parents how to work with their kids, and the kids get a huge benefit from that contact with parents."

In her "book-check" program, pupils take books home and keep a record of the ones they read. The second program is called "shared reading" - pupils read to their classmates twice a month.

Higgs is among several of the state's best classroom professionals who have made reading and related activities a central part of their educational mission and were named as semi-finalists in this year's statewide competition.

Others recognized in their counties include Hillary Sandberg, a third-grade teacher at Ilchester Elementary School in Howard County; Maurice V. Parker, an eighth-grade social studies teacher at Nicholas Orem Middle School in Prince George's County; and Pamela Rubisch, a library media specialist at Conococheague Elementary in Washington County.

This year's Maryland Teacher of the Year is Linda Eberhart, a fourth- and fifth-grade math and science teacher at Mount Royal School in Baltimore.

An early emphasis on reading and involving parents is crucial at Greensboro, which faces the challenge of educating many children from low-income families.

A growing number of Hispanic families have moved to Caroline in recent years, drawn by jobs in the Eastern Shore's poultry industry. Three years ago, the school system began a family literacy program called Even Start for Spanish-speaking children and adults at the Greensboro school, where 10 percent of the pupils are Hispanic.

"We have a lot of poor families, single-parent families, families where the parents work shift work - if you're poor, you take what's available," says Principal Debra Chance, who said that 51 percent of the school's 711 pupils qualify for reduced-price or free lunches. "Because of the home environment many of our children have, you need to do everything possible to involve parents. That home connection is really important."

Higgs, who begins the school year with a seminar to outline the reading programs to parents, credits Chance with pushing a similar strategy throughout the school.

Higgs, a 20-year veteran who took off 10 years to care for her developmentally disabled son, is noted by co-workers for her seemingly infinite patience with the children. She prides herself on working well with some of the school's lowest-performing pupils.

"I think the book-check works well because you have the full range of abilities in a classroom - [from] kids who are just learning their letters and reading picture books to highly able readers who are already into chapter books," says Higgs.

In addition to the daily book-check program, which comes with a set of stickers, stars and other small rewards, the 21 pupils in Higgs' class are expected to sign up twice a month to read to their classmates. Although the children have been taught to be polite, Higgs says they can be a tough audience for pupils who aren't prepared.

"Everybody knows it's their job to prepare, and the other kids will definitely let them know about it if they don't," says Higgs. "They take all this very seriously, and they're so proud when they do well."

Noted for scavenging yard sales, thrift shops and discount stores for children's books, Higgs has amassed a mini-library of battered but beloved books for her pupils. Last year, she let each child choose a book to take home for the summer. All but three were returned by the incoming second-graders on the first day of school.

"Sometimes, people ask me what keeps me coming back every year," says Higgs. "Well, it's the kids. I love it, I really do."

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