Learning how to teach teachers

Work: Instructor Stephanie Brocato has herself become a student to learn about a new reading program to help her charges.


Monday morning through Thursday afternoon, Stephanie Brocato is the teacher, sitting in a small chair at a kid-sized table, helping first-graders at Annapolis' Georgetown East Elementary School work through brightly illustrated books and writing exercises.

Thursday evening and Friday, she is the student, learning about an intensive reading skills program and earning graduate credits at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania through a $10,000 scholarship awarded by a private foundation to promote reading education.

Evenings and weekends are spent reading textbooks, writing papers and trying to fit in a personal life.

It is a lot to juggle, but at the end of the year, the 28-year-old from Annapolis will be fully trained to teach children in the Reading Recovery program, which uses personalized lessons to help the most challenged pupils learn basic reading skills. She also will train other teachers to do the same.

"It was a great opportunity," Brocato says. "I have seen the success that children have had" with the program. She was attracted to "one-on-one time with the students and really getting to know them. ... In a public school, one-on-one is incredible."

Bonnie Schmeltz, principal at Germantown Elementary, where Brocato used to teach, was sad to see her go, but says Brocato "has so much to offer to a county system." Brocato, she says, shows "a genuine love and caring concern."

Says Georgetown East Principal Susan Errichiello: "She is a natural teacher. She loves kids and she has so much respect for them."

That ability to connect with pupils is important in Reading Recovery, where individualized instruction is a key. The program helps first-graders who have reading difficulties - usually the bottom 20 percent to 30 percent of the class - develop basic skills that will allow them to keep up with their classmates during the year and in higher grades.

Pupils receive five half-hour sessions a week for 12 to 20 weeks in which they read simple books that gradually introduce more words and more complex sentences. Children and instructors write sentences together, work with letters and talk about ways to figure out words. Daily homework involves the pupils reading their classroom books with their parents and taking home words on paper to reconstruct into sentences they learned that day.

Reading Recovery was developed in New Zealand and implemented in the first schools in the United States in 1983. Anne Arundel County schools first implemented the program in the 1995-1996 school year. Anne Arundel County has 68 Reading Recovery teachers in 22 schools. Each of those schools receives federal funds through the Title 1 program for communities with high poverty levels.

Brocato has always been interested in working with children, and her desire to teach solidified in high school when she worked with 3- and 4-year-olds in a class on child development.

She earned her bachelor's degree in child development and her master's degree in reading at Towson University. She taught kindergarten at Germantown Elementary for five years and learned strategies for teaching basic reading skills as she implemented the countywide Literacy Collaborative program in her classroom. Last year she taught first grade at Germantown.

Co-workers and administrators believe Brocato has the talent to complement her desire to work with children.

Priscilla Ward has been teaching pre-kindergarten at Germantown for 10 years, and she feels protective of her pupils when they move to kindergarten. On Brocato's first day, Ward watched the way she crouched down and talked to a child who was upset.

"Immediately, I felt completely at ease about my kids," Ward said. "She is constantly looking for answers, for ways to make something work, to reach a child."

Such determination is important at a school such as Germantown where many children are considered at risk of having learning difficulties and where many are Spanish-speaking.

Brocato's ability to connect with adults also is an asset as she prepares to train other teachers.

"She really treats everybody the same. [She has] the same respect for 5-year-olds and for adults," Ward says. The Goizueta Foundation, a supporter of Reading Recovery and other education initiatives across the United States, thought Brocato was well-suited for the program. It gave her the $10,000 scholarship to cover her training costs, one of five awarded nationally for this year. Brocato is the youngest student in her training class. But she sees this time in her life -when she is not married and has no children - as a good time to take on the added work, including driving to Pennsylvania and staying overnight every Thursday.

She plans to work as an instructor and a teacher trainer for several years, which includes leading local classes for Reading Recovery teachers once a week. Someday, she might like to teach college undergraduates, although she says it is hard to imagine not working with children.

That is something that requires patience and enthusiasm, Errichiello says. Brocato knows what the children should be doing, says the principal, and "she charms them into it."

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