14 schools going back to math, reading basics

Superintendent targets low-scoring elementaries

Anne Arundel

August 08, 2002|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County Superintendent Eric J. Smith is implementing back-to-basics reading and math programs in 14 sub-par elementary schools - and he says that's just the beginning.

The phonics-based Open Court reading series and the Saxon math program are to be in place at 14 schools when classes begin Aug. 27. Both programs have raised test scores in urban school districts across the country, including Baltimore.

"They have absolutely turned schools around," Smith said this week. "They're grounded in some basic beliefs about how teaching should occur ... with a grounding in phonics and understanding of math at the basic level."

Smith said he hopes to expand Open Court to other county schools when the school system can afford it. Implementation in the 14 schools this fall is costing $606,977.

"My expectation is that you'll see an expansion of Open Court over the coming years," Smith said. He's not sure whether the Saxon math program - which is costing $240,933 to implement - will be expanded. He said he needs more time to evaluate the county's math curriculum.

In his previous job as superintendent in Charlotte, N.C., he implemented a uniform curriculum across all schools. Some in Anne Arundel County see this plan as the first step toward that.

"It sounds like it," said Sheila Finlayson, president of the county's teachers association. "From what his reputation indicates, that's his style."

Nine of the 14 schools implementing the programs are in Annapolis, where officials are looking to spend a $1 million Challenge Grant from the state to boost performance. Children there frequently move between schools, and a uniform curriculum will keep them on track, Smith said.

The other five schools, all in the northern part of the county, were chosen for their low test scores and high percentages of low-income pupils. "There's really a need to - and I think they have the ability to - make some very strong improvement in those schools," Smith said.

The Open Court reading series is a return to the traditional phonics-oriented instruction that teaches children to break words down into their letters and sounds.

The program has been embraced by reading experts nationwide, and Anne Arundel officials are convinced it will work for them, too.

"To have the requisite skills for reading, students really need the ability to hear and identify individual sounds in words, which will enable them to decode the words," said Ruth Bowman, the county's reading coordinator.

The Saxon math program relies on drills and repetition to reinforce basic math skills. It is something of a departure from the way math is now taught in county schools - a mix of drills and problem-solving that varies from school to school.

Saxon "is more drills and practice," said Anita Morris, the county's math coordinator. "After you teach something with direct instruction, you cycle back and keep going through it so the kids won't forget."

Both reading and math programs are heavily scripted - the Saxon program even tells teachers what to say when presenting the material to the class - and that has some teachers worried.

"One train of thought says that everybody should be on the same page at the same time on the same day, and in education, that's not very feasible," said Finlayson, a 28-year classroom veteran. "Every child doesn't learn at the same rate."

Finlayson was also concerned about the training teachers would receive before school starts - two days' worth.

"These teachers are going to be held accountable for the success of the program, and they need to be prepared for that," Finlayson said. Officials said teachers would receive additional training throughout the year.

The Baltimore school system began Open Court for kindergarten through second grade four years ago, and officials credit it with the increase in reading scores since then.

"We have been very pleased with the results of Open Court," said Tom Bowmann, the city's director of elementary curriculum and instruction.

"Its strength lies in the explicit teaching of phonics, and for our students in their particular situation, where they may not have developed sound-symbol relationships prior to entering school, the Open Court program does specifically teach that."

Schools affected

Back-to-basics reading and math programs will be implemented this fall at these elementary schools:

Annapolis

Belle Grove

Eastport

Freetown

Georgetown East

Germantown

Harman

Hillsmere

Hilltop

Mills-Parole

Rolling Knolls

Tyler Heights

Van Bokkelen

West Annapolis

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