Below-level pupils closing learning gap with individual plans

One-quarter of boys, girls benefit, report says

`So encouraged by these results'

Howard County

August 23, 2002|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

Two years after Howard County schools Superintendent John R. O'Rourke demanded a plan be put in place for every one of the district's third-graders who was behind in reading or math, teachers have produced data to show system officials whether O'Rourke's big idea made a difference.

The verdict: For about 25 percent of them, at least, it did.

A report released to the Howard Board of Education last night showed that of 597 third-graders who were reading below grade level during the 2000-2001 school year, 28 percent of girls had moved up to fourth-grade level by the end of this year, and 1 percent were reading above fourth-grade level.

And 23 percent of the boys in that third-grade group who were reading below grade level had moved up to fourth-grade reading level, and 3 percent of boys were reading above the fourth-grade level.

The children were all in fourth grade this past school year.

Of 323 third-graders who were performing below grade level in math, 31 percent of girls moved up to grade level, and 2 percent were above; 33 percent of boys accelerated on to grade level and 1 percent moved beyond the fourth-grade level.

Any way you break down the progress, said Marie DeAngelis, the system's director of elementary curricular programs - whether by race, or by income level - every group has moved at least 24 percent.

"We are so encouraged by these results," DeAngelis said. "And we know that the gains will continue to increase."

Moving a quarter of the system's struggling students might not seem on its face like a huge success, officials acknowledge, but considering the short amount of time teachers have been using O'Rourke's mandated Student Support Plans, that slice represents a real victory.

"Twenty-five percent is a milestone," said Assistant Superintendent Roger L. Plunkett, "and shows consistent improvement among all sub-groups. For one year's growth, 25 percent is significant and sets us on the path of excellence for all students."

The plans - individual documents that include teacher observations, a list of ongoing interventions and a pupil learner profile, which gives teachers a better idea of how each child is motivated to learn - have been expanded to all struggling pupils in every elementary and middle school.

On such a large scale, officials said, more gains should be reported, and more quickly.

"Consider what we're now putting into place," said Leslie Wilson, the system's testing director. "They get these [support plans] now in first grade. They're not as far behind in first grade and it doesn't take them as long to get back on track."

And because the plans follow pupils from year to year, the cumulative effects should be evident earlier, she said.

"Then all we'll have to do is do what we can to keep them on grade level," Wilson said.

The data in the report do not indicate how many children who were several years below grade level have been accelerated two or three years (or more) but are not quite on grade level yet, DeAngelis said. Those numbers would be even more impressive, Plunkett added.

When school begins Monday, support plans will be used for the first time in the county's high schools, Plunkett said, in an effort to reach the older students as well.

The plans are not just a success for the students, he said. At the barbershop one afternoon, Plunkett said he overheard two parents discussing student support plans in glowing terms.

"You get a real good picture of each individual child, of who they are and what they need," said Ruth Barth, a third-grade teacher at Stevens Forest Elementary School, "and it gets passed on through the years. You can see what works and what didn't work, and you can get an idea of what you need to modify."

Peggy Higgs, a third-grade teacher at Stevens Forest with 32 years of experience, said more human support and smaller class sizes are needed to implement the time-consuming plans to their fullest potential, but she lauded their effects, so far.

"We've seen a lot of trends," Higgs said. "This is a very valid way of helping kids, I think, if the concept is followed. Let's hope it's not [just] a trend."

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