Story time is drill time

The Education Beat

Instruction: Frederick Elementary School in Baltimore sets aside time each week to stop, drop, and read in preparation for state tests.

January 05, 2003|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

FRIDAY'S OPENING exercises at Frederick Elementary School were short and to the point.

Librarian Terry Williams announced over the intercom that it was 8:05 and time for DEAR: "Drop Everything And Read." Williams then played a Haydn tape - "a little something soft," she whispered - and every adult and child in the Southwest Baltimore school curled up with a book for 15 minutes.

I settled atop a child's chair in Heather Boles' first-grade classroom, where kids sprawled out on the carpet or sat at their desks. Latecomers chose from a book cart in the cafeteria and read with lunch workers. Any pose would do. The purpose of DEAR, said Principal Carolyn Cole, is to demonstrate that reading isn't a chore and that adults enjoy it as well as children.

Forewarned about the weekly exercise, I brought a novel I'd been trying to finish. But my real purpose was to see what's new in reading this year in city schools.

I didn't see any slackening at Frederick, which devotes the entire morning each school day to the language arts, primarily reading. Every first-grader in Boles' 15-pupil class goes through a carefully orchestrated sequence, beginning with 20 minutes of phonics and including instruction in small groups, writing exercises and work on comprehension. Understanding is the bedrock of reading.

Reading in Ametria Smith's second grade class is, of course, more advanced. Her kids were reading a story from the Houghton Mifflin series. If a child had trouble with a word, Smith's advice was to "sound it out." Key words were posted on the busy walls: blinked, squinted, sharp, lenses.

Smith was anticipating the new Maryland state tests, now only two months away. "Where can you always find the answers? In the ... "

"Story!" shouted the children in unison. "That's right," Smith said. "You can always go back and find them in the story."

Michelle Johnson's third-graders - and those all over Baltimore, where Houghton Mifflin is the standard program for the upper elementary grades - were reading about disasters, specifically an article about the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.

"Can you imagine Baltimore being on fire for three days and three nights?" Johnson asked. The children were wide-eyed. It was the perfect place for a little work on predicting and inferring. "What do you think the rest of the article is about?"

On the wall was a poster from the late and not much lamented Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, reminding kids to "compare," "create," "proofread," "persuade."

What's new at Frederick and all other city elementary schools is a reading coach who, along with a math coach, helps the teachers with strategies and "professional development." Frederick's coach, Lendora Cleveland, said she has a three-page list of duties and responsibilities.

"A lot of it is demonstrating and modeling for new teachers," said Cleveland, a veteran teacher raised in Edmondson Village. Along with 300 other coaches, she goes for professional development every Friday.

Apparently, not a lot of thought was given to the expense of hiring the coaches, so some or all might have to be let go in the system's budget crisis. But that doesn't stop Cleveland from throwing herself into the job. It's always like that in Baltimore. While North Avenue churns, those in the trenches do the only thing they can do: their jobs.

Reading and math teachers at Frederick said they're excited about MSPAP's successor, due to be given in March but still mostly a mystery. Although it will require short written answers, much of the test will be fill-in-the-bubbles.

"I hope we get more than a teaspoonful of preparation for this test," said Cole, the Frederick principal, as she showed off the plaque that came with a $9,000 State Education Department bonus for excellent MSPAP results. "Some of the other districts in Maryland, I suspect, will get bucketsful."

Outside Cole's office was a stack of unopened boxes from the schoolbook publisher Scott Foresman (the same company that brought us Dick and Jane a half-century ago).

Beginning next week, Frederick will be one of the schools "piloting" the reading programs competing to succeed Houghton Mifflin and Open Court (the program mostly used for beginning reading) after a five-year run.

Each contender will get a month's trial smack in the middle of the school year. What can be learned in 20 school days about a complex reading program? "The real question is whether five years is enough," said Cleveland, referring to steadily rising test scores under Houghton Mifflin and Open Court.

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