Arundel schools chief adopts reading plan

Open Court curriculum would cost over $8 million

January 12, 2003|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County teachers and principals are bracing for Superintendent Eric J. Smith's plan to spend more than $8 million on a phonics-heavy reading curriculum for elementary schools next year.

Buying the Open Court reading series would be Smith's most costly initiative since taking over as superintendent. If approved by the school board and County Council, it would come during a year of fiscal belt-tightening by school officials, who have proposed nearly $13 million in cuts, including building maintenance and teacher support programs.

A strong elementary reading curriculum is part of Smith's pledge to improve instruction countywide. Open Court, published by SRA/McGraw-Hill, has been praised by reading experts nationwide and is credited with raising test scores in school systems that use it, including Baltimore's, which implemented it in kindergarten through second grade in 1998.

"Reading is absolutely essential for everything else we do in the school system," Smith said. "It provides just an incredible foundation for launching students into their further studies."

Many principals and teachers say they are looking forward to the new curriculum.

"I just feel really good about it," said Patricia Nalley, principal of Davidsonville Elementary. "I think that teachers who are new to teaching will find ... the program is well-designed for teachers to really be trained to be good reading teachers."

Others say they have some reservations about the change, including concerns that the program leaves teachers too little flexibility, although they intend to follow the superintendent's directives.

County schools currently use a combination of commercial reading packages -- similar to Open Court's, but they lack a phonics component -- and a phonics curriculum written by the school system.

Smith said the current reading instruction does not provide a solid grounding in the building blocks of reading.

"Some kids can survive it, but you have a lot of kids that get lost," he said.

Shortly after his arrival in July, Smith began Open Court at 14 struggling schools in Annapolis and the northern parts of the county, at a cost of about $600,000. Bringing the curriculum to the rest of the county's 77 schools will cost $7.7 million in texts and materials and $740,000 in teacher training, according to school officials.

The program, which Smith plans to use in kindergarten through fifth grade, places an emphasis on making children aware of books and teaching them phonics --recognizing the sounds that letters represent -- in the early grades. As children get older, phonics instruction gradually is supplanted by a focus on reading comprehension and learning through research.

Classroom packages include handbooks and daily lesson plans for teachers; flash cards, hand puppets and large-print "big books" used to demonstrate book-reading behaviors; and reading texts of increasing difficulty, beginning with story pamphlets that pupils may take home.

Rose Tasker, principal of Van Bokkelen Elementary -- one of the 14 schools that started using Open Court last fall -- said some of her staff initially did not want to make the switch. "But, today, it's a different story," Tasker said.

Teachers at the school have found that the program, which gives step-by-step instructions on how to deliver the curriculum, makes their work easier, she said. They don't have to write their own lessons or assemble materials, because the program provides everything, she said.

Tasker said Open Court has changed the atmosphere of the Severn school, which had been threatened with state takeover because of poor test scores.

"It's almost unbelievable to me," Tasker said. "When I walk through the school, the children are engaged. They are focused. The teachers are teaching, and [pupils] are listening and following the directions of the teacher."

Most Van Bokkelen pupils are doing well, according to Open Court's built-in evaluations, said Tasker, who keeps a large chart in her office that maps the reading performance of every child in the school. But the principal is not going to declare success yet. She is waiting to see how the pupils will do on state assessments in March.

The program has scored points among some parents. Eugene Bentley Jr. said the curriculum has eased his fears that his son, a first-grader at Van Bokkelen, would be at a disadvantage in school because of a speech impediment. But he said his son has learned to read at the third-grade level since starting Open Court last fall.

"I think the program works," Bentley told Smith during a visit by the superintendent to the school last week. "It made [my son] excel. I sit down and read with him, and it just amazes me."

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