Last year, the Philadelphia fifth-grader was in special education for his emotional problems and a grade behind in reading. In one year, he jumped three grade levels in reading and was placed in the middle school gifted class.
What made the difference, say Philadelphia school officials, was a reading program that's hardly fancy or complicated. It fills classrooms with books, assesses and monitors each child's ability, and lets students choose books for regular periods of pleasure reading.
This fall, the 100 Book Challenge is coming to 10 Baltimore elementary schools with a $130,000 grant from the Abell Foundation. The effort will stock classrooms with rotating libraries of 25,920 books, each color-coded to match children's ability.
"When you give kids freedom, choice, power and belonging, reading isn't the field of battle anymore," said Jane Hileman, the Philadelphia reading expert who created the program.
The program calls for 30 minutes a day of pleasure reading at school and 30 minutes at home. The goal is to read at least 100 books in a semester. Toward that end, teachers log children's achievement on a big chart and celebrate their milestones.
The project, which began in 1996, has produced some dramatic results at poor, inner-city schools in Philadelphia, and is now operating in at least some classrooms in 62 schools. At General Phillip Kearny Elementary, where more than 90 percent of students receive subsidized lunches, the percentage of students who tested at or above grade level in reading more than doubled in a year, from 21 percent to 44 percent.
At Robert Morris Elementary, where more than 95 percent of students receive subsidized lunches, average test scores nearly doubled in a year, from 24 percent to 43 percent at or above grade level.
The Abell Foundation hopes to repeat those successes in Baltimore, where only 22 of the 123 elementary schools have a full-time librarian and many children have few opportunities to read for fun and develop an appreciation for reading, said Bonnie Legro, program officer for education at the nonprofit foundation.
"The whole idea is that practice makes perfect," Legro said. "You can teach the mechanics, the how-to of reading, but if the kids don't have the chance to practice, they'll never get the fluency they need to become good readers. Also, a big part of loving to read is having a choice."
Ten schools were selected for the project: Belmont, Calvin Rodwell, Cecil, Curtis Bay, Eutaw-Marshburn, George Washington, Holabird, Mary E. Rodman, Medfield Heights and Patapsco elementaries. George Washington will pay for the program on its own.
Marcia Moore, who is coordinating the project at Mary E. Rodman Elementary School in West Baltimore, watched the program in action in Philadelphia last week and saw determined, well-behaved and enthusiastic readers, some of whom asked her to let them read to her.
The Baltimore school, where three-quarters of the children live below the poverty line, has so few books that it can't risk letting children take them home. Most parents don't take their children to the public library, Moore said.
"Right now, our kids don't see books as something fun. They see reading as tedious. They don't see their parents reading. With this program we can at least promote books as being a priority."
Pub Date: 6/02/98