City middle school has rare way to aid reading skills; Baltimore principal enlists specialists to solve problem


On the second floor of Canton Middle School, in a classroom adorned with posters proclaiming the most elementary rules of reading, Liz Harris fights a daily battle to make readers of preteen illiterates.

Her sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders look more like young adults than children, but their reading skills are no better than the average third- or fourth-grader's. Principal Craig Spilman has test data that suggest 80 percent of this year's sixth-graders read below third-grade level in September. About 50 percent of last year's sixth-graders showed up at Canton with similarly dismal reading skills.

They are pupils who are easily baffled by words such as "request" and "minus." And even when they manage to sound out unfamiliar words, chances are they don't know what they mean.

"These kids were shortchanged in elementary school," says Harris. "Ideally, they would have learned all of this before the fifth grade. But that's the ideal. This is the reality."

At Canton, these nonreaders get help, thanks to teachers such as Harris, a reading specialist with more than 20 years' experience. Spilman hired Harris and three other reading specialists last year as part of a schoolwide effort to boost basic reading skills.

Canton is the exception in that regard. At most other middle schools across Baltimore, where the average sixth-grader is reading about two years behind grade level, reading specialists, phonics books or basic reading classes are nearly as rare as diamonds.

With one in 15 city eighth-graders passing the state reading exam, some school officials are saying they will examine the middle school curriculum, and approaches such as Canton's might become more common throughout the city.

"I think reading is a major issue in the middle schools," says Betty Morgan, the district's chief academic officer since late last fall. Middle schools had reading specialists and a reading curriculum about a decade ago, and it might be time to replenish those resources systemwide, she says.

Morgan said many children who aren't reading in middle school might have dyslexia or other disabilities, and the district might need to adopt programs to deal with those problems.

"We need to look at a variety of strategies," Morgan says. To boost miserable reading scores in the early elementary grades, the school board has added teachers and new materials. But in later elementary grades and middle schools, the board decided early last year that an emphasis on literature would be better.

That strategy was begun in the schools last September. Shortly thereafter, officials started to wonder if it was a mistake.

At Canton, Spilman says, he and his staff have had to think outside the constraints of traditional middle school philosophy to address their pupils' needs. "We really don't have a blueprint for what we're doing because, as middle school teachers, we were never expected to be reading specialists," he says. "But our philosophy here is not to make excuses. We had to do something."

Spilman has thrown every available resource at his school's reading problem.

Starting in the 1996-1997 academic year, his efforts to assign all teachers -- even math, science and social studies instructors -- to teach reading led to some improvement in the students' writing, but not in their reading.

So he hired Harris and the other reading specialists and designed a curriculum around the Wilson reading series, phonics-based textbooks originally intended for adult nonreaders.

Basic drills

In Harris' early-morning class at Canton, the drills are about the basics, not much different from what you'd find in an elementary school class.

She asks the children: Why do you say "froh-zen" instead of "frah-zen"? Why does "a" make a different sound in "Jane" than it does in "Jan"?

Five months into the school year, most of her pupils are making progress. Those who were nonreaders are beginning to read simple words. Those who were a few years behind in September are moving toward grade level. But 20 minutes in Harris' classroom makes it clear how much more needs to be done.

Ronald, one of Harris' sixth-grade pupils, says "reviv" when he looks at "revive." Twelve-year-old Shanell stumbles over words such as "crisis." And Jason, a red-haired boy with a freckled face, can read "beset" after a few tries but says he has no idea what it means. He is in the eighth grade. Next year, he'll go to high school.

Spilman has special education teachers holding reading classes during free periods and will add two classes taught by aides this year. By next month, Spilman says, about 350 of his 700 pupils will have a daily reading class. Spilman has gotten the money for the added staff and new materials by shifting funds around and capitalizing on the school's Title I income, federal funds allocated to schools according to how many children live in poverty.

In September, the school district delivered new language arts anthologies to Canton and the city's other middle schools as part of a systemwide initiative. Spilman says the books -- which are full of short stories intended for middle school readers -- have sat largely unused.

"I think they might have been better off buying phonics books for all of us," Spilman says. "It's the only thing we can think of to do at this point. This is a crisis."

That crisis is no less severe at Benjamin Franklin Middle School in South Baltimore, but Principal Mary Booker says she does not have the resources to dedicate to new materials and staff that Spilman did. Her staff must make do with what it has to teach middle school children who in some cases can't read any better than third- or fourth-graders.

The "accelerated" reading classes at Benjamin Franklin comprise the minority of children who are on grade level.

"I don't have the luxury of hiring reading specialists right now," says Booker. "I'd love to. I'd love to buy materials to teach more basic reading skills. But it's just not something we can do. So we do other things."

Problems seen

Language arts teacher La-Shawn Thomas says she is using the anthologies the school system bought for middle school pupils but is augmenting them with her own more basic reading lessons.

"Some of my children just aren't at that level yet, so I have to teach word attack skills or do more with the material to make it work for them," Thomas says.

Deb Burkey taught social studies at Benjamin Franklin for five years before switching to language arts this year. Over the summer, she took a class on teaching reading and says she sees her pupils' problems more clearly.

Burkey says she works with the children on reading context to figure out what words mean and looking at pre-reading clues, such as titles and headlines, to draw more meaning out of what they read.

But with the pupils she has at the third- or fourth-grade reading level, she says, the challenge is much greater. She must read with them to make sure they get through selections, and she must get materials other than the middle-school anthologies -- newspaper and magazine articles, selections she rewrites for their level -- to reach these pupils. "It would definitely help to have more basic reading materials," Burkey says. "Anything more would help."

Combined school

At Barclay Elementary-Middle in Charles Village, Principal David Clapp says his school's kindergarten-through-eighth-grade structure and rigid reading program in the early grades have helped prevent some of the reading problems found in other middle schools.

Barclay has used the Calvert curriculum since the early 1990s and has had higher scores on almost every test taken in the city.

"With Calvert, reading is a fundamental piece of the curriculum all the way up through fifth grade," Clapp says. "And because we have the kids after they leave fifth grade, we're able to see how they do in middle school and adjust our elementary curriculum accordingly. Our middle school teachers think nothing of going to the third- or fourth-grade teachers to talk about the tendencies they're seeing. Then they can work together to change it."

Clapp says that structure might make sense for other middle schools in the district. "I think it's too hard if you're the middle school and you're getting kids who are four or five years behind," he says.

He says Barclay's middle school teachers often face that predicament with children transferring into the school in fifth or sixth grade.

"You're just dealt a hand at that point, and you have to play it. It's very difficult to reach children at that point. If you can get them earlier, it's easier. And if you have the middle school and elementary school teachers work together, it's a lot easier," says Clapp.

Easy or not, Canton's Spilman and his staff say city schools must do better by their children.

"The crime is that these children are teachable," says Nina Parrish, who directs Canton's reading efforts. "They want to read. And they just beg you to teach them to read. They deserve that much, I think."

Pub Date: 1/17/99

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