SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- The turnaround here in reading is stunning.
From 1998 to 1999, first-grade reading scores in Sacramento jumped from the 54th national percentile to the 61st. Second-graders leapt from the 35th percentile to the 50th.
And this took place in a school system in which almost two-thirds of the students come from low-income families.
For teachers such as Julie Peterson, there's no secret behind this city's newfound success in reading. "It's the instruction," says the first-grade teacher at Ethel I. Baker Elementary School. "We finally have the same plan for every teacher in every school, and we're all comfortable teaching it."
Now entering their third year with a districtwide, phonics-intensive curriculum, Sacramento and some of its adjacent communities represent the cutting edge of reading reform not just for California but for urban school systems across the country -- particularly Baltimore.
No longer are the elementary classrooms of Sacramento filled with a hodgepodge of instruction, featuring almost as many reading programs as there are teachers. Instead, teachers across the city are on the same page, trained to use techniques supported by the latest research into reading.
"We're showing that with good instruction, it's possible to teach even poor children to read," says Norm Tanaka, principal of Thomas Jefferson Elementary, one of Sacramento's top performing elementaries despite the fact that about 60 percent of its pupils come from low-income families, about the same proportion as for the city.
Hope in Baltimore
Like Sacramento's elementary schools, almost all of Baltimore's 120 elementary schools are using the Open Court reading series, a phonics-oriented program that gives the city a similar new consistency in reading instruction.
Baltimore began Open Court a year after Sacramento. In test results released last month, Baltimore saw its biggest gains in first-grade reading achievement -- as did Sacramento after its first year working with the program.
And Baltimore educators are hoping that Sacramento's greater successes at the end of the two-year mark offer a glimpse of Baltimore's future.
"This is what we are expecting and would hope to see in Baltimore," says Betty Morgan, the city school system's chief academic officer. "After the initial year of any new instructional program, you would expect to see the real effects at the end of year two, and that's what I'm cautiously optimistic we will see."
Still, there are plenty of differences between Sacramento and Baltimore. Sacramento is less urban, has a lower concentration of poverty and is more ethnically diverse than Baltimore.
But Sacramento educators say that Baltimore's expectations are realistic. The California city has set the goal of having 90 percent of its first- and second-graders score at the 50th percentile nationally by 2001 -- a far cry from the 35th percentile they believe pupils were reading at in 1997.
"We're nowhere near where we want to be, but we're getting there," says Sharon Van Vleck, who oversees Sacramento's reading reform.
As the children who have spent their entire school career in a consistent reading program move forward, Sacramento educators believe the system's reading scores will continue to jump grade after grade.
The biggest change in Sacramento schools in the past year is that teachers are starting to feel comfortable with the new reading series -- a key factor, education researchers say, in producing test score gains.
"The first year, you're teaching every lesson with the manual tucked under your arm, almost reading along to make sure you get it right," says Karen Thomas, a first-grade teacher at Thomas Jefferson. "Now, I know what I'm doing."
Walking from Thomas' classroom to Jamie Green's first-grade classroom next door, it's obvious that the same reading program is in use. One lesson flows into the next -- practice detecting letters and sounds by changing "take" into "ake," rhyme with the song "Down by the Bay," work on writing the letters "R," "S" and "T."
On the other side of Sacramento, teachers at Baker Elementary are teaching the same lessons. The point of the district's new curriculum is for every teacher to teach the same way with the same materials.
"I can walk outside the classrooms, and all I need to do is look through the windows to see that they're all doing Open Court," says Jan Ehlers, Baker's principal.
Every child at Baker qualifies for subsidized lunches, and they're as diverse as California itself -- 30 percent white, 30 percent black, 30 percent Hispanic and 10 percent from other ethnicities, including Vietnamese and Hmong. As in most schools in neighborhoods of high poverty, pupil turnover tends to be high, with families hopping from apartment to apartment.
"Even the kids from other schools are on the same plan, so you know what they've learned and what they haven't," says second-grade teacher Angela Iskra. "It makes a huge difference with these kids, because before Open Court, we never knew what they had learned and what they hadn't."
A frequent criticism of such structured programs as Open Court is that in following a script, teachers lose their individuality. "You do lose some creativity, but there are plenty of places where you can work in your own ideas," Iskra says. "The structure makes it easier for most of us, because we know that the curriculum matches the skills we're expected to teach."
With Sacramento's big test score gains, educators across California are watching its progress, hoping the city can provide an answer to the state's reading crisis -- one that politicians and parents became aware of in the mid-1990s when they realized their children's skills ranked among the worst in the nation.
"This is what children need -- good instruction supported by research," says Marion Joseph. The grandmother from the San Francisco Bay area prompted the state's reading reform efforts when she discovered her grandson's reading problems and was named to the state school board.
Though research into the effectiveness of reading programs has not been comprehensive, Open Court's program -- back-to-basics instruction in sounds and letters coupled with longer stories for better readers -- is one of a handful that has received the most support in research.
A survey of national reading experts conducted by The Sun when the Baltimore schools chose a reading series in 1998 also found the strongest support for Open Court for early reading instruction.
Sacramento's transition to Open Court is just a part of California's effort to improve reading instruction. Over the past four years, the state's legislature and school board have passed legislation and other measures requiring more phonics in instruction and texts. And California has undertaken the largest class-size reduction in the nation, cutting the number of pupils in kindergarten through third-grade classes from more than 30 to no more than 20.
Sacramento's reading progress has been aided by an expensive effort by a private foundation to determine whether a structured curriculum such as Open Court can prove successful.
The foundation has directed millions of dollars into 54 elementaries in Sacramento and more than 150 other schools across California, affecting more than 70,000 children. In Sacramento, the extra money has meant 32 expert teachers are able to work as highly trained reading coaches with classroom teachers, giving them hands-on help every day.
"I'm here to help them with reading, and that's it," says Karen Butterfield, the reading coach at Thomas Jefferson. "We used to teach reading for just an hour of language arts. Now we're teaching it for 2 1/2 hours a day. That means teachers need help with their planning and with finding ways to keep it interesting for children."
The extra money, reading coaches and teacher training make comparisons to other school systems such as Baltimore difficult -- Baltimore's teachers do not have that extra support.
"We're doing the best we can helping in Baltimore, but there's no substitute for hands-on coaching," says Mary McAdoo, an Open Court consultant who helped Sacramento set up its program and works with Baltimore's schools.
Baltimore's chief academic officer remains confident that programs begun in the past year to aid new teachers will provide the necessary support for the city's reading reform.
"We have mentor teachers, instructional support teachers and master teachers in many of our schools," Morgan says.
"As we increasingly give a message to everyone that all of our focus should be on student achievement, I think that all of them will become reading coaches, too."
Sacramento test scores
Total reading score on the Stanford Achievement Test, Ninth Edition, reported in national percentile rank.
First grade 54 61
Second grade 35 50
Third grade 29 37
SOURCE: Sacramento City Unified School District