Voucher program put to the test in Florida this year; Experiment: As part of the nation's first statewide school voucher program, 137 Florida students are attending private, parochial or better-rated public schools.


PENSACOLA, Fla. -- Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has riled the church-state separatists and pleased the school choice proponents with the nation's first statewide school voucher program.

Armed with taxpayer-paid "scholarships" worth about $3,400 each, 57 pioneers in the program are getting a taste this fall of private and parochial education in four Roman Catholic schools and one Montessori school in this Gulf Coast city.

Eighty students are using vouchers to transfer from two public schools rated "F" by the state testing program to other Pensacola public schools rated "C" or higher.

I put the three choices -- private, parochial and public -- to a reading test. I asked parents and officials in all three sectors about their respective reading curricula. How much time do they devote to the first "R"? At what grade level do they place the most reading emphasis, and when do they begin phonics instruction?

The shades of difference, I found, are pretty much as they are in Baltimore -- negligible -- except that Pensacola has yet to move to a uniform textbook series for elementary grades.

For years, schools in Pensacola have been free to choose among reading curricula. That's expected to change soon, said Laura Colo, the district reading specialist. Schools likely will be allowed to select from among two or three programs.

In the low-performing schools, Direct Instruction is the order of the day. That's the heavily scripted, phonics-based program used by 17 Baltimore schools, the largest block of schools exempted from the city's Open Court and Houghton Mifflin textbook programs.

"[Direct Instruction] is excellent for our children who need structure," said Annette McArthur, the Pensacola district's director of elementary education. "It's phonics-based, and every fifth lesson there's an assessment. It's hard for children to fall through the cracks."

Pensacola public schools have joined what appears to be a nationwide movement in devoting 90 minutes each morning to uninterrupted reading instruction. Some schools also devote 60 minutes to writing and another 60 to mathematics.

There's no question that schools here -- and elsewhere in Florida -- are heavily emphasizing reading, writing and math because these are the three skills assessed statewide to determine eligibility for vouchers.

"The voucher program has come at the expense of science and the arts," complained Pensacola Superintendent Jim May. "It's important that children be able to play a musical instrument and be in the band. We're losing that."

Direct Instruction and the Montessori method have one thing in common: They begin reading instruction with phonics -- instruction in letters and the sounds they make.

But there the two methods diverge. Maria Montessori's 92-year-old system emphasizes training of the senses -- all of them -- and privileges teacher guidance over teacher control.

Children work alone or in small groups, seldom in a large class. They are introduced to the alphabet by feeling the letters on sandpaper boards while they speak the sounds the letters make. Instruction moves from simple to complex, from the concrete to the abstract.

A Montessori classroom is a riot of color and a beehive of activity. Some of the four voucher students new to Montessori Early School in Pensacola this fall have had trouble adjusting. But they will come around, predicted Maria Mitkevicius, co-proprietor of the school. "I've been teaching 25 or 26 years, and I've never had a child who didn't learn to read."

Mitkevicius says the goal, and the ultimate joy for Montessori teachers, is the child's "explosion into reading, the moment when all of the pieces you've given him come together in his brain."

The third choice for voucher recipients is a Catholic school. Mary E. Smith, 42, won vouchers for her niece, Angela Atwood, 10, and nephew Antonio Hale, 6, to attend St. John the Evangelist Catholic School, and she said the experience has been good for the children.

In Pensacola, pupils in the Catholic primary grades spend 650 minutes a week -- more than two hours a day -- in reading instruction, according to Sister Mary Caplice, the diocesan superintendent.

Reading curriculum isn't dictated by her office, Caplice said. Each school's parents, teachers and pupils make the selections. Caplice said three commercial reading textbooks dominate in the county's parochial schools, including Open Court, the program used in Baltimore's primary grades.

Children in Pensacola's Catholic kindergartens are learning their letters, one by one, taking them home and discussing their sounds with parents, even if the children can't read.

Time will tell whether the vouchers pay off educationally. The voucher children will be tested at the schools they would have attended this fall.

Smith thanks Bush. "I put God's blessings on him," she said.

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