Schools must reach fast, slow learners


This is one side of a coin:

Im ashamed to show my vocabulary words to my friends in private school; the words are too easy.

This is the other side:

My child always had trouble reading. Now hes finally making progress but the reading program thats helped him is about to end.

Top or bottom, it doesnt matter. The need is everywhere, and county school systems must meet them.

School systems must look out for children who master their work so quickly that they spend large periods of time counting dots in the ceiling -- as one Anne Arundel student recently testified that he does too often to stave off boredom.

And schools must lift those whose reading skills lag behind their peers, causing them to struggle in other subjects.

But how? How can a classroom teacher keep students at both ends of the learning curve engaged and stimulated? Thats the continuing challenge for teachers in Anne Arundel County and every other school system.

The Anne Arundel County school board recently heard a disturbing complaint from a parent who now home-schools her children. She withdrew them from county schools, she said, because lessons were not challenging enough -- and sometimes were wrong -- and a teacher was insensitive to her concerns.

The parents comments came during a public hearing on the Arundel systems operating and capital budgets. A number of parents and their children asked the board for more gifted and talented program services.

The county is gradually restoring the accelerated program, which fell to the countys budget axe two years ago, but this is a watered-down version. Eighteen resource teachers spread themselves among the countys 76 elementary and 18 middle schools. Thats roughly one resource specialist for every five schools. This model requires every classroom teacher to become a gifted and talented instructor for students who need more challenges.

The newly-formed Gifted and Talented Association offered the board some interesting suggestions that deserve discussion and consideration. Teachers need training from qualified professionals if school officials expect them to accommodate gifted students.

Schools should be superstores of knowledge, where children can acquire as much of it as they desire.

That doesnt necessarily mean segregation from their classmates, although it could at times.

Dr. Benjamin Carson, the world-renowned Johns Hopkins University surgeon, makes me skeptical about rigid tracking, which implies that fast first-graders will always become fast high-school seniors and slow first-graders will be lucky to graduate.

Dr. Carsons inspirational autobiography Gifted Hands recounts the story of a child who was the worst student in his fifth-grade class.

He wrote: --the fifth graders that I joined could outdo me in every subject. To my amazement, I didnt understand anything that was going on. I had no competition for the bottom of the class.

Classmates taunted him, called him dummy. He was lucky to have a pushy mother who shut off the television and forced him and his brother to spend their playtime at the library. The compulsory reading raised his grades and his self-esteem.

Had he been intractably placed into a low grouping, the world probably would have been denied one of its most brilliant medical professionals.

So while schools must push kids who sprint from the starting blocks, they must also help the Ben Carsons in the rough.

That is why the Reading Recovery program cannot be taken lightly. The school board heard emotional testimony from parents who pleaded with them to retain the program. One mother said her first-grader had been unable to read and had trouble mastering the alphabet before Reading Recovery. She testified that the program has brought her son up to grade level in months. Reading Recovery consists of 60 lessons during which students read familiar books. The approach combines whole language and phonics.

Vera M. McCullough, a 12-year volunteer at Brooklyn Park Elementary, is concerned that the school board will no longer fund the program there. In a recent letter to The Suns editorial department, she makes a passionate appeal for continued funding.

Before the program, she said, I was always appalled by the large number of students who couldnt do their assigned work in the (computer) lab because they couldnt read. For the past 2 1/2 years, I have been volunteering on a daily basis. I have been coached by skilled teachers who teach reading in this program -- I have seen the children eagerly follow these teachers for their one-on-one lessons. These children are learning.

The program is expensive, but the results justify the cost.

Superintendent Carol S. Parhams budget for the next fiscal year would offset possible federal budget reductions. The board should adopt her recommendation and not remove a program that could help a future surgeon hit his stride.

The teachers job is tough enough. School officials must give them the tools they need to motivate all students -- those at the top and those trying to get there.

Norris West writes editorials for The Sun from Anne Arundel County.

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