GAITHERSBURG -- With vaunted test scores, well-paid teachers, high-achieving parents and steady stream of Merit Scholars, the Montgomery County school system has long been the envy of much of the rest of Maryland.
But now Montgomery is earning another reputation: It is Maryland's bellwether system in reading instruction.
The school system is completing the second year of an intensive campaign to start reading instruction earlier, return phonics to the curriculum, train teachers year-round, devote more instructional time to reading and lower class size in the critical early years.
Most Maryland districts are attempting some of this; Montgomery wants to have it all.
In this rapidly growing system where the children of Cabinet secretaries and illegal immigrants sit side by side and one in four students is eligible for free lunches, educators are aiming first at 3- and 4-year-olds and concentrating on schools of highest poverty along the central corridor.
They're basing their approach on cutting-edge brain and instructional research conducted by the National Institutes of Health, based in Montgomery. The research was noted last week by Texas Gov. George W. Bush in proposing a five-year, $5 billion plan to improve reading skills of children from low-income families.
"That research tells us that if you get to these kids early, allow enough time, have a well-trained teacher and a proper class size, you can have a fundamental effect," says Jerry D. Weast, Montgomery's new superintendent.
Weast has invited all of the county's preschool agencies, public and private, to join him in the effort. He's proposed that literacy packets be distributed, along with birth certificates, to new parents.
Montgomery's reading push is evident at Rosemont Elementary in Gaithersburg, where Principal Paul Schnitman and his staff are emphasizing the first R from stem to stern, basement to attic. The sign in front welcomes visitors to the "State Reading Champ" -- a boast that the school won a school-of-the-year award last month from the Maryland chapter of the International Reading Association, an educators' organization.
Schnitman says he decided to boost reading about three years ago when he noticed that math scores "were going nowhere. When I looked carefully at the situation, I realized the reason we couldn't move the math scores is that the kids couldn't read."
Reading class sizes at Rosemont are limited to 15 pupils in the early grades; typically, they once had 25 or more. Teachers are released monthly from classroom duties for seminars on reading instruction, and Schnitman says staff development "has become a part of the culture of our school."
Virtually every square inch of Rosemont's hallway and classroom walls is covered with posters with reading themes. "Basal readers," textbooks with controlled vocabulary like the Dick and Jane readers of yore, have been discarded for picture books and other literature, allowing the teachers to individualize instruction, says reading specialist Laura Evans.
"We have small-group instruction, but the groups are always changing as we adjust to the needs of students," says Evans. "There is no one-size-fits-all in reading."
In Rosemont's primary classrooms, several reading activities take place at once. Some students might work one-on-one with a teacher or aide; others work in designated "zones" -- for example, a "read-along zone" where children read a book while they listen to it on tape or compact disc.
Reading lessons are elaborately planned and structured and often involve writing. In Paula Young's first-grade class, students read several versions of a Ukrainian folk tale, "The Mitten." Then they write their own version, rewriting, revising and editing over a period of weeks. Young types two versions of each child's final product, one for school, one for home.
As a group, Rosemont's pupils are not particularly well-off. The school is 13th poorest among county elementaries, with a poverty rate of 54 percent and a pupil mobility rate of 35 percent. Schnitman says he's using Title I money -- standard federal aid to help schools in poor areas -- "as strategically as I can to reach as many kids as I can as early as I can."
The earliest of his charges are in Rosemont's two prekindergarten classrooms. In one of them last week, Jochebed Angbazo, 4, grasps a "reading stick" -- a small apple atop a Popsicle stick -- and points to the words as teacher Hilary Dymond reads aloud from "Bear Facts."
"You'd be surprised how much they can do at this age," says Dymond. "They're sponges. If I make it clear what I expect of them, they'll perform."
Dymond says all 20 kids in her morning class can spell their names, and a few are "emergent" readers, meaning they're not fluent but beginning to get the hang of it. Her classroom, like all others at Rosemont, has a word wall where new words in pupils' growing vocabulary are posted.
The classroom also has a bank of computers where 4-year-olds, after signing in, work on early reading programs. To help them, an outsize map of a computer keyboard is spread on the floor.
Weast says there's little formal instruction in preschool, but what Montgomery is practicing is "meaningful play." That's play that teaches kids to recognize letters and to be aware of the sounds in spoken words -- something known as phonemic awareness.
These are the skills poor readers fail to pick up at an early age, says G. Reid Lyon, chief of reading research at NIH. The institute's focus on phonemic awareness has made it one of the most rapidly spreading reforms in reading instruction -- led by Bush's administration in Texas. Last summer, the state's 17,000 kindergarten teachers were trained in fostering phonemic awareness.
Just as Rosemont was turning new energy and resources on reading, Paul L. Vance, then county superintendent, and his staff were doing the same thing countywide.
Beginning two years ago with the county's neediest elementary schools, Montgomery's Early Reading Initiative eventually combined federal, state and local funds to provide 90 minutes of daily instruction in reading and writing in all first and second grades.
The county was so far along in planning last year that Gov. Parris N. Glendening said it was the only jurisdiction that warranted a $1.4 million grant for class-size reduction from his 2000 budget.
The bill for class-size reduction over three years is $10 million, including the salaries of 260 new reading teachers and specialists.
But it is popular with teachers and parents. Class-size reduction "made our reading initiative more politically palatable," says Vance.
Weast embraced his predecessor's initiative and put his own touches on it, extending formal reading instruction to kindergarten and informal literacy instruction to prekindergarten.
His budget request this year includes funds to increase all-day kindergartens and to help more teachers with strategies for teaching children at risk of failure. Weast's "Call to Action" plan includes having a teacher training specialist in every school.
"We have the dual battle in Montgomery of trying to keep the overall quality up while helping the growing number of children who need more," Weast says.