LA PLATA - For educators looking to boost the lagging performance of minority students in the state, the Charles County school system in Southern Maryland is rapidly becoming a place with some answers.
In third-grade reading, the scoring gap between Charles County's white pupils and black pupils on Maryland's annual exams has shrunk by a third over the past three years.
And in high schools, SAT scores for the county's black males jumped 97 points last year, and black females improved 67 points - even as Charles educators got more seniors than ever to take the college entrance exams.
"Our job is to see all of our students succeed," says Superintendent James E. Richmond, a 35-year county educator. "For the past few years, we've really made that commitment to our minority children. We weren't happy with how our kids were doing, and we decided we needed to change that."
Since approving a sweeping set of 10 recommendations on minority achievement during the 1998-1999 school year, the Charles system has expanded after-school help and summer school for low-achieving pupils, added training for teachers and stepped up recruitment of minority teachers and principals.
Above all, the school system's efforts are focusing on reading instruction, with programs aimed at helping struggling readers at all grade levels.
"I've seen a lot of kids come through here who have been struggling for so long," says Joy Thompson, a reading teacher at Milton M. Somers Middle School. "The kids used to be lost, because there wasn't much help for them. Now, they're more confident. We're teaching them the skills."
Educators in Charles and across the state say that if they can bridge the persistent racial gap in reading achievement, the gaps in other subject areas are sure to shrink, too.
'The most promise'
"Charles County is really the place that's showing the most promise," says Barbara Dezmon, who oversees minority achievement in the Baltimore County schools and also heads a state task force. "They've focused on reading, and that's where it has to begin."
Statewide on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, or MSPAP, the percentage of white third-graders scoring satisfactory on the most recent round of exams is twice the percentage of black third-graders scoring satisfactory - 49.2 percent to 24.3 percent. In Charles, the gap is less than 17 percentage points, with 47 percent of white pupils scoring satisfactory and 30.2 percent of black pupils.
Similar statewide gaps exist in fifth- and eighth-graders' reading scores on Maryland's exams, and on nationally standardized tests taken by the state's second-, fourth- and sixth-graders.
For the fast-growing Charles County school system, such statistics are troubling, particularly because minorities constitute two-thirds of the district's new enrollment.
About 40 percent of the 23,400-student system is minority, compared with 29 percent two years ago. Much of the migration comes from families leaving nearby Prince George's County and Washington, and transfers to the area military bases.
"It's something we have to address directly and not ignore," says John H. Cox, the system's assistant superintendent, who oversees instruction.
The Charles County school board approved this year requiring county educators to take 15 hours of classes on how to better teach and relate to children from different backgrounds and races. State educators describe it as the toughest standard in Maryland.
When the superintendent was challenged at a school board meeting about what he would do if a teacher refused to enroll in the training, he said that teacher won't have a place in Charles County.
"I wouldn't want a warm body to teach a class just to reduce class size," Richmond says. "Why would we sacrifice our principles on something as important as this just because we're in a teacher shortage?"
The effort to require diversity training is just the latest part of what educators outside the county view as a consistent program of attacking the gap in minority achievement.
"What they're requiring of teachers is more extensive than anywhere else in the state," says Richard J. Steinke, state deputy superintendent for school improvement. "They have the most coherent, focused and integrated plan, and they're showing some results."
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People recognized the county this month with its Daisy Bates Educational Advocacy Awards, making it the only school district in the nation to receive the honor.
"We've got a long way to go, and we'd be the first to admit it," Richmond says. "But we're going in the right direction."
Having revamped the county's reading instruction over the past few years, elementary schools teach reading through what they call the "four-block model" - breaking up two hours of reading into equal parts of phonics, writing, self-selected reading and guided reading.
"I have to work quickly to keep up with the pace," says Lisa Lyman, a first-grade teacher at C. Paul Barnhart Elementary School.
"OK, everyone, let's go through the chart," Lyman tells the five children who join her at a table in the back of the room. Together, they start reviewing a page of 28 common letter blends.
"K. N. Knot. Nah," 6-year-old Lauren Gibson chants. "T. R. Tree. Truh."
After each lesson, Lyman jots down in her spiral notebook what has happened, keeping a record of her first-graders' progress. "That's the best way for me to keep up with what we're doing so we don't miss anything," she says.
Though the reading program has been in effect for only a few years, county officials are already starting to see results.
Comparing the scores of fifth-graders on nationally standardized reading exams with how those same children scored in second grade, the school system found that children had improved from the 53rd percentile in 1998 to the 67th percentile this year.
"How do the children do who have been in our program for four years - that's the judge of how our program is doing," says Cox, who prepared the analysis.
At the county's middle schools, sixth- and seventh-graders are enrolled in a double-period of reading and literature, and low-performing eighth-graders continue to receive that extra time in reading.
Though the books for the struggling readers are written at a lower level, they're generally new and aimed at the interest level of middle school boys and girls. That's different from many school systems, where the lower-level classes often get the well-worn leftovers from elementaries.
"We're learning the strategies," says 13-year-old Lewis Dyson, a Somers seventh-grader who has raced ahead of his classmates in the book "The Million Dollar Shot." "It helps a lot. I like reading more."
For readers who fall behind, the county has set up programs at almost every level for assistance. This summer, Charles expects 2,700 elementary, middle and high school pupils to be enrolled in four-week academies - some accelerated classes, but most for those who need extra help.
"The whole county is so focused on reading," says Jane Hobbs, a coordinator of reading instruction for the school district. "Everything in the summer is free to the students - transportation, breakfast, lunch. The kids want to come."
Charles educators are quick to emphasize that their efforts aren't helping only minority pupils. They expect the achievement gap to close even as students of all ethnicities improve their scores.
All children - regardless of race - are eligible for such programs as Reading Recovery, an intensive, rigidly scripted two months of daily assistance. Teacher Bettye Tompkins will share her one-on-one tutoring with all struggling first-graders at Eva Turner Elementary School.
"We're saving a lot of kids from special education," Tompkins, a 32-year teaching veteran, says after she concludes a half-hour with 6-year-old Diane Thames. "Those kids are as smart as the rest. If we can help them to read, then they'll succeed."