One firm 'guarantee' to produce readers


THERE ARE said to be no guarantees in life, but here's an outfit that guarantees "100 percent literacy" among some of the nation's hardest-to-teach youngsters, so sure is it that "we now have the science and the system that can eradicate illiteracy."

That's a quote from the promotional literature of Dallas-based Voyager Universal Literacy System, founded in 1994 by a group of educators and business leaders.

The program is aimed at urban schools, and the for-profit company guarantees that all children who are "capable" of reading - that's 95 percent of them - will be doing so at grade level by age 9, or Voyager will continue working with them at company expense until they become competent readers.

Not a single child will be left behind, Voyager promises. "We shouldn't take public money if we don't teach children to read," says Randy Best, a retired businessman who co-founded the company.

Sylvan Learning Systems has a similar guarantee in its tutoring centers, but I've not seen such a blanket assurance in a school reading program, nor have I seen such stunning confidence.

Best says the literacy rate in most urban districts hasn't improved in 25 years, so educators celebrate incremental gains, perpetuating low expectations.

But recent research shows every child can learn to read proficiently, Best says, and Voyager is built on this research, much of which was conducted by the child health division of the National Institutes of Health. The program has strong elements of phonics - association of letters and sounds - and phonemic awareness, the knowledge of the sounds of speech that children must internalize before they begin reading.

Voyager also places heavy emphasis on intervention. Kids who are behind are placed in after-school classes and a four-week summer session in which they're expected to move ahead six to nine months in reading ability.

"We evaluate every child's performance every nine weeks," says Best, "so it's easy for us to spot the kids who need extra help. One of the great disservices in education is to wait until the end of the third grade to measure reading proficiency the first time. By that time, it's already too late."

This is a guarantee that the company will stick with the children until they can read - not a money-back guarantee. At $244 per child per year, Voyager isn't cheap. The Richmond, Va., district, one of 17 using Voyager (the summer program is in 1,000 districts), is paying $391,000 for its first year with the program at 10 elementary schools.

Best says Voyager hasn't had enough time for a test of its guarantee, but he seems to have no doubt whatsoever that his company will be able to deliver.

UCLA grad students work to keep the first lady away

Conservative computer discussion groups were atwitter Friday over the attempt of students at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies to cancel a commencement speaking invitation to first lady Laura Bush.

She has "shallow credentials," one student said of Bush, a former teacher and librarian who has used her first year in the White House to promote early literacy. Tara Watford, a doctoral student in education, told the Daily Bruin student newspaper that the first lady lacks the accomplishments of a commencement speaker. "She was selected for her political celebrity," said Watford.

As of Friday afternoon, university officials were sticking to their guns, saying Bush was rated first on a list of five potential speakers.

Watford probably will not sink so low as to take a job as a classroom teacher, but if she does, I hope she doesn't get my grandson.

Getting ready to celebrate Read Across America Day

It's green eggs and ham for breakfast Friday, Read Across America Day, and the day before what would have been the 98th birthday of Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel).

This fifth annual celebration of reading has become one of my favorites because it's so wonderfully goofy. Besides, you don't have to send cards.

Cat in the Hat hats will be sighted across Maryland, worn by an army of readers in the schools. And the General Assembly will present the Cat in the Hat with a resolution at 11 a.m. There'll be an army of readers in the schools. Oh, the places they'll go!

Some really get into it. For the fourth year, faculty and staff at the University of Maryland, Baltimore will play host to 90 kids from James McHenry Elementary. They'll get talk about careers, lunch and two books each to take home.

UM uses the celebration to launch its annual book drive.

Rawson memorial service scheduled at Hood College

A memorial service has been scheduled for Margaret Byrd Rawson, the "grand dame of dyslexia" who died in November at age 102. An internationally respected authority on the learning disorder, she wrote nine books and traced the lives of 56 Pennsylvania boys for an astonishing 55 years.

The service will begin at 2 p.m. March 9 in the Coffman Chapel of Hood College in Frederick.

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