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A successful intervention


Jessica Viens used to get frustrated when she practiced her multiplication tables. The fifth-grader at Elkridge Elementary School would sulk for a minute or so before giving the task a second try.

These days, Jessica, 11, is doing remarkably well thanks to the school's Volunteer Reading Program that was launched in the fall.

"I'm really proud of myself," she said.

The program involves community volunteers meeting with pupils three to five times a week for about 15 minutes to practice reading "sight words" - words that pupils should be able to read without sounding them out.

They also help pupils improve reading fluency - the accuracy and speed at which a child reads - and memorize multiplication tables.

Last fall, about 30 pupils participated in the program based on standardized tests showing that they needed more help with reading and math.

Thirty volunteers worked with the children for more than 200 hours. Administrators are elated that, in total, the participants learned more than 750 sight words.

"About 75 percent of the children who received the intervention are not being recommended for [more help]," said school psychologist Mary Levinsohn.

The school's Instructional Intervention Team - teachers, administrators, counselors and psychologists - implemented the program after deciding it was the best way to help the most children.

The development of the program was based on research by educational consultants who believe learning is enhanced when students are taught a ratio of 70 percent known information to 30 percent unknown information.

To help the children, volunteers - including parents, grandparents and high school students - were trained during the fall and last month using two techniques.

The first, known as the Drill Sandwich, involves using a ratio of known to unknown words to help pupils identify sight words. On a weekly basis, the schoolchildren are given word lists to study, and volunteers test the pupils' knowledge of the words during sessions.

Using their age as a guide, a certain number of the known and unknown words are practiced. For example, a 7-year-old practices seven known and three unknown words on a weekly basis. The volunteers also keep track of the pupils' progress using a chart.

The second technique, Repeated Reading, entails having children read passages from books that are familiar and unfamiliar. Volunteers count the number of words read correctly and use a graph to chart progress.

This month, the second round of the program got under way, with 54 pupils and about 30 volunteers.

"It's amazing to see the progress the kids have made," said Susan Straumanis, a parent co-coordinator of the program. "We continually praise them, and it's fun to see how excited they are about learning."

Recruiting good volunteers went a long way in ensuring the program's success, said Conrad Brookhart, a physical education teacher at the school.

"I can't say enough about how much this community cares about this school," he said.

Brookhart said he broached the idea of volunteering with the community during Back-to-School Night last year. To his amazement, 60 people took part in the training for the first round.

"I was shocked," he said.

Principal Diane Mumford said the program has worked well with the dedicated volunteers.

"It's been seamless. If you had volunteers who couldn't come in, then one of our coordinators or Mary [Levinsohn] or Conrad [Brookhart] would step in."

In December, school officials formally thanked the volunteers and celebrated the pupils' success with "winner" medals.

Jessica, who worked with volunteer Cecilia Wilkinson, said the experience was wonderful.

"She made flash cards for me, and she was really nice. She always told me I was doing great. ... Now, I can say my times tables up to my 8s," she said.

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