Myth Slain: Poor Kids Can Read

The Plain Dealer, Cleveland, Ohio
Tuesday, April 2, 2002
Scott Stephens, Plain Dealer Reporter

Students in an experimental reading project in a handful of schools in Cleveland and two other cities are shattering the myth that poor children can’t learn to read at the same rate as their more affluent peers.

The project, launched by the American Federation of Teachers during the 2000-2001 school year, involves about 2,600 kindergartners, first-graders and second-graders in nine low-performing schools here and in New Orleans and Washington, D.C.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University found startling jumps in the reading levels of children in the project in each of the three cities. Many of the children have gone from reading a grade level or two behind to reading at – or beyond – their grade level.

“What we have seen, I think, is nothing short of a miracle,” said Darion Griffin, the project’s national coordinator.

The formula is deceptively simple: Blending research-tested elements of phonics and whole-language instruction, the project aims to get all but the most severely disabled students to read fluently by third grade. To do that, teachers in kindergarten through second grade receive intensive summer training, and each school has an on-site teacher “coach” to make sure that training is applied daily in the classroom. Student progress is monitored and analyzed.

Too often, reading teachers have been like doctors trying to treat pneumonia by guessing and improvising, oblivious to research identifying penicillin as a remedy.

“This has not been a student problem – it’s been an instructional problem,” said Sharon Hughes, the project’s Cleveland coordinator.

Students at George Washington Carver Elementary School, a weather-beaten yellow-brick building on East 55th Street across from an abandoned junk yard, are proving that.

Carver is one of Cleveland’s poorest schools – a nearby church raised money to buy the children underwear – and statistics say the black children who go there, mostly from single-parent homes and public housing, will not succeed.

But reading coach Susan O’Donnell, kindergarten teacher Linda Gallagher, first-grade teacher Mary Ellen O’Shea and second-grade teacher Rosalind Howell are creating their own statistics.

Last year, O’Shea’s entire class passed the state reading test. By spring break, 14 of Gallagher’s 16 kindergartners already had learned to read.

More than 73 percent of Carver’s fourth-graders passed the state reading test — more than double the district’s average, and well above the state average.

“I get goose bumps just thinking about it,” O’Donnell said.

The most gratifying thing about the project is the enthusiasm students bring to the classroom, said Adrienne Dowden, project coordinator in New Orleans.

“The kids get excited about reading,” she said. “They can’t wait to show you something they’ve learned.”

The project’s success has implications beyond the three pilot cities.

The combination of research-based methods and intensive teacher training mirrors the reading initiative in President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001.

Last month, the president embraced the AFT’s work and pledged to work with the teachers union to expand efforts to provide teachers with effective ways to teach reading.

The program also shows policy-makers a viable alternative to vouchers for poor children, said Cleveland Teachers Union professional issues director Michael Charney.

“We’re looking forward to expanding this to most Cleveland classrooms,” Charney said. “This expansion will require a commitment to alter long-held practices by some classroom teachers and most members of the Ohio General Assembly.”

Contact Scott Stephens at: sstephens@plaind.com , 216-999-4827