Thursday, March 23, 2000

Schools focus anew on readers in fourth grade

Summer school or hold-back rules are the spurs

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        SOUTH LEBANON — With tough reading standards facing future Ohio fourth-graders — pass proficiency tests or be held back — area schools are boosting elementary reading programs.

        The past year, 40 percent of fourth-graders failed the test. If that figure does not improve by the 2001-02 school year, thousands of area fourth-graders will be required to attend summer school. And if they still can't read at expected levels, they might have to repeat the entire school year.

        Educators are gearing up to prevent that.

        Elementary schools across Ohio are vying for grant money to support reading programs. They are reaching out to volunteers in the classrooms. And they are reworking the way students are taught to read to boost their performance on the standardized tests.

        At South Lebanon, Donita Gee can be found two days a week in the hallway outside an elementary classroom. She sits at a table too small for her, but perfect for the four first-graders around her. She is helping them read.

        “I wanted to be involved with my children's lives. Now I'm having an impact on other kids' lives, too,” Ms. Gee said.

        Ms. Gee is a tutor. Developing a team of volunteer reading tutors like her is one of three major approaches South Lebanon educators are taking to boost reading skills. The others are creating classes that link reading with writing and speaking, and developing a reading intervention program that gears specific teaching methods to the needs of a student with a reading problem.

        “The state has raised the stakes,” said South Lebanon Principal Robin Solazzo. And it is going to take an all-out effort from teachers, students and parents to reach them, she said.

        In the most recent proficiency tests, about 60 percent of South Lebanon fourth-graders failed. The thought of preparing summer school for that many students, let alone holding them back a grade, is frightening, she said.

        That is why efforts to improve scores have begun, she said. The first class affected by the fourth-grade requirement is now in second grade. The volunteers read with students, help them with school work and focus individual attention, while teachers continue their classes.

        But that is only a part of the project. South Lebanon is also working on intervention programs that target specific needs of elementary students, Ms. Solazzo said. And teachers are working to link how students speak with how they learn to read and write.

        The school recently won $60,000 in state grants to boost those programs, Ms. Solazzo said. The OhioReads program has earmarked $50 million statewide for such programs.

        Schools throughout the state are developing their own methods to improve their scores, said Holly Harris Bane, executive director of OhioReads. In Middletown, the entire community is rallying behind the schools' initiative. Other schools are forming tutor teams and elementary book clubs.

        “We are trying to teach kids to love to read,” said Shari Goldsmith, OhioReads coordinator for Warren County.

        In Cincinnati Public Schools, the initiative is being taken a step further. Students who do not make a certain score on a standardized reading test for the third-grade level will not be advanced to the fourth grade, district spokeswoman Chris Wolff said.

        The region's largest school district, Cincinnati is also pushing the Help One Student to Succeed (HOSTS) program. Tutors are being brought in to work with individual students to improve their reading.

        As of July 1, 2001, the fourth-grade guarantee prohibits any school from promoting to fifth grade a student who has not passed the reading section of the fourth-grade proficiency test. But there are exceptions. Students with a disability that excuses them from taking the test can be promoted, as can students whose principal and reading teacher agree are academically prepared for the fifth grade.

        But the goal remains firm, and that is to have students reading at their grade level, Ms. Goldsmith said. In May, her program is sponsoring a book drive to make sure students have the resources to meet that goal.

        Books geared to kindergarten through fourth-grade students will be collected at Warren County Kroger stores from May 1-13. Those books will supplement elementary school libraries throughout the county.

        “How do you get a child to enjoy reading?” she often is asked. Exposure is key, she said. Children need to have the books available to them. And they need to be in an environment where reading is valued, in the home as well as school. Children will not learn that if parents stare at the television all night, she said.

        But if their mother is in the hallway at school, stressing the importance of reading to others, the image sends an important message, Ms. Solazzo said.


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