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Marion City Schools Students Get Reading First

Ohanian Comment: AGHHHHHHH! What sadness when teachers deny their own professional smarts in the name of "data." Here we have a rah rah! press release for Reading First, an absolute refusal to look at the controversy. It's the Reading First God is in his heaven and all's right with the classroom world approach to pedagogy.

And if you believe that teachers are getting 180 hours of inservice instruction a month, how would you like to buy a bridge in Brooklyn? This kind of writing is what happens when one goes on automatic pilot.

"The key thing is the data," said Hayes Elementary literacy coordinator Sherry Jacobs. "We meet the children where they are. It's not just a teacher making an observation."
Just a teacher? Pardon me?

by Kurt Moore

George Washington Elementary first-grader Lauren Lightfoot wants to read about fictional character Junie B. Jones and mushy gushy valentines while first-grader Britney Medley reads about a boy who likes chicken soup and rice.

As they and other Marion City Schools students work towards learning how to read, a federal infusion of cash and technology is being used to get them there.

Competing against about 30 other school districts, Marion City Schools was one of 13 chosen this funding cycle to receive the federally funded Reading First program. The grant, which totals about $4.5 million over three years, provides money for curriculum and computer equipment needed to track students' progress as well as salaries of additional staff needed to run the program.

The goal of the program is that students are able to read at or above their grade level by the end of third grade. In order to comply with the grant, students in grades kindergarten through third grades must have 90 minutes of reading instruction a day that includes 30 minutes of whole group instruction, 15 minutes of whole and/or small group instruction and 45 minutes of group instruction. Teachers, meanwhile, get 180 hours of instruction a month.

Data on each student's progress is placed into a Palm Pilot and uploaded to a Web site where the information is analyzed, District Coordinator Carol Ballinger said teachers can pass the information from grade to grade or exchange data when children move within the district's elementary schools.

"I've been teaching for 28 years and I've been through several approaches to reading," said George Washington Elementary first-grade teacher Pat Telfer. She said this method has been especially suitable because of its strong emphasis on phonemic awareness or the ability to hear, identify and manipulate individual sounds in spoken words.

Ballinger said the Reading First program is being funded in order to help districts comply with standards of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The school is in the middle of its first year in the program and its students must show progress by the end of their second year in order for the third year of the grant to be funded.

Literacy specialists and data managers said the data can help pinpoint specific weaknesses that each child has so that a plan can be customized to help the student pass required tests and learn how to read.

"The key thing is the data," said Hayes Elementary literacy coordinator Sherry Jacobs. "We meet the children where they are. It's not just a teacher making an observation."

In order to comply with grant standards, teachers and other staff had considerable work to do before the school year started, Ballinger said. Teachers had to be trained on the palm pilots. They also have extra work to do as they track each student and continuously switch students from group to group based on reading level.

"It takes a lot of extra work and effort," said Telfer. " I spend a lot of time outside of the classroom, two hours each night. It's a big commitment in order to do it right."

While some of the methods are not new, school administrators said they needed the technology in order to implement something so extensive. That takes cash, which they said was not available without the grant.

As far as what happens when the three years are up, Marion City Schools director of curriculum Terry Conley said the schools do not yet know the answer to that question. He said the schools will keep the technology such as the Palm Pilots, though the Web site won't be active, but such items as salaries for the extra employees would make it difficult to continue with the exact program.

Conley said there is a possibility that funding would be continued after the three years.

As far as the students, George Washington first-grader Dylan Elson, 7, didn't refer to the data from the Palm Pilot when he talked about why he wanted to learn how to read. Elson, 7, wanted to improve his reading to the point where he could read his Harry Potter books at home.

Medley said she found learning to read was fun and enjoys sounding out the letters when she doesn't recognize a word.

"It helps you learn about stuff," she said.

What is it?

# Reading First is a federally funded program established by the No Child Left Behind Act. No money from Marion City Schools' general fund is used for the computer equipment, extra staff and data management used to provide the instruction covered by the grant.

# It is intended to make sure that all children read at or above grade level by the end of third grade by putting proven methods of early reading instruction into the classrooms.

# The program covers grades kindergarten through third grade. Students in each grade spend 90 minutes a day on Reading First that includes 30 minutes of whole group instruction, 15 minutes of whole and/or small group instruction and 45 minutes of small group instruction.

# Instruction is based on the need of the student which is determined by screening and ongoing assessment. Data will be passed on from grade to grade and, when students move within elementary schools, from building to building.

Reading First is based on five components:

# Phonemic awareness: The ability to hear, identify and manipulate the individual sounds in spoken words.

# Phonics: Teaches children the relationships between the letters of written language and the individual sounds of spoken language.

# Fluency: The ability to read text accurately and quickly.

# Vocabulary: Vocabulary refers to the words we must know to communicate effectively.

# Comprehension: The strategies for understanding, remembering and communicating with others about what has been read.

How parents can help

# Find additional information and activities on the following Web sites:

www.nifl.gov/partnershipfor reading/publications/reading_first2.html


# The Marion Public Library has suggestions of titles of books for children. Teachers urge parents to read with their children and make sure they are learning their alphabet as early as kindergarten or pre-school.

# Questions can be directed to each school's literacy specialist or individual classroom teachers.

SOURCE: Marion City Schools

— Kurt Moore
The Marion Star


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