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Laura Bush, Governor Join Phonics Lesson in Chelsea

Ohanian Comment: The reporter must have taken the description of Reading First right off the U. S. Department of Education website. It would be more accurate to say: Reading First is a controversial, lock-step federally funded program that the feds claim focuses on teacher accountability, testing, and research-backed teaching methods to improve the literacy of children from preschool to third grade.

While Laura Bush sat down with first-graders and educators at George D. Kelly Elementary School in Chelsea yesterday to discuss literacy, Democratic state legislators, students, parents, and immigrant rights activists gathered at nearby Williams Middle School to protest Governor Mitt Romney's policies toward immigrants.

Bush and Romney participated in a phonics lesson involving 15 children who are at risk of not meeting reading standards. Afterward, Bush and the governor participated in a round-table discussion recapping the first year of the Chelsea public schools' Reading First program.

Calling the school district a model for how at-risk readers should be assisted, Bush told those gathered that "being able to read is the most fundamental and basic skill we can teach our children, and if they can read, then they can build on that throughout their whole life."

"It requires a lot of us, as we require a lot of our children," she added.

The governor also praised Chelsea for its efforts, adding that Massachusetts was one of the first states to have its No Child Left Behind compliance plan approved by the federal government.

Romney acknowledged, however, that there is still a long way to go. "The challenge is not with the kids, but is with organizing our efforts to help those kids," he said.

Several blocks away, critics of Romney said the Republican governor was a liability for President Bush's reelection campaign because Romney had attempted to dismantle bilingual education programs and vetoed in-state college tuition for undocumented immigrant youth."It is to George Bush's detriment that he and his wife campaign here with Mitt Romney," said Senator Jarrett T. Barrios a Cambridge Democrat.

Juan Vega, a parent of two pupils at Kelly Elementary, also criticized the governor, saying he has limited opportunities for children to be educated in more than one language.

"In this global economy where someone has to have two to three languages to compete in the job market, the ability to speak more than one language gives an edge," Vega said in an interview. "Our kids are born with that advantage, and to have them feel inferior for that is ridiculous."

Reading First is a federally funded program that focuses on teacher accountability, testing, and research-backed teaching methods to improve the literacy of children from preschool to third grade. Nearly 800 Chelsea children are enrolled in the program.

Before attending school, many of the students have never seen a book or realized that words are made of separate sounds, teacher Denise Maresco said.

Using the five-year grant, the Reading First program has allowed Chelsea to improve student performance in a region where 75 percent of students are non-native English speakers, said Thomas Kingston, interim school superintendent.

Neither Bush nor Romney made themselves available to reporters for further comment.

Bush and the governor paid a visit to 100 students in the cafeteria before attending a $20,000-a-plate fund-raising luncheon benefiting the Bush-Cheney campaign. The fund-raiser held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Boston was hosted by EMC Corp. founder Richard J. Egan. The event was expected to raise between $1 million and $2 million.

Globe correspondent Heather Allen contributed to this report.Material from the Associated Press was also used.

— Elise Castelli
Boston Globe


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